The Problem with Instagram Fitness Celebs
By Alex Raymond, RD, LD
My morning routine typically consists of me getting up at 5am, sipping on a cup of coffee and reading yesterday’s The Skimm (I would read today’s, but I get up too early and the latest version isn’t posted yet, lol). Then, I often peruse Buzzfeed during this time. The other morning, I came across a Buzzfeed article about women on instagram who you should follow that will “inspire your health and fitness journey.” My first thought, accompanied by an eye roll, was “ugh, here we go.” I reminded myself, kindly, to be less judgmental about the article and try my hardest to read with an open mind.
Here were the positives:
- The author included a diverse set of women (in terms of race, ethnicity, and body type too)
- The author did point out that she did not want to include the *typical* types of fitness accounts you see out there who promote unrealistic, stereotypical ideals for women (and I do commend the author for doing this)
- Many of the women do promote “body positivity”
- These women provide us with examples of various types of exercises, which can be helpful because it’s important to embrace all different kinds of movement.
Instagram Role Models?
It really got me thinking about Instagram fitness “role models” and how these types of accounts have become particularly trendy. The whole idea of feeling good also subtly means looking good (even though it’s not outright stated). The whole idea of “strong is the new skinny.” And that it’s important to take care of yourself and your body (and one way to do that, apparently, is to be as “fit” as you can”). At least, these are the ideas, I think, that are underlying in these fitness Instagram accounts/blogs. And as an eating disorder dietitian, I have a serious problem with this and decided to jump on my soap box.
Bottom line: No matter how you slice it, Instagram fitness accounts, including the ones in the Buzzfeed article, promote a flaw in society’s view on “health,” which is: it’s important to be serious about your work outs (and your eating) in order to shape and transform your body so you feel good about yourself. They imply that if you are not exercising, you are doing something wrong and that you should follow these accounts to get “re-motivated.” (Which yes, sometimes people need motivation, but sometimes these accounts shame people into getting motivated). It implies that even if you don’t feel like exercising, you should get off your butt and do it anyway. Who cares if you injure yourself or that you’re forcing yourself to do something you hate. It’s basically a wider accepted form of peer pressure.
Thoughts on exercise:
Before I jump into my thoughts about Instagram fitness, I want to make it clear that I am writing this as an eating disorder professional. I have nothing against women (or men) heading to the gym and getting in a good workout. Additionally, I promote movement with many of my clients and I enjoy it myself. I agree that exercise can be a great stress reliever and it is one way to feel strong. However, what is often missed in our society is having a healthy relationship with exercise.
I have found in my profession, that for many clients and in the media, there can be a fine line between healthily exercising and over-exercising. Fitness is seen as something that is to be admired. We receive positive feedback for hitting the gym and being “healthy.” And this is entirely problematic, and I will explain why… There are some quotes in this Buzzfeed article that are the epitome of this problem:
“Inspire you to be your best self in the gym”
My first thought: “What the heck? Aren’t there other places where you can be “your best self?” I for one hope to be my best self when I am around my family, my friends, and my clients whom I love dearly. Not around machines… Sure, you want to be enjoying your workouts, but it’s SO important that the gym isn’t your whole life. Being your best self should be enjoying the things that you love with the people you love. Yes, movement can be a part of that, but it should not be the only part.
“Constantly pushing herself and acknowledges how hard it can be to always be on the gym grind, which is relatable AF.”
I am not a huge fan of the word “constantly” or “always” here. I feel like that gives people the wrong idea. There are going to be some days where you don’t want to work out. AND THAT IS A-OKAY! I am not sure why this is seen as “lazy” or “bad” in our society. You are not being lazy or bad if you give your body a break. Your body will actually thank you for the rest!
“Instagram pics will remind you that there is always time in the day to work out, even if you’ve got two little kids at home.”
Well, to be honest, sometimes there isn’t time to work out. Sometimes working out isn’t high on the priority list, especially if you have 2 little kids at home. And again, that is okay. Yes, it is important to get in some movement. But movement doesn’t have to be going to the gym or getting in a more “formal” work out. Exercise can be playing frisbee with your kids, going for an after dinner walk or even vacuuming. It’s okay to not carve time out to exercise if you feel too overwhelmed. Let’s not make moms feel bad about not working out when maybe they don’t even want to go.
She’s also a big believer in healthy being a “feeling” rather than a “look”, which is always important to remember.
This one made me chuckle a little. While I agree with that statement, I also saw the irony in this quote. Over half of the women featured in this article fit some piece of society’s “beauty/health” standard. I am not body bashing their bodies at all! I am simply saying that it’s difficult to promote that health is a “feeling” rather than a “look” when these “healthy bodies” all look similar. Plus, there are individuals who fit society’s picture of health, but in reality aren’t “healthy.” Maybe they are struggling with an eating disorder. Maybe their body fat percentage is too low, and they aren’t getting their periods, which can result in health consequences later in life. Because these individuals are seen as “healthy,” by society and even health care practitioners, it discourages them from getting the nutritional, emotional and maybe medical help they need.
“She shares inspirational messages that’ll constantly inspire you to better yourself”
I actually went to this Instagram account to see what the inspirational messages about bettering yourself were. I couldn’t find them. At least not what I had in mind. What this Instagram star does post are captions that are encouraging to runners, which is super helpful if you are training for a race! However, training for a race or pushing yourself during a run is not “bettering yourself.” It’s important to reframe that idea and figure out how you can live life closer to your values. This will help you feel more fulfilled and happy 🙂
“Her motto is “listen to your body” and preaches clean living without depriving yourself of cravings or fun times.”
Clean eating? I could write a whole other blog about the issue with clean eating! There is no such thing as eating clean. The word clean implies that some foods are dirty. But everything in moderation is ok!
“She recently injured her knee and is sharing her recovery journey – how she still stays fit and healthy without compromising herself further. She’s a great reminder to always strive for greatness no matter what setbacks come along the way.”
Grit, I absolutely love the idea of working hard in the face of adversity and being able to push through setbacks. I think that is something many of my clients can relate to as well. However, I feel like “striving for greatness” here, as related to the article about fitness, means striving for greatness in the gym. Again, it’s totally okay to enjoy your workouts and feel stronger afterwards. But, are there other areas of your life that you feel like you can feel strong in? If the answer is yes, I am so glad that you have things you are passionate about! If the answer is no, you may want to think about your relationship you have with the gym and your body.
So…. Why are we admiring these women for hitting the gym?
Personally, I would like to be remembered for much more than how many steps I took in a lifetime or how many crunches I did. And, I absolutely LOVE my job as a dietitian and I would rather be remembered by my clients as the dietitian who was supported them. Also, I LOVE my family and friends, and I want to be remembered and admired by them. These are the things that make me who I am and make me feel loved. Running shoes just don’t give me that same type of affection.