This week’s blog post is going to be about 5 Ways Social Media Fitness Can Harm our Mental Health (And How to Fix It!). In this post, I will go over ways in which social media can perpetuate misinformation about true fitness, create false expectations and distort body image.
All of these are harmful for our mental health and may lead to issues with body image and eating disorders if left unchecked. I offer six solutions to combat this unrealistic fitness space we are exposed to on social media.
This post refers to fitness content generated in the social media landscape. This includes Instagram, Tik Tok, YouTube, Facebook, Twitter or Pinterest.
Why is consuming misinformation harmful? Which users are more vulnerable to this?
Consuming fitness misinformation in the social media landscape is harmful because it can lead to eating disorders, body dysphormia and can have serious physical and mental health consequences.
Adolescents are more prone to developing these types of issues. “Oftentimes, while intentions for these videos may be good, it brings a negative self-conscious voice to many users (Chan,2020).”
Social Media Literacy
While some advice can be in the best interest of users, unless these sources are verifiable, fact-checked and legitimized can they be taken as absolute truth.
Social media literacy is therefore a crucial skill to circumvent the harmful impacts of misinformation in online spaces.
Tiktok’s Algorithm and why this can be extremely potent in spreading misinformation
We cannot talk about fitness culture on social media without mention of these platforms’ algorithms. Where this becomes a particularly important nuance is with the misinformation being perpetuated on Tik Tok.
Tiktok’s algorithm works by giving users content based on previous activity and searches on the app.
“While one might find a video titled “Workout of the Day,” they will later open the app to find that the only content he or she now receives on TikTok is fitness (Chan,2020).”
Always consider the context and the source when considering the fitness message on social media platforms.
“This is due to the advanced algorithm TikTok uses to find video recommendations for a personalized page. Therefore, it only requires a few interactions with a video, such as a like, comment, or share, before a user’s TikTok feed is completely taken over by fitness and diet culture (Chan,2020).”
This may be a positive characteristic of TikTok provided that the information being received by said user was accurate or even context-specific. This is where discernment is needed.
Hypothetically, one would be faced with multiple sources of information by virtue of this algorithm, always consider the validity of any source you come across by in the many videos that will be delivered on your tiktok feed.
3 Tips on how to navigate Tik Tok safely by experts (Malacoff, 2020):
- Double-check your sources (Malacoff,2020).
- Do not let TikTok be your only source of fitness information (Malacoff,2020).
- Watch out for quick fixes (Malacoff,2020).
An interesting characteristic of the social media space is it’s blurring of reality versus fantasy. In large because the images that we consume are not filtered and are largely edited to promote a person or a brand, we are interacting with a work of fiction.
What is a social media influencer?
“Social influencing is the act of establishing authority on the social web, often by distributing and sharing valuable content (Deiss & Henneberry, 2016).”
Fitness influencers are in large responsible for creating most of the content (via workouts, health and exercise tips) permeating social media spaces.
“Fitness influencers have a mighty reach: according to Forbes, the total combined reach of just the top 10 fitness influencers in 2017 was 106,000,000, which includes followers and likes on the three major social media platforms as well as YouTube subscribers (Miller,2019).”
Social media lacks legitimate regulation
The only issue is that who can influence and what content is out there is not regulated. This means that those who can, by this definition, have authority and influence and choose to influence are not required to be fully transparent in their endeavors.
“The influencer industry has no real regulatory governing body, and its marketing is extremely pervasive. Research published in the journals Frontiers in Psychology found children’s self-reported frequency of watching vlogs influenced consumption of unhealthy beverages (Evans,2021).
Are we then entering a hyper reality? Where reality and fantasy are merged? If this is the case in the fitness space where our bodies and health are at play, we simply cannot consume influencer media blindly.
We have to make the 2D 3D by putting on a critical lens. Let us go through the 5 Instagram realities vs actual reality in this post.
1) Instagram Fitness Reality: The perfect body/lifestyle exists.
Perfection does not exist. Instagram and social media platforms fabricate this distorted view of perfect bodies and lifestyles. This filtered reality gives users the impression that this filtered reality exists when it does not.
“There is no such thing as a ‘perfect body,’” said Ashley Chatman, fitness coach and creator of Fit Body by Ashley. “Surgery, the right lighting, angles, and the best filters can make anyone appear picture-perfect (Miller,2019).
“Certified fitness trainer Camila Mariana agrees. “They are perfectly posed and it took a million shots for them to probably get ‘the one.’ Yes, people have beautiful bodies and we should celebrate their own self-confidence as well, but never let that set a value for yourself (Miller, 2019).
The effects of buying into this work of fiction is a dissonance between the reality of training, experiencing our bodies and our results and the creators’ highly edited photo.
“Yes, idealised images that have been digitally altered have the potential to further increase the negative effects of exposure to fitspo on body dissatisfaction,’ Dr Prichard says (Jennings-Edquist,2018).”
Mental health tip:
Do not compare yourself to anybody on the fitness side of Instagram, focus on your own journey and how it aligns with your values. Unfollow any influencer that makes you feel inadequate, only follow accounts that you genuinely connect and vibe with.
Aspirational accounts should make you remember why you love fitness and training, not make it about something else.
2) Instagram reality: Keeping up with trending body types is a worth-while endeavor.
Body standards are constantly changing. They tend to work in a cyclical fashion with one socially acceptable type being replaced by another one in a few weeks, months and sometimes years.
Just as having big breasts was in during the early 2000’s, having an hourglass body type with a big butt has been in during 2010-onwards. “After a 4% decline in 2016, there was a dramatic spike in breast reduction surgeries in 2017, increasing by 11% (American Society of Plastic Surgeons, 2018)”.
There are numerous issues with trends including their impermanence, understanding how they work should make us immune to unnecessary cosmetic surgery.
“Because advertising and marketing is an art, the solution to each new problem or challenge should begin with a blank canvas and an open mind, not with the nervous borrowings of other people’s mediocrities. That’s precisely what ‘trends’ are – a search for something ‘safe’ – and why a reliance on them leads to oblivion.” – (George Lois)
Statistics indicate that the rate of plastic surgery from 2016 to 2022 has increased by 200%. This could be due to the increase in Instagram usage in those years.
Looking to others and imitating their body types immediately gives them power over us. One must always remember that beauty is socially constructed and so are the body trends that go along with it.
“Even if you manage to acquire that perfect butt or that enviable waistline, the societal image of a perfect body can totally change 10 years down the line. If you choose to shape your image around what you see heralded by media and not by what makes you feel like your best self, you could be chasing a constantly evolving concept for the rest of your life. So is the act of turning to social media even a helpful component of fitness (Miller,2019)?”
Mental health tip:
Only follow fitness influencers for inspiration and to be motivated by their processes. Even they themselves may be driven by trends so be your own body advocate with self love on the forefront.
Furthermore erase the idea of trendiness being the most ideal aesthetic, create your own standard of beauty!
3) Instagram reality: Aim to look like your favorite influencer (fitspiration) instead of the best version of yourself.
Fitspiration (also known as ‘fitness inspiration’) normally consists of pictures of perfectly edited bodies with inspiring quotes underneath them. These are mostly found on social media platforms like Pinterest, Instagram and Tumblr.
“A lot of fitspo pictures glamorize and accentuate bodies which are insanely muscular and thin,” says Dr. Ronald Palomares, assistant professor and director of the School Psychology Doctoral Program at Texas Woman’s University in Denton. “The majority of fitspo pictures promote extreme workouts and calorie restriction. For an adolescent whose body is still developing, these images send the wrong message (Miller,2019).”
The most misleading element of this type of inspiration is that it creates unrealistic expectations out of a pretty difficult, scientific and discipline-based process.
Getting into shape requires us learning and being empowered about training and nutrition, not idealizing somebody’s photoshopped picture and wondering why we fall short.
“Lots of fitspo photos are touched up with photo-editing apps. What’s more is that those same photos are often used to sell controversial products like teatoxes (which involve flushing out all the water from your system to make you feel temporarily lighter, but can dehydrate you and even harm your digestive system) or waist trainers (which squeeze your internal organs into different positions to supposedly shrink your waist). Hint: Both are really bad ideas (Miller,2019).”
Mental health tip:
Do not compare yourself to anybody. Only look at your progress and focus on how far you yourself have done on your fitness journey. Nobody is like you and that is your strength!
Growing by at least 1% every time you hit the gym or eating healthy by means of mastering your lifts or hitting your macros is a way better barometer of your success!
4) Instagram reality: Photo-editing apps, posing and filters are the norm.
Instagram and TikTok are visual platforms and we engage with pictures and videos on a moment by moment basis.
The issue herein lies that the pictures that we interact with are becoming increasingly edited and filtered.
“Instagram fitness personality Beck Lomas says body editing apps “have become so common” among social media influencers nowadays, it’s almost the norm (Jennings-Edquist,2018).
This becomes problematic within the fitness space as we are trying to garner inspiration from influencers who themselves do not look like the pictures on their profiles.
“It’s very hard to tell from looking at someone’s photos whether that’s what they actually look like,” says Beck, who is based in Melbourne and has around 215,000 Instagram followers (Jennings-Edquist,2018).
Popular Apps used by Influencers on Instagram:
“The most popular apps include PhotoWonder Pro Beauty Photo Editor, which has more than 100 million users; Plastic Surgery Simulator, also called Face & Body Photo editor in some stores, which has been downloaded more than 10 million times; and Spring, with more than 4 million users (Jennings-Edquist,2018).”
“Spring claims it can “alter your body proportionately”, while PhotoWonder says it can make you “instantly look like a goddess”, and Plastic Surgery Simulator advertises an ability to “improve your appearance on social networks (Jennings-Edquist,2018).“
Mental health tip:
Transparency is important here. Do not be fooled by the 2D pictures on your favorite fitness influencers’ page, rather, look at their videos, podcasts or their blog articles and/or performance as a source of inspiration.
“To an extent, knowledge is power. Now you know the images you see online are often edited, you can “ask yourself whether the image you are looking at might have been altered in any way,” Dr Prichard says (Jennings-Edquist,2018).“
5) Instagram Reality: Influencers ignoring issues like Body Dysphormia and Eating Disorders.
Due to editing apps, filters and other methods that are not necessarily honest, we can start having unrealistic body expectations. The fitness space, despite being a healthy environment is not immune from these issues becoming rampant.
YouTube influencer Stephanie Buttermore has opened up about her own struggles with eating disorders and this conversation should be had more often by other influencers with her reach. We can learn from her struggles and empower a transparent approach to fitness.
What is body dysphormia disorder?
According to mayoclinic: “Body dysmorphic disorder is a mental health condition in which you can’t stop thinking about one or more perceived defects or flaws in your appearance — a flaw that appears minor or can’t be seen by others. But you may feel so embarrassed, ashamed and anxious that you may avoid many social situations (Mayoclinic, 2022).”
What is the relationship between body image and influencers/fitness Instagram?
This becomes problematic when we apply this to fitness because the influencer who promised she got her glutes from training could have edited her pictures, promising her followers a creation from photoshop.
If more influencers opened up to shrinking their waists, growing their breasts/butts, lengthening their legs and torsos, we would not have these unrealistic expectations at every turn.
“The emergence of a global beauty norm or “mass-mediated images of men and women whose bodies have startling similarities” (Leibelt 2018) is evident in the fitness or #fitspo community on Instagram, which originally began as a small facet of the platform and has rapidly become a large independent industry (Carrotte,2017). “
What are eating disorders?
According to psychiatry.com, “Eating disorders are behavioral conditions characterized by severe and persistent disturbance in eating behaviors and associated distressing thoughts and emotions. They can be very serious conditions affecting physical, psychological and social function.”
Eating disorders are no joke, they can take away years of one’s’ life and truly alter it for the worse.
“Future generations of Instagram users are at risk of living with long-term disorders that degrade their quality of life. Until there is a quantifiable amount of evidence that correlates social media platforms such as Instagram to depression, anxiety, and eating disorders, the direction in which media is headed will not change (Lockhart,2019).
Mental health tip:
The best way to arm ourselves against the hyper reality element of social media is to become critical thinkers and ask ourselves if the pictures we are looking at have been in any way altered or manipulated to look a certain way.
Furthermore, we should ask ourselves what the interest of the user may be in uploading the picture.
What are ways that we can counteract this?
What are ways that we can restore the idea of honesty and transparency in an online space? Firstly, some applications like Tik Tok do let users know what filter is being used in a video.
This already allows the user interacting with the content to be aware of what is real vs what is not. Furthermore, transparency laws are being drafted in countries like the United Kingdom.
Transparency laws make social media influencers and celebrities have to disclose any photo editing app usage or filter in their content. This is a great way of empowering the consumer and allowing them to view the space with the right lens.
“A new bill put forward by Tory MP Dr. Luke Evans is currently being debated in parliament. The proposed law would require celebrities and influencers to label images that have been digitally altered (Sam,2021).”
A final way that we can counteract the manufacturing of bodies and beauty is to become more social media literate. This means that we need to flex critical thinking about the images and videos that we engage with on the platforms.
‘Recent research has shown that, at the trait level, social media literacy skills can be protective for women (Tamplin et al., 2018).”
We cannot simply be naive about what we are consuming, we must ask ourselves the following types of questions:
1) What is the interest of this influencer in this particular photo? (Ie: are they selling a product? Is this a sponsored post?)
2) What tools could they have used to manufacture this picture? (ie: filter, photo-editing app)
3) Do they gain anything from disclosing the tools used to create this picture?
If you find that the answer to number 3 is a no and that this influencer could perhaps lose income, status, popularity and their following, then do not wait for them to admit it to unfollow them.
Furthermore, if this is negatively interfering with your self esteem or body image, unfollow them immediately!
Follow influencers who inspire fitness in you, not those who are trying to sell you something at the expense of your 1)vision/reality 2)your self esteem.
Mental health tip:
Have a list of values that you live by! Let your core values guide who you choose to follow and more importantly, how you approach your fitness. I, for instance, value exercise. I, however, also value authenticity.
It is important for the influencers that I follow to be in line with these values. I will not consume content of an influencer who I find to be inauthentic in how they both approach their fitness and created their physiques.
“Yes, physical inspiration plays a huge role in who we follow and why, but the means to get there are also extremely important. If you are someone that values self-love and balance, following bodybuilders with extremely low body fat percentages that are probably not healthy is probably not within your best interest. If you are looking to stop crash dieting and removing some unhealthy habits…people that support heavy supplements, like fat burners and meal replacements, are probably not in line with things you want to be exposing yourself to (Miller,2019).”
In conclusion, consuming fitness content with a critical mind is becoming an increasingly necessary skill. This is for the reason that edited and filtered pictures and videos can have disastrous consequences on our mental health.
From photo-editing apps to the need for transparency laws, this blog post gives tips on how to safely navigate the fitness social media space.
I hope that you enjoyed this blog post on the 5 Ways Social Media Fitness Can Harm our Mental Health (And How To Fix it!), please let me know what you thought about it in the comments below!
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