The Toxicity Of Social Media’s Fitness Culture
Let’s talk about everything that the quintessential Instagram influencer doesn’t get right about fitness, and what you can do about it
I was always in awe of the term diplomatic immunity while watching crime shows and movies while growing up. It was always a trump card a villain had after committing a crime.
Diplomatic immunity is a principle of international law, by which certain foreign government officials are not subject to the jurisdiction of local courts and other authorities for both their official and, to a large extent, their personal activities.
I have been working with influencers all my life, and over time, it has become more and more apparent that influencers are not only making a ton of money using their audiences, but are also getting away with “murder” (metaphorically) with a similar sense of immunity.
This is rampant and dangerous on Instagram, most notably, in the health and fitness industry. For example, I am a certified physical trainer. So you should listen to me and all I have to offer about fat loss and muscle gain in your body. Right?
Absolutely not. The certification course was in two parts: an online, open book exam, and a two-day physical course in learning a few exercises, how to guide someone, and judging your own physical fitness.
That’s it. Should you believe everything I say based on that? I don’t think so. Yet, there are many people who use certifications as a diplomatic passport that absolves them of anything said on the platform. From sexual health influencers giving blanket statements in 15-30 second long reels, to lifestyle influencers giving blanket diet advice, and physical trainers trying to shove the latest whey brand in your face.
Let’s get a bit technical. There is still no regulatory body to govern influencers. Beyond admitting what is a paid ad and what isn’t, there’s no verification or accountability for their content.
As social media steadily grows into a space where it doesn’t take a medical degree to publicly endorse unverified health-related claims anymore, where anyone with access to basic psychology vocabulary now wants to win digital brownie points for being a ‘mental health advocate’, where every third person who enjoys workouts will feel comfortable in advertising supplements and fitness regimes to uncontrolled numbers of viewers, how do we aim to verify any of these claims? Where do disgruntled viewers and followers go when their local and oh-so-accessible celebrity messes up?
Intermittent fasting, Keto diets, cutting out our favourite foods and many more aggressive strategies are thrown around and generalised, and it’s creating a toxic relationship between people, food and their bodies. We try to get fitter, then start hating our bodies due to the constant “rise and grind” mantras personalised and repeated by fitness influencers who promote the belief that life is not hard, we are simply not trying hard enough.
And when our mental health begins to collapse, mental health “advocates” and motivational speakers will swoop in to tell us not to be sad, but to be “PoSiTiVe”, and not to spread negativity in our lives.
People look for accessible free advice in a country that has such limited resources and accessibility for health. Dieticians are expensive, gyms and trainers cost so much that most places give EMI facilities and help get small loans on their credit cards to pay it off, and sexual education is almost unheard of or inaccessible. So why shouldn’t people head to Instagram to get their knowledge?
They should. But with the way social media is designed, the onus to differentiate between good and bad info is put on the audience. “They should know better” is nothing short of victim blaming because we bought into the snake oil most influencers are peddling in the form of toxic positivity, meal replacement shakes, sexual therapy, and health advice.
Instagram is supposed to be an intimate space. You see influencer posts popping up between posts of your colleagues, friends, family, and even animals you like. Your mind is already under the belief that you’re in a ‘safe space’, which leaves you more vulnerable to promotional content on Instagram than the usual roadside billboard would.
What can you do?
For most influencers in the health and wellness space, fitness is their job. Their bodies and lifestyles should not be a goal for people who merely want to be strong. Set goals in the form of realistic achievements.
Measure your success in strength, not inches
How much further can you run now? How much faster can you run? How much more can you lift? These are your success measures. Trying to measure success in how you look will not only dishearten you, but it’s not even an accurate representation of whether you are fit or not (no matter what influencers say).
Cheat meals- the trap
I’ve fallen for this trap too often. A cheat meal is a single meal that allows you to eat your favourite food, while a cheat day allows for free food choices for an entire day. This turns into an unhealthy relationship with food where you start dividing food into “good food” and “bad food”, instead of including favourite foods in a balanced daily diet. I now have a particular dessert every night but in portioned amounts, and with regular, balanced workouts.
Putting in your 100 per cent every day? No.
Even with workouts, there needs to be a balance. I see influencers pushing people to workout, work through the pain, or even feel the burn for every workout. Even trainers do this. But not all workouts are the same. Form a fitness regime that is tailor-made for you.
Listen to your body
Your body can only speak to you. Listen well. Body too sore to workout? Don’t berate or motivate yourself to work through the pain. Don’t feel like working out? Is it because of your body being sore or a mental block? Listen, and push yourself accordingly. Listen to your body, and it will reduce the risks of burnout and injury.
Question your influencer
We need to start questioning the advice that influencers keep throwing at us. Do your research and get second, third opinions. Follow the science.
There is no perfect workout to blast fat. There is no bad food or good food. There is only food. There is just you.