Gym Selfie Or It Didn't Happen: How Instagram Is Ruining Exercise
The Debrief: 'Even as a personal trainer, some posts make me feel that, for some reason, what I want to look like and how I want to feel about my body and about training is wrong.'
Feeling great about the way we look and browsing Instagram are not, generally, two things that go hand in hand. It’s no surprise that a study released earlier this year by the Royal Society For Public Health found that the social media app is, in fact, the worst of all when it comes to negatively impacting on young people’s mental health. The researchers cited body image as a key factor in their findings, as well as anxiety, depression and loneliness.
That said, the original idea behind this piece was that I wanted to write something positive about role models and body image goals online- about the movement toward strong and not skinny in training and on our screens, and how my Instagram feed is full of incredibly strong women- climbers and boxers and CrossFit athletes and endurance runners and alpine ski racers, as well as some of the most brilliant trainers I know...some of these women are really pushing their fitness to the limits of human possibility in a way that I just find so endlessly inspiring and beautiful and powerful. Others are recommending workouts that are enjoyable and progressive and adaptive and non-threatening. Inclusive without being dumbed down. Either way, these are people who are working hard to do something inspiring, whether that's pushing their bodies beyond the realms of normal physical and mental endurance or teaching us how to push ours. All of that is commendable and a joy to scroll through.
But, every now and again, a fitness account that I’ve forgotten to unfollow will pop up and I’m reminded that I’m living in an echo chamber packed full of people who feel the way I do about exercise (along with a lot of pictures of cabins and mountains, but that’s another article for another time). A great deal of what’s out there is in fact on an entirely different plane, and, in my opinion, it is awful.
In my little echo chamber, there are very few pouty changing room selfies, for example. If there’s a workout picture on there then it is raw and real, complete with grimacing and back fat and a tangible sense of achievement, not staged and skeletal and empty. These posts are the ones that make me feel, even as a trainer, that for some reason what I want to look like and how I want to feel about my body and about training is wrong.
And these doubts are bolstered when I search online for the most popular fitness accounts. I find article after article from various women's magazines who recommend we follow certain accounts based on the following criteria: ‘this celebrity trainer posts motivational quotes and selfies in fun fitness clothes and body-baring outfits’ or ‘Some 2 million followers are obsessed with this Canada-based trainer known for her hourglass workouts’, and ‘This fit girl will help you figure out how to make your workout gear look just as good out of the gym as it does in.’
KILL ME. Somewhere, in the intersection of technology and social media and fitness, we have started to regress. At the point where those three pillars of modern life crisscross online, female body image issues begin to proliferate and propagate, mushrooming out from us like your reflection in a mirror-walled gym toilet. And, it makes me really sad that, as a fitness professional, I work in a field that has perpetuated this problem. We created these false ideals when we had the opportunity to inspire, perspire, be strong and open.
Instead, what has been reflected is endless, multiplying mirror selfies in new gym wear and full makeup, tracking the progress of a waist getting skinnier, abs getting more defined, bums getting bigger- 10 minutes spent in the gym, 8 of those in the changing room mirror finding their best angle, couple of squats to lift the glutes, two days of posting about it, very little time left for actual sweat. With these accounts came videos on ‘10 exercises to get skinnier and look prettier and lift your bum and tone your bingo wings so that men will find you attractive and marry you and buy you a house’, or something in that vein.
I really struggle with it. I struggle with working in an industry that promotes the attitude that this is ok, that this is what fitness, for women, is all about, and that if you don’t look like those girls then you’re not doing it right. That if you’re not aspiring to that image then you don’t belong.
In some ways, perhaps it’s no wonder that this what the online landscape looks like. It’s natural progression. The fitness industry thrives off these ideals and has done for some time. You only have to go to a sports department store to see the clear, toystore-from-the-80s-esque division between men’s and women’s departments. The swathes of pink, the different packaging on the same product to make it seem less intimidating for us girls. The pinker, lighter versions of boxing gloves, yoga mats, weights, resistance equipment. WHY? Why aren’t we allowed to want to look and feel stronger too? I don’t want the boy’s version of the thing either; I just want the athlete’s version. The person who chooses to push it and sweat and flex some muscle and get up two hours earlier to get some training miles in before breakfast. I want that version of the thing I’m trying to buy, please.
And here’s the most important thing when it comes to body image, the one that people on social media don’t tell you when they really should: there are different types of body shape. We are born with a body type and that's that. We can work towards getting stronger, fitter, healthier, losing weight here and there if that makes us feel happier, but fundamentally our bodies are the way they are.
I was born with a straight up straight down boyish figure that lends itself to putting on muscle well, which is just genetics and luck, but I will never be bendy. I will never be that girl in yoga. I will never ever post a yoga selfie. I like yoga because it’s good for my head and my hamstrings but I know I will never end up looking like any of those girls doing impossible headstands on the edge of a cliff on Instagram. But, then again, that's not my aim.
When we are so bombarded with images of what we are ‘meant’ to look like when we’re fit, trained, bendy, limber, it’s hard not to lose sight of our own personal goals. We see tiny waists, faces full of makeup, matching work out gear, gravity-defying shelves of bums and thigh gaps to rival the Channel Tunnel, and it makes us reassess. We start to question ourselves and wonder whether our own aims are sufficient.
Before we scrolled we were just trying to run a bit further, lift a bit heavier, work out a couple more times a week, find the right exercise that worked for our bodies and our heads and that was more than enough but social media constantly tells us otherwise.
For me, getting more into my fitness and running has always been about improving my sense of self-worth, and my self-esteem. It has not been about how it makes me look but because of how it makes me feel. Exercise affects positive physical and mental changes within us that may or may not be immediately apparent to the naked eye of an internet stranger, but that doesn’t make it any less valid.
Embrace your own goals, your own challenges, and most importantly your own body. Push your own limits certainly, but never in the direction of something photoshopped, glossy and unattainable. If it feels good, do it, keep doing it, and if you go to the gym without posting about it don't worry, we’ll still believe you went.
Georgie is a personal trainer, fitness instructor and presenter
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