#Gymlife: does Instagram’s fitness trend have the potential to negatively impact female body image?

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In this post Milly Morris examines #Gymlife and whether all the self-infatuation on Instagram help to reinforce stereotypes of the perfect female form.

I watch the two women from the treadmill as they stand in front of the large mirror at my local gym. They take it in turns to pose whilst the other takes their picture; holding weights, lunging and squatting. They complete their impromptu photoshoot with the money shot; the mirror “selfie.” As I stagger past them, profusely sweaty and embarrassed by my oversized “Miami Heat” t-shirt, they huddle over the phone to debate appropriate filters and hashtags for one another’s Instagram account. Many would not find this unusual; Instagram’s ability to crop life’s mundane experiences into a neat little square and lace in a bohemian glow have caused it to become a part of many women’s every-day life. According to a survey conducted by Appdata, 65% of Instagram’s 150 million users are female.

Anyone who has Instagram will recognise the images integral to its “health and fitness” trend: tightly toned women flexing in a gym mirror, eating avocado on wholegrain toast or sipping brightly coloured smoothies. Instagram celebrities, such as Jen Selter, Emily Skye, Lyzabeth Lopez and Rachel Brathen are famous for such “fitness-orientated” selfies aimed to inspire women into living a healthy lifestyle. These women generate thousands of followers and are referred to as Insta-famous. Selter, for example, is particularly famous for her buttocks; often uploading images of her squatting in the gym. Likewise, Rachel Brathen’s Instagram fame is based upon “beautiful yoga selfies.” Her profile has 1.4 million followers and is strewn with flawless images of her stretching in exotic locations accompanied by poetic “feel-good” captions.

It seems that the women I saw taking pictures in the gym, along with many others, attempt to emulate this trend set by the Insta-famous. Similar to the male trend of “gains”, if you type the phrases “gymselfie” or “gymlife” into the Instagram search bar, a plethora of images of women sharing their healthy lifestyle will flood the screen.

And what’s wrong with this? It can be argued that we should celebrate these women who are healthy and seemingly confident in their appearance amidst an apparent “obesity crisis.” Surely, showcasing women’s fitness acts as a symbol of female empowerment?

Yet there is more to these images than a demonstration of health and female strength. The women’s poses are purposely sexual and all mirror the perfectly-groomed models in magazines, rather than the sweaty and dishevelled post-gym appearance of the average woman.

Feminists such as Wolf, Gill and Orbach argue that a beauty myth pervades the traditional media and wider society. This myth teaches women from birth that to be valued they must be tall, thin and white. The negative impact that the traditional media’s representation of beauty has had upon women has been well documented. For example, the National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders cites cultural influences as a contributing factor into why women are much more likely than men to develop an eating disorder.

One only needs to cast their eyes across the covers of magazines to see this archetypical notion of beauty within models and actresses, displayed and presented as a “superior breed” of female. In contrast to women within the traditional media, Insta-famous women reflect the sentiment of meritocracy; they have become famous online by documenting their “hard work” at the gym via social media. Selter often accompanies her daily uploads with motivational messages, implying that her followers can look like her if they simply try hard enough. For example, one comment stated:

“Every day that you push yourself you are one day closer to your goals. The body achieves what the mind believes”

The comments on the image reflect this sentiment, referring to Selter as “ultimate goals” and “perfection.” In this sense, the beauty ideal is portrayed as attainable rather than something which is reserved for models and actresses who have won a genetic lottery. Consequently, does this have the potential to intensify internalized feelings of shame, guilt and disgust for women who do not reach this goal? Recent research demonstrates a significant rise in women reportedly feeling “unhappy” and “disgusted” by their appearance. Thus, it is important to consider that such Instagram trends are intensifying existing messages perpetuated by the traditional media: to be successful, happy and desirable as a woman involves two key ingredients – to be slim and beautiful.

This may be why the two women at the gym felt it necessary to document their fitness regime; to prove to an online audience that they are striving for an Insta-famous body. It is easy to dismiss this behaviour as self-absorbed and narcissistic. However, this ignores the obsessive documentation of self which has become normalised by social media. Thus, in an age where we seemingly live by the rule of “pictures or it didn’t happen”, it is worrying that women seek validation from an invisible crowd from their attempt to achieve “perfection.”

I must clarify – I believe that an individual’s health is important to leading a happy lifestyle. Yet, these women are not solely promoting this message. Jen Selter, Lyzabeth Lopez and other Insta-famous women market their bodies to an online audience who do not admire them for their fitness levels, but for reaching the pinnacle of feminine beauty.

Overall, it is essential that we discuss the trend of health and fitness on Instagram which is arguably becoming an integral part of many young women’s lives. As discussed, the traditional media bombards women with an idealistic standard of beauty in magazines, TV shows, billboards and films. However, in the digital age, there is no respite from the constant stream of images and clips uploaded to social media. In this sense, Insta-famous fitness models have the potential to intensify feelings of body-shame by ensuring that reminders of the “perfect” female are constantly accessible via the touch of a screen.


Milly Morris is a Doctoral Researcher in the Department of Political Science and International Studies at the University of Birmingham.

This article was originally published on Feminist Academics on 17th December 2015.


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