As a digital native, I'm a big supporter of people being able to build their personal brand and reputation online. I think social media and blogging are great tools for people to express themselves and celebrate what's going on in their lives. So before I dive in too deep to this blog post I want to make something very clear: "influencers" aren't bad, and I'm not shaming anyone for being an influencer or following influencers.
What I am talking about, however, is how toxic it can be to take influencers at face value. Even more toxic than confusing social media with reality is comparing yourself to the influencers you follow.
Fitspo is Bullshit
Let’s start by defining the types of influencers I was following. Right now, I’m in a stage of life where my fitness is a top priority for me. On a very practical level, I love feeling stronger and more confident in my own skin, and as a person who deals with pretty significant depression, it is critical for me to take every opportunity possible to get my endorphins flowing.
The more I saw myself getting stronger (in terms of performance, not necessarily in the mirror), the more I wanted to keep growing. The more I hunted after information and new knowledge that I could apply, the more I came across fitness influencers on Instagram.
You know the type- you’ve seen the type. They’re buff and muscly and somehow live in lavish apartments in desirable areas despite seeming to only ever be in the gym and not at work. Luxury fashion brands and car brands sponsor them, and they seem to be making money hand over fist by walking around without shirts on and showing everybody their tattoos and six-packs while holding up a bottle of [insert supplement here] and making a caption about how life-changing and magical that product is. They probably have an OnlyFans page too… but it’s just for their “more risqué modeling photos.” After all, if you just ask them, it’s not porn or queerbaiting- it’s art.
So many of these influencers branded themselves with their bodies, and one of their claims to Insta-fame was that they were fitspiration, or fitspo for short; people you could look at when you want fitness inspiration- people you should apparently aspire to look and be like if you’re on a fitness regimen.
And for a while, that’s what I did. I’d see someone posting about their vacation in Bali and how they could chug daiquiris on the beech in their itty-bitty speedos without their stomachs ever looking less flat. How they could go hiking in locations worthy of National Geographic photoshoots with barely more on than a pair of hiking boots and not have a single drop of sweat, no zits or freckles on their shoulders, no stray hair anywhere, or even a damn tan line.
At first, I thought this was the so-called fitspiration. I wanted to have a body like that, right? And seeing them would make me want to go to the gym and work on it, right?
Wrong. I can’t think of a single time that seeing a fitness influencer on Instagram made me put down a cookie or go to the gym. Instead, wanting to feel great for my workday or recognizing how much better my back has been feeling makes me want to go to the gym; having regular bowel movements, feeling energized, and struggling with my mental health less and less have motivated me to keep eating right.
The only thing looking at fitness influencers on Instagram ever did for me was to make me feel bad about myself. Seeing them and the lives they lived made me feel like the progress I’ve made in my own fitness journey was insignificant. I didn’t look like the ideal that was in front of me, so why should I celebrate the progress I’ve made?
I was undermining my own progress with body positivity and self-worth by comparing myself to people who have had years of personal training, serious practice with Facetune, and who has crafted a very specific narrative about what their life looks life publicly even though it likely looks very different when the cameras aren’t around.
While I’m sure that plenty of these influencers are fine, decent people in person, their online presence reinforces the idea that there’s some form of perfection that we should be trying to attain. Whether unintentionally or not, they double down on a sense of ideal beauty that people have quite literally lost their lives to try to attain. Working out because I love the way it makes me feel is incompatible with working out because I want to fit some form of prescribed masculine beauty.
Teddy Roosevelt summed it up pretty succinctly when he wrote that “comparison is the thief of joy.” You can’t celebrate your successes and victories when you’re measuring your progress against someone’s results, and you definitely can’t celebrate when you compare your progress against the façade of someone else’s results.
My New Metric for Who to Follow
Following people and connecting with folks around the world is one of the great things we can do with social media. Now, I just try to be more selective about who it is that I try to connect with, and my selectivity starts with learning to listen to my gut.
Before I follow someone (and while I was going on my unfollowing spree), I asked myself a simple question: do this person's posts bring me anything positive, or am I just comparing myself to them?
It's sort of like the "spark joy" philosophy. If I can look at someone's posts and feel a human connection with them, they stay. If not, they go. No hard feelings, no resentment– just hitting unfollow and moving on.