Sylvia Edwards explores whether the Instagram fitness community is causing more harm than good in the pursuit of profit…
The market size of the wellness and fitness industry in the United Kingdom is expected to reach £22.8billion GBP by 2020. The top 10 European fitness operators, as measured by revenue, achieved total revenues of EUR 3.1 billion in 2017. And according to Forbes, the top ten most popular fitness ‘influencers’ of 2017 shared over 39 million Instagram followers, almost 5 million YouTube subscribers and a total reach of over 100 million people.
Above is a selection of the research I came across when trying to find an answer to the question of why the sponsored ads for certain activewear brands that pop up on my Instagram feed make me feel uncomfortable. I know that Instagram, like most content platforms, targets its advertising based on the data they have on the recipient; scrolling through the profiles of some of the influencers that this particular brand works with, I note that they are followed by plenty of people whom I follow, many of whom I know personally.
But why do I feel uncertain about these twenty-something predominantly-blondes in suspiciously excessive fake tan year-round who make a lot of money by posting footage of their workout and diet regimes online for public consumption? There are, of course, fitness ‘influencers’ who do not fit this definition – I think I’m describing the majority of this subset of the industry, or at least its most public face.
I can’t pretend that I wouldn’t enjoy being paid to wear a particular brand of lycra – the work looks like a lot of fun, although no doubt it can be as draining as any other career – but I don’t think that my reaction can be attributed exclusively to envy.
To put this very bluntly, below the professional tier of this industry – the qualified personal trainers and dieticians – are thousands of very young women who don’t know all that much about physical health insisting – or even just suggesting – that, although they were thin and conventionally attractive (what I mean here is a person who – for the most part – fits a normative, Eurocentric idea of what a person should look like) before quitting dairy/gluten/refined sugar, and were still thin and conventionally attractive after quitting dairy/gluten/refined sugar, you, the viewer, whom they have never met or spoken to, should follow their example in order to achieve equivalent results. A snake oil, but one which you can be obsessed about loudly, safe in the knowledge that people will respond to that obsession as if it is only right and natural. After all, aiming to eat nutrient-rich food and increase your cardiovascular fitness can only be a good thing – right?
But the fact is: not everyone can have shredded abdominal muscles and maintain their physical health at a safe equilibrium. We – and I speak especially for people who menstruate and can bear children – are not all meant to do that. Some people have genes that make sure that their body is ready to store excess energy as fat. BMI works well as a scale against which to measure body mass across populations; less so as an exact method of measuring individual bodies. And socially and medically accepted norms – at least, in the UK – are still centred on ‘white’ – or, more specifically, European – bodies.
I’ve often commented to my friends in jest that consuming the content created by these personalities feels like a minor form of self-harm, or at least self-neglect. What this content and the industry that surrounds it can do to the consumer (and to the creator) is fairly well-documented; the research has been done, to a great extent, but it often takes more than the best efforts of science to halt such a lucrative industry. But I think it’s similarly important to ascertain who should be held responsible for the proliferation of this content and the harm that it causes. We know that the majority of the people consuming this content are very young – many of them children – and I hope I do younger people no disservice by suggesting that a person may be more likely to engage with content online uncritically as a child. I believe it to be irresponsible to knowingly profit from the perpetuation of the poor mental health – or even just the unhappiness, the dissatisfaction – of teenagers.
Consuming this content can feel voyeuristic; but it can also feel complicit, because these people are doing work to directly support existing, oppressive structures of power. As we’ve already touched on, the beauty standards these influencers hold themselves to are, to a great extent, constructs of a white supremacist patriarchy. No doubt these external structures and the people who make the real money out of their imposition should be held accountable – even wealthy influencers are not immune to their impact – but I believe that we also need to distinguish between being subject to these ideologies and choosing to re-enact them in the pursuit of your own profit. In many cases, these influencers are normalising a warped body image, a combative or destructive relationship with your physical self, and behaviours which have the potential to cause a previously healthy body to struggle to stay well.
So why is the content so successful? I’d say that some of us watch because we are nosy and we like to be told stories, so we enjoy having someone walk us through their day to day life. I think some of us watch because so many of even the most self-conscious of us may enjoy gazing upon things that reflect normative standards of beauty. And I think some of us watch because we think we want to be motivated to build a life that more closely mirrors the lives of these people, sort of like how we plaster posters of artists we admire on the walls of our college dorm rooms. There’s nothing inherently wrong with any of that.
But the idea that a woman or any person who does not conform to a white masculine normative body has an obligation or even is able to use their conscious mind to control what their body does is a tool in the hands of those in power, intended to subdue. Imagine what a person could achieve with their extra time and energy if they were allowed not to care.
Also – health is not always going to be the goal that underscores every decision a person makes, and that’s okay. I don’t need to spell out that the belief that good health affords you with superiority over the unhealthy may have a more sinister ideology underpinning it. This is especially important to consider when we remember that access to fresh food, time to take exercise and to rest, and adequate healthcare tends to be dictated by wealth and social class. Further to this, it’s fair to state that the majority of us are only, if able-bodied, temporarily so. Chronic conditions, illness, substance dependency, or even the relatively short-term recovery from a broken leg are facts of almost every life – not to mention, staying in our most aesthetically pleasing physical form will not necessarily be a priority for us every day of our lives, and that is okay. The goal in deconstructing the ideology to which we have been subjected – or, at least, one of the goals – should be to understand and accept that a person who is obese who eats junk food every day, although they could afford to shop at Whole Foods, is exactly as valuable as a 22-year-old personal trainer who can’t get through their day without access to oat milk.
These anxieties are taught to us to waste our time and energy. Ultimately, the way your body works is always going to be more complicated than any YouTube creative who hasn’t met you is going to be able to represent. We can’t change the external structures, not on our own – but now is as good a time as any to pursue a more truthful personal relationship with your body, your self and the universe connected to it.
Words by Sylvia Edwards
Iluustration by Nina Goodyer