By Lucy Hicks
A tan, slim woman balances on her left foot with her right leg and arms outstretched, parallel to the ground. The New York skyline at sunset looms in the background, but this stunning view is not the most noticeable feature of the image — the woman is wearing a barely-there, red and white thong bikini, showing off her sculpted booty as she balances.
“We love a good NYC view,” she writes in the caption.
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“Wow, you look perfect,” one commenter writes. Another says, “You are my inspiration!!!!”
This picture is one of thousands on Jen Selter’s Instagram page. She is a professional fitness influencer — someone who makes a living through fitness-based social media accounts, mainly on Instagram and YouTube. Through post-workout selfies, “What I Eat in a Day” videos and bikini shots, these social media personalities aim to inspire others to live healthier lives — and look good doing it.
While their intentions might be noble, experts believe these fitness-inspired social media accounts are perpetuating unrealistic body standards that can negatively impact body image and even result in disordered eating behaviors. But this problematic body image sells; when fitness influencers try to modify their posts to promote overall wellness, their popularity and profits take a hit.
The beginning of social media instigated a new age of body comparison. Not only can we now envy the abs or the long legs of Gwen Stefani, we can also easily compare our bodies with those of our friends, colleagues and thousands of well-toned strangers. Sometime after the launch of Tumblr in 2007, the ‘thinspiration’ movement sprung up to take advantage of the image-first platform. Women posted images of other very thin (sometimes unhealthily thin) women as motivation for weight loss. Instagram was created in 2010, offering another venue for this kind of visual content.
At some point, “fitspiration” branched off from thinspiration, as a response to the dangerous and problematic “never thin enough” mindset. Rather than pictures of collarbones and thigh gaps, “fitspo” featured toned abs and, of course, firm butts. Originally thought to be a move in the right direction since blogs featuring these images claimed to preach healthy lifestyles, fitspiration became just as—if not more—problematic for women, says Kate Mulgrew, a psychologist at the University of the Sunshine Coast in Queensland, Australia.
“Not only do they have to be thin, they have to be fit and toned as well,” Mulgrew says. “This whole other level of ideal that women have to work towards is just as difficult to achieve.”
The research backs her up. A 2015 study found that viewing fitspiration photos on Instagram decreased self-esteem and increased body dissatisfaction. Another study in 2016 found that, out of 101 women who post fitspiration images, nearly a fifth of the women were “at risk for diagnosis of a clinical eating disorder.” In the comparison group of women who posted travel images, that rate was just 4.5 percent.
“It seems likely, at least for some women, that even though they may present as fit and healthy, regularly posting fitspiration is a culturally sanctioned way of rationalizing dietary restriction, disordered eating, and over-exercising,” study authors Grace Holland and Marika Tiggemann, both of Flinders University in Adelaide, Australia, wrote in the paper.
While this study is part of a relatively new field of research, a growing number of studies support the hypothesis that social media negatively impacts body image and is correlated with disordered eating behaviors, Holland and Tiggeman found in a 2016 review. This is particularly true for appearance-based sites like Instagram. In one study analyzing the content of fitspiration images, out of 290 images featuring women, over 75 percent were considered “thin” and 56 percent had visible musculature. Just 17 percent of images featured women with average body types, and under 8 percent featured overweight women.
“Fitspiration’s avowed aim to promote health and fitness over thinness and weight loss for women (like it’s dysfunctional counterpart, thinspiration) is undermined by the great majority of women represented in its images still corresponding to the thin and toned ideal,” authors Tiggemann and researcher Mia Zaccardo, also of Flinders University, wrote in the study. “It’s overrepresentation of particular body types serves to inaccurately conflate fitness with thinness (or muscularity), suggesting that adequate fitness cannot be achieved unless one also looks a certain way. This may lead people to engage in dysfunctional behaviors surrounding diet or exercise in order to achieve the ideal figure, despite being fit and healthy.”
While research on the potential harms of fitspiration continues to emerge, the demand for the posts keeps growing. Fitness influencers like Jen Selter represent the latest iteration of fitspiration. Their Instagram feeds consist of selfies, healthy recipes, workout routines and inspirational messages for their followers. YouTubers vlog their daily routines, documenting everything they eat that day, their workouts and daily errands.
To those who don’t understand how these people make money: think advertising. If fitness Instagrammers and YouTubers have enough of a following, they can partner with brands to promote gym clothing, nutritional supplements, makeup and other lifestyle products. The top fitness influencers like Jen Selter can make millions of dollars each year, according to Business Insider. But you don’t need to have millions of followers to make “fitness influencing” a full-time job — Forbes reports that someone with 100,000 followers can charge 5,000 dollars per post.
And to gain viewers (and make more money), you need to show some skin, says Sierra Nelson, a fitness Instagrammer and personal trainer in Los Angeles.
“I immediately know that if I am putting up a photo where I’m in my bathing suit, or you can see my full body, that it is just going to get more likes and views, which is tricky,” she says.
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How do you #DareToBeChampion in your own life? #sponsored. One of the biggest lessons I’ve learned is to never compare my journey to anyone else’s & to be proud of even my smallest wins. . Every day I wake up, no matter what obstacles or setbacks I’m faced with, I focus simply on how I can be better than I was the day before. We get so caught up in the macro of our lives, but the micro is where the magic happens. Small daily changes we make to better ourselves & HONOR ourselves that ground us, center us, & create REAL change. . What small changes in your life are you making to be your own @champion? #YourSoulSexy #TeamYSS #ChampionUSA #SelfLove #SelfGrowth #Motivation https://izea.it/aB7Fgxz
Nelson, who has 186,000 Instagram followers, started her Instagram account during a fitness challenge. While earlier posts on her account focus more on appearance, she says she has tried to incorporate more holistic messages in her posts. But she acknowledges her new approach may not be as profitable for newcomers still building an audience.
“Unfortunately, the photos that do really well and go viral and get tons of likes are the photos that are perpetuating these body image problems and disordered eating,” Nelson says.
Yami Mufdi, a fitness instagrammer with 65,200 followers and personal trainer based in Houston, also started her Instagram account while focused more on appearance. She was preparing for a bodybuilding competition and wanted to document her progress. Since her shift to incorporating a newly discovered interest in wellness, she has noticed a lull in people commenting, liking and sharing her posts.
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Day 1 of Anaheim Fit Expo is a wrap!💪🏼 Always a great time with my @bodybuildingcom family but I’ll be honest, my favorite part is getting to meet you guys face to face and hear about your journeys! Thank you to all of you that stopped by and shared a little bit of your life with me! We’ll be doing it again all day tomorrow so if you’re around, come say hiiii!💙 #teambodybuildingcom #anaheimfitexpo #bodybuildingcom ⠀ ✨ps. Less than 30 days until my FREE @mbstribe Fest in Nashville, TN! Click the link in my bio to RSVP! You’re not gonna want to miss this!✨ ⠀ ⠀ ⠀ ⠀
“When people are scrolling and they see this beautiful picture of a girl that is perfect in every way—regardless of if it is photoshopped or not—that will definitely cause more engagement than a picture of me meditating,” she says. “I know that when you shift your focus, you are going to lose a bit of engagement but at the same time, there are days that I’m like ‘I wish my Instagram wasn’t lacking in engagement anymore. I wish it was the way it was.’”
neither Mudfi or Nelson responded to requests to comment of specifics on how much they charge per post in time for the article; however, they both are not solely dependent of Instagram for income. They also work as personal trainers and sell their fitness programs online.
Not only do these more “wellness-based” posts draw less of a following, they also can attract harsh comments. In one recent post, Nelson wanted to communicate to her followers that despite being a personal trainer, she still has cellulite. (In reality, around 80 to 90 percent of women have cellulite, many of whom are extremely fit.)
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Raise your hands if you’ve got cellulite?! If your thighs touch!? Wanna know what that means? It means you are F*UCKING BEAUTIFUL. That you are HUMAN. And that you are NOT ALONE! 🖤🙌🏻 . These photos are real, raw, untouched, no fancy lighting & unflexed. I was nervous as hell to take these photos because, to be honest, I took a break from intense training for almost a month. Life got super chaotic & I found myself falling back into my old habit of constantly worrying about & taking care of others & neglecting myself. . The old me, would have taken these photos & immediately seen all of the “flaws” & imperfections. I would have spent the entire day in a funk, crying & tearing myself apart. The new me…the me that’s focused on my INTERNAL world… was able to actually genuinely smile & be proud of these photos, cellulite and all. To feel good about myself regardless of the way I looked. . The past two weeks I have been SO inspired by my amazing new #YourSoulSexy tribe for really putting themselves out there, for being vulnerable and committing to creating a life that FEELS good on the INSIDE. . The truth is, if we constantly let our external world define us, we will NEVER be truly happy. True health and happiness must start within. . So please, do me a favor babes, and give that cellulite and them juicy thighs some extra love for me today babes because you are beautiful and perfect just as you are! 🖤🙌🏻💫 P.S. #YourSoulSexy #SelfLove #SuperSoulSunday #SoulFit #SelfLoveWarrior #TeamYSS
Though she largely received positive messages from that post, one person commented that she should delete the photo, “because no one wants to see that aged banana body.” (“Banana body” refers to a slim body shape.)
“Regardless of how many positive comments I get, it is difficult as a human being not to focus on that one negative thing,” Nelson says. “You become afraid to actually be real and then we resort to all these editing apps to get rid of that cellulite, to make our booty just a little bit bigger, to make our waist a little bit tinier, because that’s what we feel is going to be accepted as worthy.”
Though both Nelson and Mufdi recognize that there is a problem, they say there is no easy fix. Ultimately, Instagram algorithms determine whose posts will be seen, consequently go viral and make more money. For Mufdi, a drop in engagement is worth it for her happiness.
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#TransformationTuesday because 1 year ago to the day, I won 1st place at the #EastCoastCup & I can’t believe how much has changed in just one year. 🤷🏻♀️ Sometimes, I feel as though I never even competed because the year of prepping came and went so quickly (As did the weight gain🤣) seriously though, for those inquiring minds, depending on the day, I’m up about 20-25lbs from stage weight. Sometimes it gets to me & sometimes it doesn’t. Sometimes I think that I just wasn’t “strong enough” or didn’t have the will it took to stay relatively close to “stage lean”. And then I think- um, you weren’t really eating during this time and THAT usually brings me back to reality bc if you know me, you would know your girl LOVES to eat. 🤣 Point of this post is that like I said, sometimes the weight gain gets to me but then when I put these pictures side by side, I see that not much has changed. Yes, I have more weight around my body, primarily hips & thighs but aside from that, I realize that I’m #MoreThanMyBody. I’m still the same Yami. The same girl that choose to follow a goal and see it through. The girl on the left had one goal & one goal only: to compete. The girl on the right, well, she currently has a bunch of goals that are setting her heart on fire and isn’t so focused on the outward appearance. I’ve grown so much in this past year (thanks #Yoga) and shifting my focus to make things less about me and more about YOU and the community we’ve created. Together. I’m super pumped to share everything that I’ve been working on behind the scenes and hoping to announce them soon! 🙏🏼 Remember, life is about transforming time and time again. We’re not meant to stay in the one place in our lives. We change, we evolve, we grow. If you’re in a season of transformation, like me, embrace it fully and with open arms. You never know where it’ll take you! I love you guys! ❤️ #LiftAndBeLifted #TeamBodybuildingcom #BestSelf
“When I was posting all my progress pictures of me in bikinis, I wasn’t really fulfilled; I wasn’t really happy,” she says. “We [think], ‘when I lose these 20 pounds, 30 pounds, I will be happy,’ but when I was at my skinniest, or my leanest, I was like ‘I have to lose five more pounds.’”
Sharing these experiences, as well as being more open—despite the potential criticism—might be the best way forward. Nelson also hopes that Instagrammers truly take greater stock in how their content impacts their viewers.
“We are collectively creating a more body-obsessed and disordered-eating society by the content that is being put out on a daily basis,” she says. “I’m really happy that there are lots of different new influencers that are coming out and preaching body positivity. But we just need more of it.”
Top Photo Credit: Pixabay