The bad press has triggered a pivot to what has been dubbed “healthspo” by clinical psychologist Louise Adams, who specialises in body image. With fitness influencers not wanting to be seen to be focused on the physique and contributing to poor mental wellbeing, many now draw on all sorts of wellness messages – be it about nutrition, meditation and body positivity – but still intermeshed with images of the same sculpted bodies.
“What we have at the moment is health messaging that’s eat well, exercise like this, have a smattering of spirituality like mindfulness, you’ll even see charitable stuff to nod to social justice issues – but if it’s still promoted by thin, white young bodies, then what’s changed?” asks Adams.
The health halo makes this new iteration of fitspo almost “uncriticisable”, Adams says: “Who on earth can argue against health?” She likens it to Weight Watchers changing its name to WW and using the tagline “wellness that works”.
Dr Jasmine Fardouly, a research fellow at Macquarie University’s Centre for Emotional Health, has noticed this shift and says it’s possible that it could be less harmful if fitspo influencers with idealised bodies posted more health messages – and there is evidence suggesting this – “but it’s potentially better to not look at them at all,” she adds.
Adams is of the belief that incorporating broader wellness into fitspo only heaps more pressure on followers to do more to achieve a particular look. “It’s the same kind of set of rules but you have to do even more, it’s exhausting.”
It’s a wolf in sheep’s clothing that keeps reinventing itself.
Dr Scott Griffiths
Dr Scott Griffiths, a University of Melbourne researcher who focuses on male body image, is troubled by fitspo’s evolution.
“It’s a wolf in sheep’s clothing that keeps reinventing itself. Lifestyle wellness and body positivity are the latest to be co-opted into fitspiration.”
Most obvious, Griffiths says, is the way fitspo hijacked body positivity, which began as a movement in the 1960s to end discrimination based on body weight.
“Once it got to Instagram and reached wider audiences, it started being championed and co-opted by those who misunderstood its original intent,” he says.
“If you search body positivity now on Instagram, most bodies are not fat bodies. Usually it’s people posting in a fitspiration context and using the language of self-love as the prism through which to still sell and cater to the anxieties of how we look.”
As a whole, Australians do need to move more. The 2014-15 National Health Survey found that a third of Australian adults engaged in low levels of physical activity and 15 per cent were completely inactive.
The Butterfly Foundation’s national prevention manager Danni Rowlands believes the intentions of fitness influencers are often good, but she has seen first-hand how fitspo can trigger people who are vulnerable to eating disorders and body dysmorphia.
“Encouraging people to move and find activities they enjoy is really important but unfortunately what ends being the by-product … is a new body ideal,” Rowlands says.
Challenging the fitspo mould
Fardouly believes fitness can exist on Instagram in a way that isn’t potentially damaging. She points to the This Girl Can campaigns in both Victoria and in the UK, which she praises for featuring diverse bodies and spotlighting the function of the body and exercising for fun and for health, not for appearance.
And this may in fact be more effective at motivating people to move than classic fitspo. Exclusive data from VicHealth finds more than three-quarters of women are motivated to get moving after seeing diverse bodies exercising, and one in seven women were inspired by This Girl Can to get active in Victoria during coronavirus restrictions.
“That’s the model I’d like to see the fitness industry moving more towards,” says Shelley Lask, a Melbourne-based body positive personal trainer.
Lask is aware that the accounts of trainers like her don’t look like the typical fitspo feed. Rather than posting the same body over and over again, she deliberately rarely shows her own body and shares more text-based posts. Lask is firmly against the industry trope that “your body is your business card”.
But, she says, her method is “not really rewarded by Instagram” in the form of user reach, so she finds herself using the platform less.
“There are millions of accounts posting the same sort of images, following the formula for success of other people despite the harm it causes,” she says.
Among her pet hates are the ever-popular before-and-after images of people’s bodies at the beginning versus during their fitness journeys, which Lask says reinforces a body hierarchy. And more recently, there’s been the “Instagram vs. reality” trend, with people sharing what their tummy might look like in a stylised, posed photo versus normally in real-life.
“I’m hearing from a lot of people in larger bodies that they feel excluded by that,” Lask says. “Not everyone can stand up straighter and their body rolls are gone.”
Fellow body inclusive trainer, Shreen El Masry, from Sydney, is very deliberate about rarely showing bodies on her Instagram, where she has almost 6000 followers.
“I use a lot of quotes and infographics, and even there I try to use diverse body types,” says El Masry, before adding that she believes this space is “just going to get bigger”.
While Australia is just catching on, there are far more body positive fitness influencers overseas with large followings.
Take Lauren Leavell, from Philadelphia, USA, who started her Instagram account seven years ago initially to document her weight loss before becoming an inclusive fitness instructor in 2017.
“I had my days of playing into ‘transformation’ photos and I don’t feel like reclaiming those in the name of ‘body positivity’,” says Leavell, who has 38,000 Instagram followers.
Leavell has a problem with fitspo morphing into “healthspo”.
“What health means to each individual can vary so much, I think the suggestion of ‘do this to look like me and be healthy’ is totally missing the mark,” she says.
People have often told me they never thought they could do yoga until they saw a body like mine doing yoga.
Meanwhile Dianne Bondy, from Ontario, Canada, has forged a career as an inclusive yoga teacher, now counting 72,000 followers on Instagram.
“People have often told me they never thought they could do yoga until they saw a body like mine doing yoga,” Bondy says.
“We are still seeing idealised, able-bodied, cisgender, conventionally attractive young white bodies dominating the fitspo field. It’s not a truthful representation. It’s dangerous.”
‘It won’t be as pretty but that’s the point’
But for a non-harmful version of fitness influencing to take off, this would require a serious change in mindset from fitspo creators and followers alike around what it means to be healthy and what we accept as the ideal Instagram aesthetic – tight crop tops and careful poses. As Fardouly says, realistic images of people exercising “is not very Instagram”.
Adams says: “It won’t be as pretty but that’s the point … Instagram is all so performative and perfect and we need to get away from that.”
It also will take more work from influencers. It’s easy to take photos of yourself after slapping on Lorna Jane leggings or working out at the beach, Adams says, but ensuring you’re sharing diverse bodies is more time-intensive.
For Melbourne’s Steph Claire Smith and Laura Henshaw, co-founders of fitness program Keep It Cleaner, featuring more diverse bodies has been key to helping their 312,000 Instagram followers feel reflected.
“Steph and I both started out as models, in an industry built on how you look. We’ve both been victims of poor body image and compromised mental wellbeing from [that environment],” Henshaw says.
Smith adds: “We don’t believe in before-and-after transformation shots, we instead like to talk about how we feel when we are taking care of ourselves.”
Gold Coast-based fitness influener Ashy Bines, who has 1 million followers, acknowledges her Instagram account rarely features other bodies and says it’s because she is “conscious of the trolling and body shaming it can attract”. She adds that platforms for her activewear label celebrate all bodies instead.
Barrie Elvish, chief executive of Fitness Australia, sees fitness influencing as a “double-edged sword”. “We encourage diversity in messaging and imagery across all media formats, including our own that in the past has been too narrow in representation,” Elvish says.
The peak body, which has eating disorder guidelines and mental health courses, is currently exploring how the fitness industry can more broadly be better regulated. Separately, Fitness Institute Australia recently launched a course aimed at educating influencers on posting more responsibly.
Advice for navigating Instagram from Dr Sandro Demaio, VicHealth CEO
- Avoid following influencers who overrepresent an idealised body
- Follow people who are qualified to provide the advice they’re dishing out
- The most powerful thing you can do is to use the “unfollow” button on accounts that don’t make you feel good
- Follow people who promote exercise for health reasons, and not just in the comments they’re making but in the actual images they’re posting
Philip Chua, Instagram’s head of public policy for Asia-Pacific, says the company is committed to combatting body image issues on the platform, having partnered with the Butterfly Foundation to launch body positivity campaigns and to guide users on improving their feeds.
Griffiths is less sure that fitness influencing can ever be truly positive. He worries that as a collective we have “fingers in our ears” pretending that what motivates us to exercise isn’t our appearance.
“Being worried about being attractive is a totally normal worry to have but we live in a world that doesn’t, in aggregate, take those anxieties and treat them with kindness – it treats them with products and services. We’d do well to be much more wary of that.”
If you or anyone you know needs support, call the Butterfly Foundation national helpline on 1800 334 673.
Get a little more outta life
Sophie is Deputy Lifestyle Editor for The Age and Sydney Morning Herald.