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The Hypocrisy of Fitness Instagram

Alrighty, blog post number 2 is being brought to you with the help of several large mugs of tea and a rocket lolly - brain fuel of dreams. I want to talk about the world of fitness Instagram. There is a bottomless pit of stuff to talk about here so I doubt it will be my last post on the subject but it's definitely been the source of a lot of frustration and consternation for me so I hope that I'll be able to articulate myself!


My area of interest in terms of client base is teenage girls and young women, and this demographic is likely to be very familiar with Instagram. For the most part the platform is great - I use it daily to keep up with friends, watch videos, share long dramatic stories about wasps nests and breaking sinks (if you know, you know), but there is a humongous side to the platform which I get ridiculously annoyed by! Now don't get me wrong, it's a fab platform for people to share aspects of their lifestyle, opinions, beliefs etc. and there are professionals and athletes that post incredible and inspiring content. This is not where my issue lies at all. Rather it is with the hundreds of 'influencers' with thousands (or millions) of followers who, I would argue, they exploit.


Exhibit A:

URGH it is the hypocrisy that is so inherent in posts like these that annoys me the most. Young girls and women face a huge numbers of barriers to exercise - I studied these through A Level PE, my PT course, my work with This Girl Can, and also my 10,000 word dissertation on women's sport. I wouldn't claim to be an expert (but I am). So, I can categorically say that selling a product under the guise of being positive about confronting barriers, with an accompanying photo like that, is doing FAR more damage than good. Kayla Itsines has over 12 million followers (33 of whom are my friends - please don't think this is targeted at you at all!), the majority are women, probably the vast majority have some dodgy thinking about food and exercise (because lets be real, don't we all). Posting photos of an extremely slim, muscular body does not inspire confidence in those of us that don't look like that. Instead it inspires things like jealousy, low self-confidence or self-criticism, desperation, worthlessness, the list goes on... The intimidation (or 'gymtimidation') is likely to be caused by individuals JUST LIKE YOU Kayla! But, as is made clear by the following that these influencers have, most people aren’t able to critique this message, and it’s nigh on impossible not to feel insecure when constantly bombarded with these lifestyles and physiques.


Now I know that there would be lots of people saying that it's important to have role models and to promote healthy living and exercise. I would absolutely agree. There are also people who would point out that Itsines is a very successful and talented business woman. I would agree (she's built up a worth $63 million through selling her diet plans and workout guides to women who aren't happy with their bodies). And you know what, she has every right to do whatever she wants on social media and show off her abs - I have no problem with that. However, I feel as though she should realise that she has a responsibility, if not duty of care, for the millions of teenage girls that she sells her products to. Do these young people need to be encouraged to get active? Absolutely. Do they need to be given tools and resources that might help them? Absolutely. Do they need to be bombarded with the message that being active and healthy looks like that? Absolutely not.


There are people reading this that won't really be aware of the magnitude of the issue (hi mum). I will briefly share a few more of the accounts that I believe fall into this category in the interest of backing up my point. Also please bear in mind that I followed most of these accounts in the past and fully understand the 'pull' to follow these people, as well as understanding the reluctance to unfollow influencers like this. Indeed, I became fairly invested in their lives (or rather the snippets of life that they shared online) and I was honestly concerned about experiencing FOMO if I unfollowed. I didn't realise the damage that this undiverse and unrepresentative content had on my understanding on what good, attractive, healthy, fit bodies look like. These images subtly infiltrated my mindset and beliefs about health and fitness and I do feel slightly ashamed that I let these women dictate how I viewed my own body, impact what I ate, influence what I did in the gym, etc. for so long (we're talking years here). I don't think I'm alone but I genuinely haven't heard many people talk about this before.


Have a scroll through these:


Lots of these women might be posting motivational, encouraging, body neutral or positive captions alongside these pictures and I often agree with some of their advice or thoughts, BUT it is the pictures that accompany these posts that is my issue. Especially as all of these individuals get money from sponsorships and endorsements. They build a following and income by selling their aesthetic and their body, and regardless of whatever self-love stuff comes in their captions, as long as these images dominate their profiles, it means nothing. Because the VAST majority of the people consuming these posts are young women who do not look like that (partly because many are still children and therefore their bodies are not actually developed yet). The result is that girls start believing that until they look like that, they shouldn't get their tummies out in bikinis, they should diet until their abs are visible, that fitness = six pack, that self-love is only possible or acceptable if you are also slim, toned and perfectly manicured.


Blimey, this stuff is harder to articulate and write about than I'd imagined it would be. I would like to reiterate that my opinion reflects a long and complex journey I have been on myself. I made the decision to stop following this type of account about two years ago and I was actually surprised by the difference it made to my own mental health and sanity. Once again, the issue is not with the photos themselves - everyone has the right to post whatever they want. I often find the captions interesting and sometimes they raise important points about body acceptance and establishing a healthy relationship with food etc, but it's just confusing when the photos and captions are combined. When you make money from having so many followers, most of whom are fairly vulnerable young girls and women, it feels rather imperative to share positive, joyful, encouraging, real, representative content. Otherwise the number of girls suffering with eating disorders, body dysmorphia, low self-esteem and a really negative understanding of what exercise is for will continue to soar at the very hands of people purporting to be tackling these issues.

 

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