The health and fitness industry has exploded in the last 10 years and social media has played an important role in changing the collective psyche of global society and how we perceive fitness.
As Instagram exploded with images of fit people, and those fit people learned they can make careers out of posting pictures working out and flexing in the locker room mirrors, it suddenly became a trend for millennials and Gen Z to go to the gym, iPhone and selfie stick in hand. Forget leaving your phone locked in your locker, these days if you don’t post your workout, it’s like it didn’t even happen.
Fitness models’ and influencers’ motivation is predominantly to garner social media fame, likes, follows, deals, make money and receive validation. But remember just a few years ago, before social media, the gym was predominantly a place (unless you were into bodybuilding) to sweat before or after work: exercising to avoid common pitfalls of health like cardiovascular diseases, high blood pressure, and cholesterol. There were very few people who fooled with their phones by the bench presses and squat racks in the gym.
Body image is the common denominator in this fairly sudden change in how we perceive fitness. Just 10 years, gym-fit, ripped bodies were the prized possession of models, actors, bodybuilders, athletes, and a few random nobodies with an annoyingly perfect genetic composition and metabolism. As a society, we commonly understood to look like that required full-time professional help. Remember 24 Hour Fitness’ first free hour of a training session with a certified trainer? After that, the sessions were only $59 each, depending on how often you scheduled them.
Thanks to social media, we started understanding there is no one secret formula that a trainer can share with you to achieve that gym-fit model of perfection. Anyone following a fitness influencer or two has heard about the simple rules of fitness, food and workouts that will bring you the results you desire. Regardless of effectiveness, interested exploded in favor of the health and fitness industry.
Don’t misunderstand me: the upward trends toward fitness and health is a very good thing, and it’s good to see the discourse of fitness and nutrition going mainstream and into our day-to-day lives. But, with this discourse, we are unable to see the negative trend that’s simultaneously exploding: the mass circulation of one type of body image, a body image that is very gender specific, silently standardized by the fitness industry as the only and ultimate symbol of fitness.
We all see that body image every day on social media, on fitness magazine covers, in music videos, in movies, on posters and in the gym. This standard pops up everywhere we go, hauntingly reminding us that no matter how fit or active we are, you still do not look like that. It screams at you, sort of mocking at you, pinpointing the various ways showing, in fact, that you are not fit at all.
When we look at the fitness industry as a giant corporate entity, it makes me wonder how they are not paying attention to this toxic trend. Every corporate entity that functions on standards of physicality and beauty has been doing this a long time, playing with insecurities and subconscious sexual cues by setting up unrealistic, Photoshopped versions of beauty and the body. But this is 2021, and the fitness industry has a huge role to play in changing the narrative toward the standards of body, body size, and body image. But are they doing enough? I vote no.
How can I say that? Open any famous fitness, nutrition, gym, fitness apparel, fashion fitness company page or website and you will witness what I am talking about. My outcry is very simple, “Why can’t the fitness industry be more inclusive when it comes to celebrating all kinds of bodies?” Glorifying only one kind of body and exemplifying it as the only definition of being fit creates a perfectly toxic environment for all kinds of body shaming and body-related discrimination. Health and fitness companies have huge ethical responsibilities on their shoulders as they represent everyone, and I mean each one of us and our fitness and health aspirations.
When health and fitness corporate torch bearers do not understand the science behind health and fitness, it puts us all in a very negative situation. The science behind health and fitness is more internal than physicality and aesthetics. To prove my point, let us go back in history. Fitness and health have been around since ancient cultures when at least some form of health, exercise and fitness incorporated in day-to-day lives, but people concentrated more on internal health and holistic health rather than physical beauty.
Coming back to 2021, let us ask one question: “What is the goal of health and fitness?” My answer is that it is to live a healthy, long, holistic life, avoiding chronic diseases like cancer, diabetes and cardiovascular failure and ultimately enjoying your best health. Understand this clearly: health never has been associated with aesthetics, because no matter how ripped you are, if you are unhealthy inside, you are more susceptible to cancer and heart attacks.
This trend of representing only one type of body is so pervasive that some health supplements, gyms, and fitness apparel companies do not even have any models who represents other healthy body shapes and sizes. All their models and branding campaigns are done by models who all look alike as if only they represent fitness. Even their brand ambassadors, and influencers they engage with, all look similar. The bigger question here is: Are the health and fitness industries ready to represent everyone who aspires to be fit and healthy or they are okay by marketing only one type of body and aesthetics?
The fitness and health industries would have us believe that true fitness isn’t achieved until you can wash clothes on your six-pack, playing into our insecurities about what fit looks like. But fitness and health are incredibly multi-dimensional, going far beyond the walls of the gym, body building, and toned abdomens. Yoga, sports, biking, games, martial arts and swimming - there are so many different forms of exercises and work outs that attain the ultimate beasty fitness, resulting in a super healthy inside; without looking like a ripped poster boy. Are these people not fit, don’t they represent the fitness and health industry, shouldn’t their perspectives be included when it comes to fitness? Look at athletes who play tennis, cricket, hockey, soccer – they don’t all look like muscle gods, but they can kick some serious butt in terms of health, stamina, and fitness.
This is just a snapshot of what is happening in the fitness world in terms of representation and glamorization of only one type of body. Their branding, models and influencers (even the size of the apparel) are exclusive, only designed for a certain type of body. I’m pleading with you to stop falling for toxic branding strategies popularly adopted by fitness corporations.
The fitness industry needs to change the conversation around how society perceives fitness and health. Rather than only focusing on physicality and aesthetics as a primary tool for marketing and branding, they should focus more on holistic health and inner health as primary marketing language. After all anybody, regardless of their body size and shape, can aspire to be healthy, aspire to be fit, and can be extremely healthy and fit without being ripped.