The Danger of Fitness Influencers
Design by Emma Lehman
I had just come home from the mailing center. I ripped open my package and like an angel gaining her first pair of $60 nylon wings, put on my new pair of Gymshark leggings. I looked in the mirror and to my dismay, my body was exactly the same.
Gymshark is a British exercise clothing company that has achieved Instagram fame. Their page is full of primarily thin, conventionally attractive white women posing in expensive bra and legging sets. Much like how Lululemon has marketed athleisure by cultivating the image of a dream life for 30-somethings, Gymshark has cultivated a brand for 20-somethings by featuring young and hot influencers.
At first glance, these women’s pages are well-meaning. Since the gym is typically associated with intimidating weight rooms full of buff finance bros, seeing a fearless woman taking on the weight room on Instagram can be inspirational. The women supposedly claim to advocate for the public to be healthier, but what does that even mean? Often it means promoting the false idea that personal choices are the sole determinants of health, or conflating health with weight loss. This idea is rooted in fatphobia, the systemic oppression and marginalization of fat people. Fitness culture reinforces people’s fear of becoming fat under the guise of wellness. Fitness influencers base their career on the false promise of limitless control of our bodies through choices. These influencers are trying to separate themselves from other influencers by choosing not to promote weight loss teas (which often contain laxatives) and waist trainers. But are these new fitness influencers who focus on exercise actually any better than the people promoting dangerous products like weight loss teas?
People often criticize influencers for lacking credentials or promoting bad products. Many fitness influencers were born thin and conventionally attractive, but pass that off as the result of their hard work. They mislead the public into believing that a specific body type is attainable through spending money and working hard. They also promote sponsored products that are often unregulated and do not contain the ingredients advertised. Promoting potentially harmful products is not only an ethical issue in itself, but it reinforces the dangerous ideas that we should consume unregulated supplements as long as they promise to burn fat. However fitness influencers are harmful not only because of their dangerous products, but because of their reinforcement of fatphobic ideas. Selling fitness plans to change one’s body type conveys that there is only one acceptable look: a slim waist and big hips.
Why should women be pressured to achieve a certain body type? Body shapes coming in and out of style are extremely damaging to young women who feel pressured to keep up with the current ‘in’ body type. This ‘slim thick’ body type did not come about randomly, it is a direct result of fatphobia and anti-Blackness. The current trend is also particularly harmful because of how differently it affects Black and white women. White fitness influencers show off their bodies and are praised while Black women are hypersexualized for doing the same thing. This is part of a larger pattern of stereotyping Black women as more sexual and less deserving of respect. Though this is not necessarily the fault of the individual influencer, they are playing a role in perpetuating the idea that body shape is an acceptable trend.
Despite many influencers being born with this body type, they say that the public can achieve this look through hard work and following their advice. The few influencers who did work to build this body type also had an advantage of money and leisure time, which are not accessible to most people. Influencers promote the idea that having a different body type is a personal failure and everyone can achieve the same body type with enough hard work. In reality, the notion of ’deserving’ a certain body is ridiculous when so many parts of our bodies, like where our fat is distributed, are not within our control.
Even if we were able to completely control our bodies, we shouldn’t measure success based upon how our bodies look or the choices we make about diet and exercise. Even things as simple as commenting on other women’s exercise or eating habits reinforce that certain practices are inherently ‘good’ and ‘bad.’ Eating chocolate cake is ‘bad’ because it has sugar and fat. Going on a run is ‘good’ because it burns calories. We have been sold the idea that inside everyone is a fitness influencer that needs to be freed.
Many of these influencers claim to be shaping their bodies for themselves, and not because of societal pressure. In our current fitness culture, wanting to change your body for the sole reason of looking good to appease society is seen as vain and unacceptable. As a result, influencers must use language directly stating the non-appearance related reasons for exercise for example posting a long paragraph about self-discipline and physical strength, while implying that a fitness transformation will center around physical appearance. These Instagram posts perpetuate the conflation of fitness and appearance.
It is so easy to be hypnotized by these images. What about someone like me, who goes to the gym often but may still look like what fitness influencers would consider to be a before picture? While I have been fighting my own body dysmorphia since I was ten years old, I must acknowledge that I come from a place of privilege in that I currently have a conventionally “acceptable” body type. I do not experience the discrimination and oppression that fat people experience, which limits my perception on this issue.
Nowadays, when I look at my body, I do not hate it by any means, but I know that I do not have the perfectly small waist and big butt that are often the focal points of these transformations. What would happen to me if I did one of these fitness guides and followed all the exercises perfectly? The language of these guides makes it seem like everyone is supposed to use them in order to go through a metamorphosis because they owe it to themselves. When I am an ‘after,’ will I break out from the screen and start living in a new world, as if this is a young adult dystopian novel where people are sorted into two meaningless categories, ‘before’ and ‘after?’ Of course this is untrue, and I KNOW now it’s untrue. However, the feeling that my life will begin once I am an ‘after’ picture is hard to shake. This is the consequence of fitness influencers.
Though these pages may be mesmerizing, what are we really getting out of them? Someone we can compare ourselves to? We can do the influencers’ workouts and still never achieve what they have. Even if these influencers had the best of intentions, their guides were affordable, their exercises were effective at changing a person’s body shape, and their sponsorships were ethically made products, why do we need to transform? Systemic fatphobia has made us believe that we need to look a certain way. There is nothing wrong with our bodies. Fitness influencers are just as bad as other influencers because they rely on fatphobia to sell products. They reinforce the idea that body shapes can be trendy. The message of their posts is still that we need to be conventionally attractive, but they are hidden by the ideas of choosing to change your body for yourself.