A look behind the scenes of your favourite Instagram fitness models
The Instagram fitness world is a funny place.
While there are a handful of legitimately amazing athletes worth following, most of the big influencers you’ll find are fitness models - people who straddle that fine and ever-shifting line between beauty and health.
There’s no doubt that most Instagram fitness celebrities have their hearts in the right place. From Kayla Itsines to Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, the culture is all about inspiring you to become the strongest, healthiest and sexiest version of yourself. The inspiration is delivered, of course, via jaw-dropping pictures of human specimens in peak physical condition, captioned with some sort of fluffy, heartfelt message.
There’s no denying that Instagram fitness models have made a positive difference to millions of people around the world - the countless grateful comments from people who have been inspired to change their lives are a testament to that. At the same time, however, it has to be said that the culture can be guilty of encouraging unhealthy eating habits and promoting an unrealistic paradigm of beauty.
Fetishising unattainable bodies
As with any social media platform, Instagram is little more than a curated highlight reel of a person’s life.
Why’s this a problem?
Well, in many ways, it’s just an extension of what fashion magazines have been doing for decades: setting an unrealistic standard of beauty. Check out your favourite Instagram model’s feed. For every jaw-dropping photo of a rippling striated chest or perfectly sculpted quads, there are probably hundreds of images on their camera roll that didn’t make the cut.
We don’t blame them for only uploading their best snaps - who doesn’t want to look good? The issue lies in the fact that we subconsciously interpret these photos as an accurate representation of the real world when, in fact, they are elaborately staged to enhance the model’s physique and hide their flaws.
Here are just some of the ways models can manipulate how they look:
Timing: Bodybuilders typically use bulk/cut cycles to gain lean muscle. Most photos you’ll see on Instagram are taken during those few weeks when they’re at their leanest. Men simply do not walk around at 8 percent body fat all year round.
Makeup: Female models are often portrayed with perfect makeup, flattering clothing and their hair professionally done.
Lighting: Good lighting can enhance muscle definition, hide flaws and make a photo look more dramatic.
Steroids: Some Instagram fitness models use anabolic steroids to achieve a physique that may not be possible for natural athletes.
Posing: Knowing how to pose like a pro helps models exaggerate their assets, make their muscles pop and disguise any weak points in their physique.
Editing: Many photos are subtly edited to improve the model’s appearance. Even a simple filter can have a significant effect on a person’s physique.
These techniques allows users to carefully create a perfect, visual feast of a feed and pass it off as candid. And, whether we’re conscious of it or not, we compare ourselves to these photos and start to see the flaws in our own bodies.
Most fitness models are trying to sell something, whether it’s a training program, nutrition plan or clothing range. The way they achieve is this by promoting healthy living, but there’s a growing body of research that shows it might actually be having a detrimental effect on their followers. How?
One of the key arguments in favour of the fitspo movement is that it provides women with better role models than the dangerously thin models seen in traditional fashion magazines. However, research shows this might not be the case. In an investigation by the University of the Sunshine Coast, researchers set out to explore how women responded differently to images of athletic women and fashion models. The results?
“There’s a belief that fitness images create a better ideal to work towards, rather than just being thin,” explained lead researcher Dr Kate Mulgrew. “However, we found the women who viewed the fitness models actually felt worse about themselves than did the women who viewed the traditional models.”
“Exercising and being fit are important things for women to work towards, but these fitness images should not automatically be seen as less harmful to body image.”
As noted, Instagram creates an unrealistic standard of beauty that is almost impossible to attain due to the simple fact that you don’t have much as time to invest in your physique as a professional fitness model. However, when you’re looking at a superficial image it’s all too easy to forget about the complex lifestyles differences that are going on behind the scenes. This can be incredibly frustrating if you follow a diet plan and training program created by your fitness idol, only to find that you’re still not able to achieve their seemingly perfect physique. In turn, this may discourage people from pursuing their health and fitness goals and making positive changes to their habits.
Potentially dangerous communities
The holy grail for many fitness influencers is successfully creating a community that provides active support to others trying to achieve their health and fitness goals. An interesting study published in Body Image explored whether the thinspiration and fitspiration Twitter movements could be considered legitimate communities. Researchers found that the thinspiration tweeters were more supportive and engaging and could be considered a real community.
On the surface, this may sound like a positive thing, but creating this sort of hivemind can be potentially dangerous when it comes to body image and eating habits. Indeed, investigators concluded that “Such a community of support may have negative consequences for collective body image and disordered eating identity.”
Finally, just because someone has managed to attain an impressive physique themselves, it doesn’t necessarily mean that they’re qualified to coach others. Even if they have the knowledge and expertise needed to create an effective training program, the fact that they don’t know your specific physiological strengths, weaknesses, injury history, not to mention your lifestyle and daily mental and physical demand, means there’s a greater risk of something going wrong than if you’d followed the advice of an experienced professional.
The bottom line
Let us reiterate that Instagram fitness personalities are not bad people. Not only have they put in the time and effort to build incredible physiques, they’re also doing their best to inspire their followers to become healthier and fitter versions of themselves. However, due to human tendency to compare ourselves to others and an inability to distinguish curated, edited images from reality, this isn’t always the desired outcome. For most Instagram models, staying fit and looking good is a full time profession. For the rest of us, working out is a hobby - a hobby that we have to squeeze in around our careers, families and a million other things competing for our time, energy and attention.
So, keep taking inspiration from your fitness idols but remember that Instagram is not a reflection of reality.