Have you ever had the background picture of your homescreen be a picture of your “goal body”? Maybe you set reminders on your phone telling you not to eat after a certain time? Or possibly a Pinterest board titled “FITSPO” full of fitness icons? Maybe magazine pictures? An IG feed full of photo shopped super models? Toxic influencer culture has normalized these practices.
For me, this toxic way of life began at the ripe age of 14. I was an athlete my whole life and sports were becoming more competitive. I wanted to be the best, run the fastest, hit the ball the hardest, and be the all-star of the team. I would consistently workout, go to the gym, and follow a strict regimen to attain an elusive “goal body”. I remember being in middle school and high school, spending hours on Pinterest and Twitter looking at “Fitspiration” content. I didn’t know these women. I didn’t know what their daily lives look like, what they are eating, their mental health status, or their genetic predispositions. All I knew was what I could see- which very well could have been edited. I was obsessed with wanting my body to look a certain way and pushing myself to get there. At this young age, I wrongly believed that health and strength were determined by your external appearance.
Fast forward to my late teenage years, and I was still stuck in this toxic cycle. During spring semester, I was cut from my collegiate sports team, ending my athletic career. Meanwhile, I took 18 credits worth of classes, worked part-time, and stressed out full time. I no longer had time to go to the gym or exercise, even though the toxic fitness culture embedded in my mind “no excuses” and “make the time”. I was completely exhausted, so even if I did have time to exercise, I had no energy. My body began to change (or was it all in my mind? I’ll never know). I was growing curves and filling out in places that once had distinguished abdominal muscles that I worked so hard for. It felt like I was at the start of puberty again. Fully aware that summer would soon be approaching, the words “Bikini Season” and “Summer Body” rang in my ears. I became desperate to revert my body back to my younger teenage self. I quickly fell into the dangerous traps of toxic fitness influencer culture.
How often are you promised on social media if you consume a product you will lose X amount of weight in a week, or if you do a workout video you will have 6 pack abs in 10 days? Or if you follow a “What I Eat in a Day” video you will be “fit” and “healthy”, and look like the person hosting the video. Lastly, how often are fitness and nutritional advice coming from people who are certified or medically trained? Not often enough. It feels like everyone thinks they are an expert on health, fitness, and wellness. It is far too simple to go on social media and get a workout and meal plan or fitness advice from non professionals.
My social media feed consisted of skinny and toned women: what I thought defined health and what I aspired to be. After finding my “goal body” from a fitness influencer, I began to follow her advice from her YouTube channel. Since I had little to no time to exercise, I focused on changing my eating habits. Because this influencer said “Don’t eat after 8 P.M.”, I no longer ate after 8 P.M.. Since switching bagels and bread for rice cakes worked for her, I stopped buying bagels and bread. She used a sauna room multiple days a week for extended periods; I did the same because toxic fitness culture taught me that “sweat is fat crying”, right? My mental health was dwindling, my body image was at an all-time low, I was crying in dressing rooms at department stores, and I was seeing and feeling no results. In a few weeks, this famous fitness influencer revealed how the photographs she was posting were altered. I spent so much time following this account, trying to be and look like her, but that person didn’t even exist. This led me to think, how many other times have I been fooled? We truly never know what goes on beyond someone’s highlight reels, or behind a phone screen.
This form of content can be incredibly damaging and dangerous for the audience, as well as participants. It values size, looks, and numbers over health. What I have learned from this experience is health comes in all shapes and sizes, and we cannot judge health and wellness based on one's appearance. Just because a workout or eating style works for someone, does not mean it will have the same results for my body. Every person and body is different and will react in different ways. Lastly, I learned to listen to my body and the signs it was giving me the whole time. Rice cakes never satisfied me like my bagels once had, so I switched them back. I used to feel dizzy after using the sauna weekly, so I stopped my extended use. I realized my external appearance will never produce happiness, and I focused on my mental health (which is just as important as physical health).
Here are a list of tips that helped me break my toxic fitness cycle:
1. Unfollow and unsubscribe to all toxic fitness accounts.
2. Follow and surround yourself with positive content that encourages you (body positivity, inclusivity, mental health).
3. When looking for health and fitness influencers, check to see if they are certified before taking their advice, and pay attention to their tone of voice. Are they using phrases such as “no pain no gain” and “no excuses” or do they remind you that rest and your mental health are important too ?
4. Remember: skinny, toned and muscular does not equate to being healthy. Health comes in all shapes and sizes.
5. Remind yourself that there is so much that goes on behind the scenes in life and social media that we may not see. Oftentimes, accounts are only posting highlights.
6. Remind yourself everyday that your body is beautiful and perfect the way it is.
THE GiRLS ROOM Podcast Episodes on this topic:
Written by: Marissa Contelmo