I remember when being fit was an end unto itself. It was about the discipline, the training, and the diet. It was about enjoying the hard work. Enjoying the sacrifice. And yes, enjoying even the occasional suffering. It was about taking what we learned about ourselves in the gym and applying it outside the gym. It was about making our lives BETTER. It wasn’t so much lifting more weight or running more miles (although that was certainly a part of it), it was enjoying the challenge and just trying to be better than you were the day before. As George Sheehan was fond of saying, “Don’t be concerned if running or exercise will add years to your life, be concerned with adding life to your years.” We really were trying to add life to our years. It was not about likes, comments, or seeking out unnecessary supplements. We did the work FOR ourselves. We didn’t need an inauthentic inspirational quote from books we’ve never read every time we touched a weight or ran a marathon. It was about showing up and training with no distractions, no need to document every workout, just old fashioned sweat and hard work. It was a necessarily solitary pursuit.
But social media changed us.
The rise of social media has with it elevated every good and bad thing about ourselves. Who we are shows up online, warts and all. Even what we choose NOT to post reveals something about us. So it’s little surprise that our insecurities and pathologies tend to take most of the bandwidth of our social media influence. If we are not healthy, our social media won’t be either. And looking at the average Instagram fitness model or athlete, we are sick indeed.
A few months ago I saw yet another Instagram fitness model showing her hard won chiseled abs, but in doing so she was lifting her breasts up as well (this has become a common way for women to show their abs), which as we all know is about as useful as holding a spoon at the same time as showing your abs. I thought, “I’m so old I remember when women showed their abs without touching their breasts.” What could have been a moment of displaying hard work and discipline became simply another tedious moment of sexualizing the female form (and don’t misunderstand, I don’t care what people do with their bodies nor am I telling women what to do with theirs, but when one’s message is attempting to demonstrate the rewards or hard work and discipline, and it becomes sexualized, the message is muddled, perhaps lost altogether). It becomes, in a sense, pornography (in the sense of Orson Welles's idea of pornography being antipathetic to films or higher forms because pornography is accomplishing quite a different aim than than any other project, in other words, pornography or the excitation of one sexually, cannot be introduced to any other project as it is its antithesis). The constant sexualizing of the body and in general just the fetishizing of “health” is one of my biggest pet peeves in the health and fitness industry of which men and women are both guilty. Why does working out and eating healthily have to be sexualized, so much so that too many people live “the lifestyle” for reasons not at all connected with health? But to leverage for endorsements? For sex? For fame? Health and wellness is largely accidental. It’s not for self-knowledge, not deepening one’s relationship to self, culture, and nature, not understanding who we are as humans, just a crass cash grab.
This is not new of course. Health and wellness can be used for all manner of reasons, but this seems to be a modern pathology of the 21st century. I see both men and women now hyper-aware of their image so much so that even in family photos family members are now “angling” or refuse to take photos at all because they feel they cannot live up to an impossible standard of beauty or fitness. It has reached the point that many people curate their online image so much so that if they were to be seen in real life no one would recognize them. We have a generation right now that if they became a Missing Person no one would ever find them because no picture of them actually resembles them! To be so hyper fixated on image is, I believe, unhealthy and not well. The opposite of health and wellness.
What we may be seeing is culture-created Body Dysmorphic Disorder (BDD). It is well-documented that with the rise of the 80s action movies came with it a focus on physical culture and a new awareness of body image. We can simply look at the evolution of the G.I. Joe doll from an average looking healthy man to today, a hyper muscular super athlete. How does this make young boys feel? Studies show (see the illuminating work of Katherine A. Phillips, among others) it makes them feel absolutely horrible, so much so that by puberty boys already feel bad about their bodies, a phenomenon that simply didn’t exist decades ago when healthier images of men were the norm. And don’t even get me started with Barbie. We as a culture are undermining the self-confidence of our healthy children, indoctrinating them with impossible standards of beauty and body-image when they are the most emotionally compromised simply to sell them supplements, exercise programs, and beauty products as adults.
The rise of the Instagram fitness model is a direct result of this culture, many of them themselves suffering from BDD, and although by most standards appear to be perfect in appearance, inside they feel as if they are grotesque, fat, or weak. We are all right now locked in this cycle of impossible beauty and fitness standards. The models suffer, their followers suffer, and the culture at large suffers. We’ve been sold a bill of goods that we must look a certain way to be healthy and it’s making us all miserable. We are all spending hours in the gym when the rest of our lives need us. We are prioritizing the gym over relationships, over careers, over emotional, psychological and intellectual health, over many other pursuits that would provide value and meaning to our lives. Instead of living balanced complete lives, we are living in the gym, all our eggs in that one limited basket. This is to have completely missed the point of health and wellness. This is again neither healthy nor well behavior.
For far too many fitness models it’s not even about health, but appearance. How many people would still lift weights, do yoga, etc. if it turned out it made you slightly fatter (but healthier)? What if your idea of strong didn’t match up to what men and women think of as sexy? Would you still strive to be strong? Would you still be proud of your body and post pics of it? I doubt it.
Now, I see nothing inherently wrong with using sex to sell a healthier lifestyle or a deeper relationship with the body. But this isn’t exactly what’s happening. If you leave your dick out while you happen to be lifting weights or are half naked when running, knock yourself out. If you are suggestively touching yourself in your pics demonstrating your fitness, again, knock yourself out. But we can do better, can’t we? As an industry, we can be better can’t we? Why can’t we offer up content meant to nurture not only the body, but the mind and soul? Why can’t we value psychological health as much as physical health? Monitoring our emotional well-being as how much as our weight? Why can’t self-actualization be at the forefront of our goals? If it’s not, what point is being physically healthy? If we have arrested development in our moral, psychological, emotional, and intellectual lives who really cares if we have abs?
I see fitness celebrities all the time posting online as if they were teenagers, their asses poked out, their bodies at awkward angles to accentuate their body shape, filters on their faces, emojis on their naked nipples, and putting forth beliefs developmentally appropriate for 8 year olds. It is cringe-worthy.
We can do better. We can BE better.
Will it be more difficult? Definitely. Will it be as flashy? Nope. Will you lose followers and get less likes? Likely. But we will be on the onramp of a healthier and happier culture. The health and fitness industry can actually for once live up to its name. We can demonstrate a mature way of being, confident in understanding the nature of the self, striving to always create a deeper relationship to life and the kosmos. The body is but the vehicle. It is merely the means through which we understand ourselves and the universe. To mistake the vehicle for the universe, to simply keep it shiny, is to have missed the point of the body, which is to use it to delve deep within it and mine its treasures in order to make them known to the world. But if we never get past the flesh, the soul will forever be an undiscovered country.
The old Instagram fitness model is, as an idea, obsolete. In its place is a new kind of Instagram fitness model, embodying mindfulness, integrity, wholeness, psychological and emotional maturity, and authenticity. It will be some time before this new model is valued, but as a culture, we’re ready. With every new like, comment, and follow of the old Instagram fitness model, the need for a new one is further demonstrated.
The world needs you.