The dual mirror of Instagram fitness

By Rachel Katz

When we resolve to “get in shape”, we’re setting a pretty general goal that could anything from entail running a 5K to going for a walk every morning or trying a new yoga class. But no matter your resolutions, goals, or hopes for the coming year, there are people, businesses, and entire industries built on “helping” you achieve those goals. This is perhaps clearest to see in the fitness industry, particularly since the growth of Instagram over the past few years. Now anyone with enough jargon and spandex at their disposal can claim to be a fitness expert.

There are, of course, advantages to this. It can be rewarding and empowering to see people who may not have body types typically embraced by the fitness industry sharing their exercise tips and workouts. This has ties to be body positivity movement, which itself is a jumble of corporate slogans and genuine empowerment that has proven difficult to wade through.

But while it’s empowering and encouraging to see someone over a size 10 leading a workout routine or giving the recipe their favourite post-gym smoothie, this “everyday” fitness maven trend is full of harmful imagery and ideas too. I say this because despite the work of Jessamyn Stanley and Roz the Diva, most of the super popular fitness accounts are run by two slim conventionally attractive white women (though this may have something to do with who Instagram “thinks” I am). Two of the accounts in this latter category are those of Whitney Simmons and Kayla Itsines.

 

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A sample of Kayla Itsines’ Instagram
There are a lot of cool aspects of their channels. On the surface, their videos provide clear guidelines for how to do different exercises, with Simmons focusing on gym activities and Itsines providing a lot of home workouts.

The problem arises when you look at the actual content of these accounts. Ultimately, Itsines and Simmons aren’t selling you empowerment or encouragement. Itsines is literally selling a freemium model app and workout/lifestyle regime, and both are selling you the idea that with a little sweat and some pastel-hued tights, you can look just like them.

It’s one thing to enjoy the workouts but it’s another thing entirely for these influencers, whose bodies set just as unrealistic a standard as any other model’s, to govern how we see ourselves.

If our sense of how we “should” look, if the mirror we are gazing in, is still coming from this highly idealized point very few — if any — of us can actually achieve, have we actually circumvented the problematic parts of the body positive movement? It doesn’t feel like it. Our quest for self-improvement keeps us coming back to these videos with the hope that if we just try a little harder, we can be the “better” versions of ourselves these influencers promise. We’re trying to transform our bodies into someone else’s. In so doing, we run the risk of becoming a stranger to ourselves.

This brings to mind French psychoanalyst Lacan’s concept of the “mirror stage”: the subject’s fascination with, and relation to, their image is a source of desire and a source of self-alienation.

An illustration of the mirror stage as regards body image

As we identify with these trim, be-spandexed social media personalities, do we begin to use them as our mirrors? Looking at someone else and desiring to be not-me, our own flawed bodies can begin to feel like they’re not really us. If so, this can be incredibly devastating for our real capacity to construct a self-authorized self-image.

What is perhaps unusual about the modern cases of Instagram fitness influencers is that, unlike more “traditional” cases of false advertising, interactors, in this case followers, do have a sense of the unrealistic nature of what these accounts try to sell. There’s an element of self-denial involved; we’re trying to deny our own vulnerability as it relates to health and wellness, our own body shape and size and it’s costing us. In our endless quest to “better” ourselves, we settle either for a fantasy or for self-hate, willfully misleading ourselves about our bodies and distorting how we see ourselves in the mirror.

The time for setting resolutions may be past us for the year, but it doesn’t mean we have to be stuck in these views. Exercising should be fun, it should put a smile on your face. And if Instagram influencers’ workouts are doing that for you, then all the power to you. But, if four weeks into 2019 you’re discouraged by the fact that you don’t look like someone who makes their living showing you that there is supposedly a way to look like them without their genetics, spare time, or plethora of Gymshark leggings, maybe hit pause on the videos and take some time to appreciate yourself for who you are, as you are.

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