At least, not until we can untangle exercise from weight and virtue.
This is a tough one for me. I was an unathletic kid and felt totally discouraged by the adults around me from pursuing sports or fitness because I “wasn’t good at it.” It wasn’t until I was an adult that I realized I could actually learn and improve at various exercise activities on my own terms and for my own benefit, even if I was never going to be “the best” at anything athletic. I do credit social media a lot for helping me find find fun and safe ways to exercise and helping me change my thoughts around food and fitness (Casey Johnston is a favorite follow of mine!), and I love seeing people find joy and fulfillment in exercise. So many hobbies have kind of weird virtue stuff wrapped up in them — side hustles, reading challenges, that kind of thing — and while I do think exercise has more baggage attached, I think it’s something we should really actively be trying to separate from food and thinness on social media, rather than erasing fitness content from social media until we can make the necessary cultural changes for it to be okay again. I agree with one of the other posters here that the issue is more with the algorithms and the platforms than with individual users.
Like you have been reading my mind. A friend/former colleague on Instagram started posting pictures of her epic walks. Just feet or scenery. But I started waiting..knowing it would come. Because she had lost a lot of weight several years ago, then gained a lot back with two kids, and I just knew this was going to be the start of weight loss posts. After several months it finally came a week or so ago. It was staggering how much it hurt. All the “congrats” with the body picture and weight loss number. And I was like: I genuinely have to unfollow this. And of course the chorus in my mind singing: see, if you just tried harder…
I almost hesitate to write this because I don’t want to come off as one of those “I don’t even own a tv!” types. And I acknowledge that for some folks, maintaining an active social media presence is necessary for their careers, or the only way to maintain connection with far-flung people.
That said… I have to say that my mental health, ability to focus, and just general well-being improved significantly when I decided to basically just stop posting on social media. At some point I realized that I was getting more concerned with the number of likes/comments an Instagram picture would get, and that I was generally always in a worse mood after scrolling the feed. It occurred to me that it was weird that I cared so much about what literal or practical (what else would you call a person you last spoke to in 2002) strangers thought.
I haven’t been able to completely abandon it - I still read Twitter - but I limit my Facebook or Instagram viewing to only when I’m in the bathroom (really great way to limit it!), and it just feels like my life is better for it.
I don't think the issue is individual behavior. The issue is the social media sites themselves, baked into their very design in the way they predate on human behavior. I don't think you can fix the issue by doing anything other than disengaging entirely. Forbidding thin people from posting workout selfies (assuming that's even an achievable goal) will only create a new aspirational hierarchy from what is then posted (I also think it's questionable to tell people "no, you're not allowed to be visible" in what amounts to a public square).
Social media is advertising. They cannot be disentangled from each other. And advertising creates problems so that it can sell you the solution. You can't escape its effects by attempting to change what it's advertising; it's the advertising itself that must go away.
Thanks for this. I'm deeply immersed in the running community and it's hard to know sometimes what content is motivating for me and what is harmful until it's too late. There are more body-positive runners in my feed than not, but every once in a while you get someone who references running to eat more (a massive pet peeve of mine) over and over, and it's an instant unfollow. It is hard. I have many friendships tied up in these posts, many long runs and deep talks, and while I usually say running is the best thing I do for my mental health besides the Zoloft, sometimes I wonder when I look at my feed.
Oh my gosh, this! "We are also taught to place moral value on exercise; to revere both the hard work and the pleasure of physical activity as somehow better than any other kind of work or pleasure." My body does not excel at exercise, like you said. My body excels and sitting still and thinking, but according to many people (especially my MIL) this is not nearly as important, good, or healthy. It's taking me a long time to accept the idea that my health and fitness are not a reflection of my character. I mean, it's an excellent idea and I love it - but the other way is just SO ingrained.
I am a person who benefits from thin privilege who has and does at times share my workout selfies, but try hard not to share counts, distance, times. Mainly because it’s something important to me as something that brings me joy, that is and has been often belittled by family members in ways that led me as a child who deeply benefitted from motion (I have ADHD that was not identified until I was in my thirties) to see my body as inferior and wrong, because it didn’t and doesn’t fit the picture of what was once deemed “poster child” shapes for what I did and do.
What I internalized wasn’t that moving my body was a privilege but that moving my body for anything but thinness was the wrong reason, and it took me years to undo that mental messaging.
Things I don’t discuss but should when I post a face-selfie after a run now, beyond the thankful feeling for the privilege of being able to move/run/walk/bike/yoga/whatever is that yes I am doing this and yes I am showing this as a thin person but I also have very mild prolapse I had to work to “correct” after childbirth that made it feel like my vag was going to come my
Börthøle (autocorrect on that one— I’m tired of fighting how I have to write that to keep from getting zucced in “this cat is INNOCENT” on Facebook) for 18 months post birth whenever I tried to do more than grocery shop..so to run now feels like a big accomplishment whether it’s tag or light saber battles with my six year old or an unnamed but short and slow distance on a paved trail near my home.
I also am SO fed up with hearing all about sugar and it’s evils in my life. My son received literal pounds of candy for Easter. I’ve been told more than once I need to “eliminate” it from the house and j shut that down like a door caught in a crossbreeze every time. Food is not evil. Kit Kat bars are DELICIOUS. And Not Evil.
Idk what it is with runners and their need to post their stats but that shit seems almost as exhausting as actually running.
I immediately thought of Roxane Gay's workout selfies when I read this and then got to your mention of her! I appreciate that it's just a part of her stories with much less mention than food.
Also I want to add that I enjoy seeing anyone doing movement that brings them joy and makes them feel good, regardless of their body size—when it's totally without the pretense of earning or validating worth, or related to weight or food. I think we all need more of that since it's just so hard to come by.
This is a lot to think about, thanks. I keep starting to type more, but ... I'm thinking! (FWIW, never posted a workout selfie. Not real big on selfies in general. But I do post text about workouts occasionally.)
I very much appreciate you putting these concepts into words. As a person who has healed her disordered relationship with food, and sort of with exercise, this not only reinforced my ideas, but pushed me past onto new ground. I’ve never thought about why I have been sharing my peloton yoga classes before. I feel like I am so happy with the progress that I have made in functionality, but I need to sort through this idea…. Thank you for a very thought provoking piece.
Virginia, as always, I had no idea how much I needed this post. You are doing such important work. Thank you so much.
I've been thinking a lot about the role of external validation/motivation when it comes to movement/exercise. I'm not a fan of fitness trackers for the general public for a variety of reasons, including the way it externalizes and quantifies a complex experience that is happening, literally, inside your own body and in ways that can never be fully captured on a Fitbit screen or Peloton report. Then posting that in public--for praise/encouragement, for "accountability," for bragging rights--externalizes it one step further. If you wouldn't do your workout if you couldn't post about it, then maybe that's something to look into? It's like we've completely lost touch with the physical, visceral, more-than-numbers (and even more-than-words) aspect of the experience. Thanks, diet culture!
And of course there is so much nuance--someone training for an event who shares stats with their private running group? Great! Someone doing some seriously challenging PT to regain lost strength/flexibility/endurance who could use a little boost to keep going? Seems fine to me.
Like you said, Virginia, it's really about why you're posting and whether you've considered the unintended impact of these kinds of posts.
I love this and want to get it tattooed on my forehead: "Completing a marathon or having a Netflix marathon are morally equivalent activities."
Look, Ally Love's classes ARE pretty great:)