It doesn’t take an investigative journalist to start uncovering the sheer lack of ethics and care that poisons the health and fitness industry.  The global fitness industry is worth over $80 billion annually, whilst the US vitamin and supplement market is estimated to be worth around $37 billion annually.  Both of these markets are growing, and with such astronomical figures being spent, you would expect human well-being to be increasing somewhat correlatively.  However, we know this isn’t the case.

A paradox exists where we’re dropping more cash on gym memberships and fat burners, yet as a population, are continually getting fatter and fatter.  Add in the fact that rates of eating disorders and body dissatisfaction are also on the rise and you have one confusing and complex problem.  How does this happen?

I have no doubt that on a micro level, individual fitness professionals are actively attempting to improve the health of their clients and community.  However on a macro level, it may suggest that the industry is using unhealthy messages to sell products that do not work long term, whilst fostering an environment that might as well actively promote body dysmorphia.

Making Money off Body Dissatisfaction

Balancing ethics and sales is no mean feat, particularly when there is a competitive advantage to lie and deceive consumers.  A fitness or supplement company is not going to provide an accurate overview of what their product (or the ingredients it contains) has actually been able to achieve in clinical research, when their competitor is using every manipulative tool in the book to mislead consumers and drive sales.

I believe there are two key moral failures companies make when driving these sales.  The first deserves separate attention and I therefore won’t elaborate on it too much here.  It is the false promise of results from over-hyped products that at best only achieve short term results, and at worst cause harm to the individuals back pocket and health.

The second – and main focus of this piece – precedes the former moral failure. Put simply, it is the unrealistic image sold to consumers of what they’re meant to look like.  I am far from the first person to write about this rather glaring observation, however I do want to explore a new manifestation of it.  Because whilst companies have been sending this unrelenting message for years, the rise of social media has given this old devil a new face; that of the social media influencer.

The Rise of Fitness on Social

Social media has made “health and fitness” mainstream, which on face value looks an entirely positive thing.  Surely the fact that an increasing number of people are moving away from an unhealthy lifestyle and towards one of “health” cannot be a bad thing?

However the thousands of inspiring stories of transformation that we see on social might not be indicative of what is happening across the country.  Obesity rates are still on the up, with 7 million Australians estimated to be obese by the year 2025.  Given these individual stories show that the unrelenting fitness message being driven on social can in fact impact change, I would be curious as to see how widespread that benefit is.  Especially when there is an inherent dark side that needs addressing: the unrealistic body image sold to everyone on social platforms.

Unattainable has Become Seemingly “Attainable”

We used to look at the physiques of professional athletes as (somewhat rightly) unattainable.  It makes sense that people who lack the means and time necessary to train for hours a day, will not carry around the physique of someone who does.  However what we see on social is a plethora of seemingly “everyday” people who achieve the “optimal” physique.  These individuals often then become celebrities in their own right, posting what is now no longer considered an unrealistic or unattainable physique.  This causes a huge shift in the mindset of those viewing these images.

Whilst there is a certain level of inspiration that one can draw from such physiques, they also foster a widespread sense of personal responsibility and guilt (I have argued against complete personal responsibility here).

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An Unrealistic Image with a Façade of Balance and Self-Security

However what makes this sinister on the part of the influencers is that the story they are portraying is not entirely indicative of what their physique looks like on a daily basis; nor the head start they may or may not have had in obtaining it (genes, socioeconomic status, upbringing etc.); and lastly, the strict and often all-consuming lifestyle they need to lead in maintaining it.

There is something to be said for the irony of a person who dedicates most of their time and effort to image, sprouting messages of self-love and balance.  Whilst I am an advocate of doing what one wishes (within obvious reason), I believe this comes into question when what one wishes influences the actions of thousands of followers.

I don’t believe any research could be conducted to quantify the net good that social media influencers produce.  However, I speculate that for every “follower” inspired to change their lifestyle habits for the better, another may be motivated down the dangerous path of “starve, binge, guilt, repeat”, increased body-dissatisfaction, and other disordered eating behaviours.

I also wouldn’t hesitate to guess that a decent portion of influencers suffer from such behaviours themselves; whether that be restricting calories, orthorexia, or similar.  It is well known that athletes are an at-risk population for the development of body image concerns and disordered eating.  This is largely due to the “unique pressures” they face in the sport environment; particularly in those that are judged on body composition and looks.

According to the NEDC:

“Disordered eating in athletes is characterised by a wide spectrum of maladaptive eating and weight control behaviours and attitudes. Although the extent of disordered eating in athletes is unclear, prevalence estimates have ranged as high as 62% among female athletes and 33% among male athletes (Bonci et al., 2008).”

Most social media influencer’s would fall into this high risk group.  That does not mean that every fitness influencer on Instagram is suffering an eating disorder and sprouting off a pro ED message.  However it only takes a 60 second scroll of any fitness hashtag to notice that the prevalence estimates above may well be true.

The Need for Responsibility and Change

It is as obvious a statement as any that companies need to change their tune.  However I am about as optimistic of such change as I am of winning the lottery.  In so far as that marketing employees can have an impact on their own companies message, I believe they have an ethical responsibility to do so; myself included.

However, there is also a high level of responsibility that rests with influencers to show a true picture of their health, and to send a message that reduces guilt and body dissatisfaction, whilst simultaneously fostering balance and promoting realistic goals.  Thankfully, there seems to be a new wave of influencers moving in this direction.  Given their huge impact on shifting the thoughts, feelings, and desires of consumers, I am more optimistic that this is where the change will come from; as we know that successful companies follow market demand.

A Parting Note on Health, Fitness and Well-being

Every individual deserves to feel good about themselves and lead a healthy lifestyle.  For that reason, I would never argue against implementing a sound training and dietary regime to maintain good fitness levels and achieve a healthy body composition.  In fact I would suggest it as necessary.  However, beyond achieving such a goal, this lie that the better you look, the better you will feel is a complete myth.  In fact, attempting to attribute ones self-worth to something so temporary and volatile, is a sure fire way to leave that person feeling broken and empty when things inevitably change (to one degree or another).

Nevertheless, it is worth adding that a balanced training regime and diet has saved many people from the depths of an eating disorder.  If we get the message right, the value of this industry can have a huge impact.

As a final parting note – and before any resentment begins to brew for said athletes or influencer’s – it is wise to remember that firstly, these individuals are in some sense victims of an environment carved by decades of “health and fitness” marketing messages, and lastly, might be battling body image demons themselves.

 

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Should you be looking for support for an eating disorder or body image issues (for yourself or someone you know) please get in contact with the Butterfly Foundation on their National Helpline (1800 33 4673).