This article was originally published in OPENWIDE back in 2015, and was written by Eric Crosby
If you have an Instagram account you’ve likely noticed the massive increase in fitness and health oriented pages over the last of couple years. Maybe these “fitspo” pages have really motivated you to live a healthier lifestyle or if you follow @howtogetabooty, maybe they’ve helped you on your lifelong goal of becoming a Nicki Minaj backup dancer. Whether they are full of inspirational quotes, new workouts and recipes or simply pictures of washboard abs and voluptuous rear-ends, these types of images are ubiquitous on Instagram feeds today, but maybe there’s more to this phenomenon than meets the eye. Perhaps the proliferation of these kinds of images contributes to a broader narrative. Maybe the constant attempt to compress “health” into an image has more malignant effects than we might think. I guess the question is, which ideologies does this kind of media support and what effects do these images have on people that we can’t see through #transformationtuesday posts?
A quick Google search of “fitness quotes” reveals no shortage of quotes that deliver a “you are who you choose to be” sentiment. The first and most obvious place that ideology manifests itself through Instagram fitness accounts is through the bolded text that is meant to emphasize specific words. “It’s not about being the BEST, it’s about being BETTER than you were YESTERDAY!”. A huge number of these motivational quotes promote an individualistic, liberal way of thinking. This isn’t too surprising since it’s true that working out is not a team sport, and it is something that an individual can work on alone. However, the proliferation of this mentality in regards to fitness in not isolated from influencing peoples’ wider worldview. This kind of individualistic, everyone is equal, hard work equals results logic is so neoliberal that these fitspo pages could have Ronald Reagan squatting in booty shorts and it wouldn’t be entirely out of place. Before I go any further I want to be clear. I am not implying that this is some kind of conspiracy theory that Thatcher and Reagan cooked up in the 80’s. This phenomenon is more likely a result of dominant neoliberal ideologies that happens to further support those same merits. The rise of the Farrah Fawcett fitness crazes in the 1980’s is fitting, and not so dissimilar to the current popularization of fitness on social media.
Social media has often been criticized for the representing a one dimensional story of users’ lives. Some have even cited Facebook as causing depression because their life can never seem to measure up to the cropped, edited and saturated version they present online. This tendency for people to only post the positives can also been observed on many Instagram fitness pages. We never seem to see the transformations that didn’t go well, the skinny kid who just stays skinny or the yoyoing dieter. These pages show a decisively monolithic version of the trials of fitness and the version they happen to propagate seems to fall in line with neoliberal, capitalist logic. It is important to acknowledge that we are not all equal blank slates with equal potential and opportunity. The tools and methods often used to achieve the alleged pinnacles of health seen on @SHREDZWOMEN or @GREAT_HEALTHY_RECIPES such as luxury gym memberships and copious amounts of kale don’t usually fit into the average Joe or Jane’s budget. Not only do these accounts usually feature the newest and most fashionable fitness apparel but some are even sponsored by clothing brands or supplement companies such as @SHREDZWOMEN, mentioned above. Not only do the images prevalent on fitness pages promote individualism and a kind of morality of self-improvement, but they often promote the consumption and acquisition of products in order to aid in your journey to washboard abs. The juxtaposition of supplement ads and motivational quotes preaching ones ability to forge their own destiny with only their own two hands illustrates an interesting contradiction. Everyone has equal potential to reach their goals, but if you can afford it you can reach a little higher. Another important question to ask when considering the effects of these rapidly prevalent images is in what ways do they affect individuals’ self esteem and society’s perception of health? While many proponents of the recently trendy “strong not skinny” fitness philosophy may argue that this mentality moves past the pressure on girl’s to be thin; there is a stark contrast between the words and images that are communicated.
The prominent image of health on social media remains a wildly thin yet gratuitously adorned female and a strapping, single-digit body fat male. I am not proposing that these individuals are not healthy; only that the practice of attributing a singular image to the concept of health is harmful to many individuals’ self worth as well as the overall health of society. Healthy comes in a million shapes and sizes, as does strong, and beautiful. Health is something that is to be determined by your doctor during a checkup, not by comparing your waist-to-ass ratio to fitness models as you scroll through your phone.