It’s hard to argue that Instagram isn’t the current powerhouse of social media, AKA, digital #goals. Although Facebook still has the largest number of members, Instagram is arguably the fastest growing and most innovative platform around. Then again, Facebook owns Instagram, so when Instagram wins, Facebook wins, too.
I was in the middle of my college career (2011-2012) when Instagram started to surpass other popular platforms like Tumblr, Vine, Pinterest, etc. Snapchat was also on the rise during this era, which has grown to be a top competitor with Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook. During this time, I was brainstorming what I wanted to write about for my senior thesis. After very little contemplation [actually], I decided to study the growth of Instagram – more specifically, how young females have used Instagram to help shape their self-presentation. By conducting a focus group and extensive literature review, I observed how Millennial women use this social media platform to manipulate their own image in order to portray themselves in a more attractive/appealing light than their own reality (My full paper is available here on my LinkedIn page).
I conducted a focus group of girls to talk about Instagram for two hours (and fed them pizza), sat in the library for 12+ hours/day reading books and articles on social media, branding, marketing, digital space, etc. Although this may sound daunting, all of this work heightened my interest in the digital world even more. I have grown to be obsessed with the psychology behind social media, and how it has changed the way we communicate and behave. What I have learned about Instagram through my research & personal observations over the past five years is that deep down, most of us just want to be cool. We want people to think we ‘have it all,’ or admire us in some way. Most of us care way too much about what other people think of us because we lack self-awareness, and we don’t put in the effort to improve it. Instead, we just try to conform our image to what society approves of (that’s easier & less detrimental to our self-esteem, 😉 ).
It is not surprising that more than half of Instagram’s users are female. Females are typically more [openly] insecure than males, therefore, they are the ones on Instagram proactively trying to modify their image. As a female who’s had a minimal amount of confidence for most of my life, I can relate to the insecurity that many females feel about their overall image. We are constantly bombarded with images of size 0 models on magazines and billboards, of course we feel “fat” when our stomachs and legs don’t look like those of Gigi Hadid, Kendall Jenner, or Blake Lively. Instagram avoids the messiness of Facebook: no event invites, long statuses that no one cares about, game invitations, 172 photos in 1 album to scroll through, etc. Instagram is the #1 photo of your 68 photos you took on Saturday night. It’s the #goals of your camera roll. Instagram highlights the most exciting and most flattering parts of your life, and leaves everything else shoved under the bed.
When I conducted my focus group in college, the girls in the group mentioned how they would alter the lighting in rooms, move furniture around, and take photos from multiple different angles in order to see which view is the most flattering. In terms of taking “selfies,” they would always turn to their best or “skinniest” angle, and make sure their most attractive assets were show off. The term “natty lighting” came about, where people typically look their best – shadows and light all placed in the perfect places (natural lighting, FYI ;).
“Natty lighting” was most likely coined in the Fitspo Community of Instagram. The Fitspo Movement started in 2013-2015, just when Instagram was getting big. Both men and women (predominantly women) were starting to post fitness content on their Instagram page, creating their own ‘fitness journey.’ Most people started to branch out from their personal Instagram, and created a separate page just for their fitness/health content. Content included images of their meals, selfies from the gym, video stills from their workout, motivational quotes, etc. The people who were posting this type of content were also more muscular, curvier, and vascular than typical fitness images on the covers of magazines. These men and women were showing off their muscles and curves, flexing their biceps and quads, and eating more than a salad and boiled chicken for lunch. Of course, this seemed like an incredibly positive and inspirational movement. The confidence they portrayed with this overall healthy-looking image was something that people gladly jumped on board with.
I was one of the young females who became incredibly intrigued with this moment. To this day, I contribute a part of my recovery from anorexia to the fitspo movement. These females had curves, muscles, and confidence… everything that I was lacking. I was ready to break ties with my eating disorder, and escape a lifetime of starvation and misery.
I started following many of these female lifters and bodybuilders on Instagram. I studied their meals, their workouts, and their attitudes. Slowly but consistently, I put on weight, and started to see muscles form in the mirror. You can read more about this here in my piece about recovering from my eating disorder.
Fast forward from 2013 to 2017, and the fitspo community of Instagram has drastically transformed, and not for the better. As social media marketing has become a powerful piece of advertising, the fitspo community has essentially been taken over by these “insta-famous models.” Before, young female fitspos seemed genuine about helping others and sharing their fitness tips with their fans across the globe. Now, the fitspo community has evolved into what seems like a hidden advertisement of eating disorders and mediocre products.
When you browse the fitness community on Instagram now, you are bombarded with posts of half-naked girls holding up a tub of some processed supplement persuading you that it will pretty much change your life. The brand PEScience has grown to be one of the most ANNOYING AF companies on Instagram. Their “athletes” are usually females who have participated in a bodybuilding competition (usually the Bikini division), and have predominantly slim bodies. Just go to their Instagram now — whenever a person is holding one of their products, it’s usually (1) a female (2) a female in a sports bra (3) a female with much cleavage and/or (4) a female with a dark tan and face of makeup. Based on the reviews I have read about their products, they are average. Protein powder is protein powder, and most of it is heavily processed and laced with artificial sweeteners or colors. Those super natural protein powders typically taste pretty bad on their own, hence why ‘Processed Powerhouse’ PEScience has flavors like “snicker doodle cookie” and “chocolate peanut butter cup.”
PEScience is just one company that has completely flooded our fitness feeds. There are hundreds of others such as: Bite Meals, Gymshark, Alphalete, Icon Meals, etc. I have only bought from Gymshark of the brands listed above, and I have the same opinion: it’s decent. I ordered leggings from Gymshark, and they are fine, but nothing to brag about. The shipping took forever, the material is quite itchy for me, and their sizing is inconsistent. I have to admit that they do a phenomenal job of digital marketing, and all of their “athletes” are fitness males and females who gained a large following on Instagram from posting selfies 1-3 times a day.
Going off that last point, the female “athletes” for these brands all look eerily similar: small waist, big butt, small arms, big boobs, and toned quads. As stated above, we all work to post the most flattering pictures of ourselves by standing in the best lighting and contorting our body to look the most #goals worthy. However, it seems as if this new “perfect body” is creating a new distortion for young females.
One of the initial positive contributions from the fitspo evolution was the appeal of a heavier and curvier female body. These girls on Instagram weren’t posting about the desire to have a thigh gap, size 22 waist, and a razor sharp jawline. They were eating caloric meals and even some ‘treats’ rather than following a super strict magazine-style diet of salad, water, and fat free yogurt. However, the fitspo movement essentially just created a new community of disordered members by creating this new unrealistic body image and OCD lifestyle of counting macronutrients in [mostly] processed foods.
Many websites have started to write about this topic as the movement has become more negative than positive. People started to write about their experience with counting macronutrients, stating that it simply replaced one eating disorder with another. Some researchers have studied the emotional and mental state of women who have viewed these new fitspo images, and of course, the results were not positive. Women reported to have a worse sense of self image/self esteem after looking at these images of “largely unattainable” body types. Although you may look at some of these images and think, “Largely unattainable? That’s a little dramatic, don’t ya think? They aren’t completely shredded.”
You’re right – most of these women are not insanely vascular unless they are in prep for a competition or photoshoot of some sort. However, most of us work 9-5 jobs, get stuck in hours of commuting, have kids, have a spouse, have a life outside of fitness maybe?!?! I’m not making excuses, of course, since I fortunately have the time to make it to the gym 3-4 times a week (usually). However, these females are typically spending 6-7 days in the gym for 2-3 hours at a time, weighing and measuring every morsel of food they eat (or having their sponsor service mail them meals), and rarely stepping outside their normal routine (I.E. attending work happy hours, birthday parties, weddings, etc). And of course, we cannot forget the fact that most of them are being sent free supplements from their sponsor, or receiving a heavy discount, which includes weight loss pills, appetite suppressants, water pills, caffeine powders, etc. Others may take the other route of just using various steroids extremely popular in the bodybuilding community.
However, I almost don’t even view their actual bodies as unattainable. What I think is more unattainable and especially unrealistic is their overall way of life. These fitspos are advocates of the lifestyle “IIFYM” which stands for “if it fits your macros.” This is interchangeably used with the term “flexible dieting” to advocate eating foods that you want to eat, as long as they fit your macro nutrient goals for the day. This has challenged typical bodybuilding style dieting “clean eating” since it has been criticized of causing binge-eating disorders among competitors post competition. These competitors would essentially live off chicken, rice, and broccoli (or “clean” whole foods) for weeks, and once their competition is over, they would gorge on “dirty” foods like chocolate, candy, and everything else they were deprived of during their prep. I think that BOTH of these dieting methods can work for people, yet I also believe that BOTH of these methods have dangerous effects on one’s mental health.
For example, IIFYM did NOT work for me. I became utterly consumed with counting macronutrients, weighing my food, and carrying measuring spoons everywhere I went. I found this to be a new form of orthorexia, as I would freak out if someone else prepared my food. It was different than my anorexia symptoms because I was actually eating a bunch of different foods and I was ingesting more calories. However, I was obsessed with every gram of carb, protein, and fat I was ingesting. Imagine carrying a food scale to Chiptole? Imagine pulling out a measuring cup at a restaurant? Imagine calculating every carb you ingested every single day? The IIFYM way of life may have helped me increase my caloric intake, but it actually made me more obsessed with measuring, counting, and weighing every single thing I ate. I understand why strict competitors and bodybuilders follow this method, but I have to disagree that this is necessary for the average person trying to live a healthy and balanced lifestyle.
In addition, a lot of these accounts have learned the importance of hastagging – I.E. – including relatable “tags” so other people can find your account or join in on the community. One popular one of course is “#strongisthenewskinny” Although I find this quote catchy & memorable, it’s actually quite disordered when you think about it. The body confidence movement (shown in ads from Dove and Aerie especially) emphasizes how all bodies are beautiful, no matter was size, color, shape, etc. So is “strong is the new skinny” saying that naturally skinny girls are not attractive, cool, inspirational? What this quote is doing is just replacing one desired appearance with another.
Another new hashtag is “#gainingweightiscool.” This one I have less of a problem with, but it is still concerning when you look at the majority of images behind the hashtag. I definitely could see how this phrase is beneficial to girls suffering with eating disorders and afraid to gain weight, like I once was. However, the images associated with this hashtag are mainly girls focusing on showing off the weight gain in their glutes or quads, and still having a relatively small waist. So basically… it’s cool to gain weight, but make sure it goes to your butt and not your stomach, k? -___- The problem with this is that people gain weight in different areas, and it is not possible to spot reduce. This goes back to enforcing the whole unrealistic Barbie image: small waist, big boobs, big butt, long legs. In addition, most of these females have admitted to getting plastic surgery (mostly breast augmentations and/or lip fillers #ThanksKylie) to further dramatize their #ratio #goals. Eye roll.
I do believe that these phrases or hashtags were created to help people and motivate them. However, the problem arises when one obvious look with similar derivatives are associated with these phrases. We are comically living in the era of the butt – the butt is EVERYWHERE on Instagram. Forget boob guys – we want BUTTS. Most of these fitspos have released redundant “Build your Booty” guides – charging naive teenagers plans that you most likely find for free on Bodybuilding.com. I get it that they want to make money, but half of these people do NOT release the fact they are not a certified trainer, nutritionist, or health professional. And no, they are not required to tell us this, but Jesus Christ… what ever happened to just joining Instagram for just some fitness tips and camaraderie? Now, 20 year olds are selling identical plans that you can find online for FREE, and posting a photo of their butt at least once a day to grow their following of helpless brainwashed girls.
I get it, you’re proud of the butt you built and you want to show it off – cool. I also went from pancake butt to a little somethin’ somethin’, but I don’t feel the need to post a picture of my behind every single day since you know what, there is MORE to me than my butt. I rather share a photo of me enjoying a night out with my friends, a good book I just read, an outfit I really liked, etc. These girls complain they are not taken seriously, but they are setting themselves up for it. Men have NO right to disrespect women – no matter what they wear or how they pose – however, ya think that saying that will make men change? Nope. Assholes aren’t going away anytime soon, and I hate to admit that sexism isn’t either. If you want to limit your chances of being disrespected on the Internet (which we get it, you shouldn’t be) and getting called a THOT, then I suggest limit the pictures you are posting in your thong. You are taking the risk of building a career in the most openly and constantly critical field there is: social media. Therefore, you should be ready for the criticism and know how to handle it. Just admit it, you know that #SexSells and at the end of the day, you’ll take more attention and more money over a few fan-letters from mindless teenagers.
After that last paragraph of going off on an aggressive tangent, I will close this piece here. I’m thankful that I am in a state of recovery where I am not triggered by photos on the internet like I was once before. Of course, I have some days where it is still hard since I genetically do not have a small waist, and I genetically store fat on my arms. This goes against the #goals images of famous “Instagram Models” like Katy Hearn and Nikki Blackketter. These two are known for their petite frames, incredible ratios, and large butts. While these two females are inevitably harmless, their rise to fame clarifies one thing: there has been a particular image created from the evolution of the fitspo movement, which continues to be extremely unrealistic to maintain for the average woman. All we have done is replaced one small and bony body with a small and toned one.