A few years ago, I was a lightweight rower. I counted calories and weighed myself daily, timing my meagre meals around my training sessions so I could fuel myself enough to train for several hours each day while also rapidly shedding weight. It was not an easy, or healthy, way to live. Along with the dysfunctional eating habits eventually came the promised reward; the scale went down, I got closer and closer to competition weight and my muscles starting bulging out from under my skin. We would ‘bulk’ through the winter and ‘cut’ weight into summer for the racing season. I was extremely fit, strong and lean – all things society reveres with no condemnation for the deeply problematic habits that often lead people to this point.
Once I was done competing as a lightweight rower, I stopped all of this. The last time I stepped on a scale was before my last race and I no longer check calories or nutritional information before eating something that will bring me joy or give me energy or both. It was a miserable, isolating and mentally unhealthy lifestyle that I only suffered through to allow me to achieve great things athletically.
With this experience in mind, I therefore cannot understand how so few people see an issue with Instagram fitness culture – a world full of obsessive gym usage, triggering #physiqueupdates and transformation pictures created using angles, lighting and taking pictures only at a certain time of day. It baffles me how in the same week someone can post a picture of #realtalk, explaining how it only takes ten seconds for their abs to disappear from view when they’re not being painfully tensed under the right light and then follow up that up with a post of them doing that exact thing to the tune of hundreds of #goals comments from their followers. These are the same people advocating for photoshop to be banned from adverts because it promotes unrealistic body standards, while simultaneously seeing nothing wrong with ‘natural’ photoshop, using all means necessary to present your body at its most lean, attractive and polished using tips and tricks of the light.
To be clear, this isn’t about attacking any individual for their choices, nor missing the physical and mental benefits of exercise. We’re all just existing in the world, doing our best, and exercise has a host of important benefits for your body and mind. My issue lies with passing off a relentless focus on changing your body at the gym with body positivity. Surely we have to think about why certain things become sources of happiness and validation over others. Why spending hours in the gym before contorting your body to pop that booty out and snap the next #goals Instagram picture has become an enjoyable use of your time. It appears to me that this is just unrealistic beauty standards with a different face, with lean replacing emaciated as the most sought-after body type. Many people use the hashtag #strongnotskinny to describe their efforts, but make no mistake, all these people are still extremely skinny, just with eye-watering quads and abs on top. How did it become empowering to spend so much of your time and money changing your body? Self-love and body confidence are built on the principle that your body is just fine, brilliant, even, just as it is. Everything about these fitness pages eschews that mentality and returns young women to obsessing about their looks and their size. I struggle to see this as forward progress.
It is painfully ironic that Carys Gray (@busybee.carys) promotes her clothing brand You Are Enough while embarking on a ‘cut’ for summer, suggesting clearly that she distinctly does not think she’s enough as she is. In fact, she’s too much, hence sinking time and energy into shedding her tiny amounts of subcutaneous fat – only allowed to be gained over winter where you’re snuggled up in skin-covering oversized jumpers – before donning a bikini and posing on the beach. It is so fucking brazen how these girls will preach self-love whilst constantly altering their bodies, posting progress pic after progress pic because when it comes to your body, there’s always more to do, and you’d love yourself just that little bit more if you were just a little bit leaner, wouldn’t you?
I’ll admit, if there is going to be an ideal body type, one based on strength and muscle rather than emaciation is preferable. But I can’t get past how rooted it is in aesthetics. Rather than using their lean, strong bodies to run marathons or compete as powerlifters these girls use their fantastically functional bodies to take selfies in the gym – again, the most important thing is how they look, not what they can do. I don’t believe that this is the best we can do for changing oppressive beauty standards. Can’t we find an aim that is about ability and freedom, rather than thinness and aesthetics? To build strength to build your own furniture rather than to be validated by strangers online? To exercise without a thinner, leaner self as the primary goal? To give women more time and money, rather than spending hours in the gym after shelling out $$$ on products they don’t need?
In my mind, the most valid criticism of my argument is: why is it up to you to tell me what confidence looks like? This makes me happy and feel good. I get that, I do – because I’ve been there. I understand the bounce in your step when someone compliments your athletic body or is awed by your prowess in the gym. But I think we need to be more critical about why these moments bring joy – and whether they’re contingent on a punishing schedule of gym sessions and standing on the scale. How you look is not the most important thing about you – but you wouldn’t know it when this is what passes for self-love and empowerment.