Is there any topic more fraught for young women than diet and exercise? I swear, when it comes to fitness and food, you can’t win. People get criticised for eating too much junk food (or for using the phrase ‘junk food’ in the first place), not eating enough junk food, for being vegan and for not being vegan, for exercising too much and for admitting that the gym seems like a soulless place, which still wouldn’t be worth visiting even if you could guarantee a peach-shaped bum after six months of moderately heavy lifting and an unholy number of squats. You can find ardent followers of the latest fad diet all over social media, who leave Instagram comment after Instagram comment, hoping to uncover the secrets of carb cycling or macro counting or intermittent fasting or whatever method of calorie-reduction is favour that week. You’ll also find the critics of these plans, people who reject diets with flair, but who may still adhere to various restrictive eating regimes and somehow consider themselves ‘intuitive eaters.’ People are critcised for not doing enough cardio, not eating bread, eating kale-infused hemp and activating their nuts.
Of course, the criticism and judgment experienced by mainstream Internet personalities – influencers, if you will – pales in comparison to the vitriol hurled at fat people online (and in person) for their diet and exercise choices. Never is food or movement more political than when it is being consumed or performed by a fat person in public, an unfairness that remains far too prevalent.
But despite all the reasons that talking about diet and exercise on the Internet seems to be awful, people still do it. Of course, they might not find the fitness and food dialogue overwhelming in the way that I do, but even if they too find the obsession with banded squats and organic blueberries somewhat exhausting, there is still a ton of money to be made. Fitness and wellness influencers on Instagram and YouTube are some of the most popular, with many of them boasting hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of followers. Internet platforms are swarming with recipes and workouts and millions of impressionable young people willing to contort their lives and habits around today’s new questionable menu plan or gym schedule, all because a skinny girl on the Internet said it was a good idea.
This hits at the crux of the issue for me. Most young women are not following fitness and ‘wellness’ influencers because they feel empowered by banded crab walks and pictures of roasted sweet potato. No, most people follow online creators who post constantly about their diet and exercise routine because they want to be thinner, and by extension, sexier. You’ll notice that 99% of major fitness influencers are both very thin and impressively ripped, because that’s the unspoken requirement to have influence in the diet and exercise sphere. After all, why would fans listen to your ruminations on chia seeds and chin-ups if you don’t have the goods to show that your method works? I firmly believe that the vast majority of followers in the online fitness world are ultimately looking for the same thing women have been scouring pop culture for for decades; a magic diet and exercise plan that will allow them to be skinny without being too depressing to contemplate for longer than eleven days.
This is why any efforts to pretend that online fitness culture is truly about physical empowerment or strength progress drive me nuts. It is only propagated by skinny women with six packs to millions of other women who are desperate to figure out how exactly they got that body, for the same reason that magazines have been profiling the diets of celebrities for years. It is political. Most spaces that address diet and exercise online inadvertently raise questions about beauty standards, desire, patriarchy and the painfully enduring notion that women are ultimately worth more if they are fuckable. Strong? Yeah, I suppose that’s fine too, but sexy first. Sexy is what really matters. The rest is background noise.
It’s borderline delusional to pretend that most Instagram fitness followers are doing it out of anything other than a desire to be thinner and more toned. Somehow, otherwise mild videos sharing what you ate in a day or an ab workout have become symbolic of our ongoing obsession with weight and looks.
My wish? That this stuff stops being so damn interesting. I wish we didn’t have to talk about bodies, diet and weight so much. I wish it wasn’t still such a common and urgent topic of conversation. I wish social media wasn’t full of questions from young women about cheat days and booty-building workouts. In an ideal world, I have to assume that we wouldn’t want each generation of young people to be so concerned with their looks and the size of their glutes, and we can’t reach that world if fuel is constantly being added to the diet and exercise fire.
The fact that food and fitness choices remain so wrapped up in politics, patriarchy and feminism obscures the truly useful information we could be sharing about nutrition, science, hormones and mental health. I don’t think a total blackout on all questions diet and exercise would be helpful to young people at all, but right now, it seems impossible to discuss these topics on the Internet without accidentally fuelling someone’s harmful weight loss fantasies. There is useful information to be imparted about the role that nutrition and exercise choices play in the big picture of someone’s physical and mental health, though it can be almost impossible to find amidst a sea of disordered thinspo bullshit.
I also recognise that it’s harmful in a different way when slim people pretend that diet, exercise and weight are things they never think about. I do feel like I eat what I want, but I also think about drinking enough water, eating enough fruits and vegetables and asking myself honestly if I really want that piece of cake or pizza or whatever. If the answer’s yes, then I’ll eat it, and if it’s not, I won’t. But being able to evaluate both my food choices and my own desires in a relaxed, informed way is due to the years I spent learning about nutrition, both in my university lectures and as an athlete, and the years I spent alternately starving and bingeing in order to make weight for my competitions, which, while deeply unhealthy, did give me an intimate knowledge of my own hunger cues. To pretend that diet and exercise are not relevant to me is to ignore an upbringing that allows me to approach food and exercise neutrally, and gave me an appreciation of both sugary foods and fresh fruit and vegetables, a privilege most don’t have (my upbringing also shielded me from long-term negative effects of my time lightweight rowing, which is not something all my teammates have been able to avoid).
I don’t want to further keep people in the dark by not discussing topics that are hugely relevant to all young people, and which are wrapped up in politics and love and desire and self-confidence along with meal planning and new gym gear. But I also don’t want to contribute to a culture which creates spaces that are predicated on an obsession with food, weight, gym habits and the exact shape of your body. Right now, I struggle to see how it’s possible to talk about diet and exercise on the Internet without enabling harmful behaviours, and supporting a culture of dieting and body image issues that will reverberate through all our lives for years to come. Maybe, in the future, we can arm people with knowledge about food, movement and their own bodies in a truly useful, neutral way, but until then, I’m keeping my own choices off the Internet.