By: Olivia Visser, Opinion Editor
Content warning: mention of eating disorders and body dysmorphia
Social media is a useful tool that connects like-minded people, but it also has the potential to cause great harm. In recent years, online fitness communities have grown in popularity. If you’re an Instagram user, I’m sure you’ve been bombarded at some point with questionable “what I eat in a day” videos, or advice on how to get six-pack abs. I am someone who believes fitness is for anyone interested in moving their body. This can take many forms, from commuting by bike, to weight lifting, or casual walks. Toxic fitness culture on social media discourages people from trying new activities, and contributes to an increase in self-esteem issues and mental illnesses such as body dysmorphia.
A large number of fitness influencers take self-improvement to the extreme, sending the message that you can never be happy enough with your achievements. It is alarming to see active and healthy individuals feel the need to subscribe to intensive exercise programs or fad diets. Samantha Lego tells Insider Magazine that after a 12-week exercise program, the excitement of her new body was short-lived. She panicked after eating, obsessing over feeling bloated.
I often see this on social media: influencers share tips on how to deal with “bloat”, and just show their bodies before meals. Your stomach is supposed to increase in size throughout the day, but fitness culture sells the idea of a flat stomach that is simply unattainable for most. These ideas have incredibly damaging consequences for social media users. More and more people are engaging in restrictive patterns of eating and exercise, which can often be categorized as an eating disorder. Body dysmorphia, a mental illness that causes a preoccupation with physical appearance, is also on the rise among young people. It doesn’t help when influencers share how little they eat a day to stay small.
Another worrying aspect of Instagram fitness culture is its reliance on pseudo-scientific claims or trivial lifestyle changes that will supposedly transform your existence. It’s no surprise that pyramid schemes and health scams find their way onto fitness influencers’ pages. From users selling useless and dangerous “detox tea” to scamming people with expensive exercise programs, it’s clear that this space has serious problems with misinformation. We must be extremely careful when we see non-professionals sharing medical advice or making grandiose claims.
Popular media’s characterization of fitness is exclusionary. This leaves out fat and disabled people, many of whom are physically active. This can perpetuate shame for those who have less of a desire to be active, or do so in unconventional ways. It is also a very white-dominated arena. Many people of color and Indigenous people face access barriers and racism in fitness spaces. That’s not to mention the obstacles that queer and trans people and disabled people face when it comes to fitness environments. Social media isn’t much better in terms of representation for marginalized people.
Physical activity is a great way to feel in harmony with your body. Because of this, we should promote fitness for all who are willing and able. Social media sells the idea of a dream body at the expense of physical and mental well-being, which has immeasurable consequences for vulnerable users. Body positivity was a big thing a few years back, and now we’re seeing the rise of what’s known as “body neutrality.” Intuitive eating counselor Anne Poirier described body neutrality as “prioritizing the body’s function and what it can do rather than its appearance.” While both schools of thought have their uses, society would undoubtedly benefit from a reduced emphasis on physical appearance.