We have a serious problem here.
It’s a problem that isn’t talked about often, mostly because people don’t realize it’s an issue: social media and the fitness industry.
As someone who is very involved in the fitness industry in New York City, you would never know it from looking at my online presence. I try to keep a very low profile in terms of what I post. Very rarely will you see my shirtless selfies, videos of myself working out, or fitness memes, and there’s one big reason for it: the expectation of the audience.
When we look at trainers and fitness influencers on Instagram, FaceBook, Snapchat, Pinterest (and the list goes on), there is a general standard of what we, as the audience, expect to see: lean, rippling abs, just-worked-out-but-a-face-of-flawless-makeup. perfectly coiffed hair, etcetera etcetera.
People want an image to aspire to, something that is “perfect”. I’m guilty of it myself. I follow a handful of trainers and fitness influencers who look amazing as motivation to get my booty in the gym. I could be right alongside them posting daily. I have a whole list of excuses why I shouldn’t, most of them bad ones, and yet I still hold back from being public about my own fitness journey.
Confession: I’ve gained 10 pounds since I moved to New York last June. It’s not a lot, but it feels like a ton on my 5-foot frame. How am I supposed to motivate people when I’m not looking my best? However, right now, I’m the healthiest I’ve ever been– I didn’t say best shape, I said healthiest. This time last year, when I looked the best I ever have, I was unhealthy in every other sense of well-being. In order to maintain such a low body fat and picture perfect abs, I was obsessively counting my macros, to the point that being one gram above or below would ruin my day. Because I was still in school, I was scheduling my days to the minute in order to fit in my workouts around classes, even if it meant pulling two and three-a-days. I counted every drop of water, pinched the tiny little ripples of fat left on my belly (aka natural folds of skin necessary to exist), and weighed myself 12 times a day.
However, because I looked my best, people perceived this as my healthiest.
Now, I don’t count my macros. I don’t step on the scale. I let myself enjoy drinks with friends and dinners out. I don’t obsessively schedule myself in the gym 6 or 7 days a week. I listen to my body and make time for self care. I prioritize well-being over aesthetics. Sure, I’ve gained some body fat, but I’m finally at peace with my body. I’m mentally, physically, emotionally healthy. I make a point to talk to my clients and friends about my own health and fitness journey. I let them know when my nutrition is on point and when I go enjoy a burger and fries, when I kill a workout and when I skip the gym to meet a friend for a drink, when I get enough sleep and when I stay up til 3am binging Parks and Rec. It’s important that my clients and the people close to me know that balance is key to maintaining a healthy lifestyle, and it’s unrealistic to be “on” 24/7.
But here is where I become part of the problem: by not sharing more, I contribute to perpetuating the idea that the people who look the best are the most healthy, that appearance trumps health, and that couldn’t be further from the truth. In this day and age where everything is at our fingertips with a single swipe on our phones, social media is simultaneously motivating us to be healthier and destroying our body image and self-confidence. For every person who sees an image of abs and is empowered to work harder, there is a person who is discouraged by something seemingly unattainable. There is a very clear gap between the “perfect, fit” lifestyles we see on social media and most people’s actual life experiences, and for someone on the other side of the gap, it can be disheartening.
The perfect images that we see on social media are not 100% reality.
They’re a snapshot of a much larger picture that we don’t see. Even the most popular fitness influencers have their days where they feel tired, unmotivated, and just not “picture perfect.” I’m not saying we should stop posting these images. If you’re one of the people who works their butt off for their body, then you should proudly share your dedication and hard work. But knowing that your fitness photos are contributing to the low self-esteem and discouragement of young women trying to start their own fitness journeys should crush you; it crushes me to know I’m inadvertently contributing to this problem.
I can’t speak for anyone else, but I got into this business to motivate and inspire women to live their healthiest lives. We’re not helping anyone by perpetuating the image of the one, perfect, fit lifestyle that everyone should be able to achieve. So how do we fix this problem? First, we, as the motivators and influencers in the fitness industry, need to be real with people. We can’t be discouraged to share our low points or when we aren’t completely on our game. That going off your diet on occasion isn’t behaving badly, it’s being human. That taking a break or skipping a workout isn’t quitting, it’s essential for mental and physical recovery. In our minds, it may seem like we’re failing to the people who look up to us, but I promise people will appreciate us showing humanity much more than putting up a façade of perfection. Second, we need to encourage body diversity. The images of ourselves that we share are just one example of a fit body, but they’re not the only example of a fit body. There are a million different body types that are equally fit and healthy, and we need to help showcase that. Finally, we need to encourage balance. Of course hard work is important to achieve your goals, but life isn’t all about Tupperware meals and hours of cardio and #teamnodaysoff. Because at the end of the day, if you bust your butt in the name of perfect abs but end up unhappy, what’s the point? A perfect body is not the finish line to achieve happiness, and health is not a visual, one-dimensional concept.
The line between being part of the solution and being part of the problem is very thin. So I hope next time you whip out your phone to snap a post-cardio ab selfie that you feel confident and proud of yourself because you should. But I also hope you remind the people who look up to you that the picture of health can’t be boiled down to a single image, shape, or size. In order for change to happen, it needs to start with us. So let’s start making a change to create a more positive, empowering, and open-minded community.
Written By: Chelsea Courtney.
Chelsea is a New York City-based actor, personal trainer, and spin instructor by way of the Jersey Shore and Philadelphia. She is a lover of the outdoors and aspires to be barefoot at all times. Yes, she would like to play with your puppy.