Fitness or flexing: Is fitness culture focused on health or appearances?

Baylea Jackson runs on a treadmill Oct. 24, 2018, at the Maverick Activities Center.

Once she got to high school, it became clear to nursing junior Joanna Ramirez that she wasn’t passionate about soccer anymore. But it took tearing her ACL to realize that she wasn’t playing for herself. Continuing to play would only be for the approval of her family, she said.

Quitting was a difficult choice to make because many people in her family played soccer, and it was expected of her to keep playing. She then felt resentment because she wasn’t able to pursue other sports like she wanted, Ramirez said.

On top of the pressure to be a star athlete, Ramirez felt insecure about her weight and body type compared to other women in her family. Her parents had always told her that she needed to look thinner, and when she gained weight her father had asked, “Mija, what happened to you?”

That moment stuck with her forever, and the pressure soon turned into eating disorders like anorexia that caused her to only eat once a day, count calories, purge meals and over-exercise, Ramirez said.

“In highschool I lost ten pounds in a week, and that’s because I was throwing up everything that went into my body, and nobody noticed. Nobody knew anything,” she said. “My parents were like, ‘Man, you’re looking good!’”

With increasing momentum pushing the body positivity movement online, one might think that fitness culture is moving toward inclusivity and accessibility.

However, many are still experiencing pressure to participate in fitness culture both on social media and face-to-face, which sometimes causes shame and judgement for individual’s fitness journeys.

“Fitness culture” refers to the public’s intense focus on physical wellness in recent years, both through diet and exercise.

The rise of heavily-sponsored weight loss products like Flat Tummy Tea has resulted in social media influencers being known as people who shill out miracle products promising to make fans look like them, while making those that don’t feel inadequate.

Not looking like the influencers they admire can cause people to be harder on themselves, exacerbate insecurities and body dysmorphia, and cause people to give up on their fitness journey.

These physical and societal pressures and standards are nothing new; they’ve just changed in the internet age, said Abu Yilla, kinesiology clinical assistant professor.

“What we are doing is merely replicating what has occurred in the past, with regard to attitudes toward physical perfection,” he said.

Society’s pressure to emulate a fitness guru online or compare one’s fitness journey to their friend’s can be labeled as overconformity because the expectation is impeding on their regular schedules, Yilla said.

The more body-positive images consumers receive, the easier it will be for everyone to accept their own bodies, Yilla said. This doesn’t mean people shouldn’t exercise and try to be in great shape, but it shouldn’t get to the level of dysfunction, he said.

Fitness standards on and offline affect everyone, but they weigh on women significantly more than men because the female physical aesthetic is centered around male gaze and consumption, Yilla said.

The often unattainable and unrealistic standards of beauty and fitness pushed on women is an ongoing battle. Women attempting to achieve it are chasing after a standard that they are unlikely to attain, which causes a slew of other issues, Yilla said.

The fitness industry specifically is great at exploiting people’s desire to lose weight and change their appearance physically for financial gain, Yilla said.

Fitness gurus online wouldn’t have as big of a following if they were as focused on internal health as they were outward health. Physical appearance and the fitness industry would be more moral if it was, Yilla said.

“People have to realize that fitness does not encompass just outward representation,” Yilla said. “If I were going to suggest a fitness program for anybody, it would be a question of moderation in all things, and to pay equal attention to internal fitness as well as external.”

Ramirez said she’s currently starting her journey back to physical fitness because she’s trying to fall back in love with her body after having a critical, negative view of it for a long time.

Much of that pressure came from her family, and because of this, Ramirez played soccer all throughout her childhood, which kept her in shape and appeased her family’s expectations for her body.

Ramirez felt the same weight-related pressures online from fitness gurus to engage in behaviors like constant high-intensity workouts, getting a personal trainer and being on a restrictive diet, she said.

Ramirez feels like some personal trainers will only take on clients who fit the stereotypical mold for a fitness success story. She has always wanted a trainer but felt like they would judge her progress rather than focus on her internal health, she said.

She has since made it a point though to follow fitness gurus who promote healthy, attainable goals.

Going to the gym still causes her large amounts of anxiety. However, she’s found a place of maintaining and accepting her weight gain, being OK with where she is in her fitness goals and having a healthier relationship with food, Ramirez said.

Roller skating and going on walks with her partner and their dogs are two sustainable, realistic and enjoyable ways Ramirez has found to stay fit.

Ramirez’s partner, Jennifer Jiongo, human development and family studies senior at Stephen F. Austin State University, also grew up playing sports and felt pressure to continue both online and face-to-face.

In high school, Jiongo started feeling resentment for the sport she once loved. Her soccer coach at the time was shaming her weight gain and didn’t give her a spot on the varsity soccer team, she said.

In order to receive that spot, she was expected to maintain a certain mile time, watch her food intake, and her coach even got her father involved to achieve those things, Jiongo said.

The pressure to conform to fitness culture’s standards caused issues between Jiongo and her father, as well as making her self-conscious and insecure about her weight, Jiongo said.

Coming to terms with her natural weight, realizing it was OK to be bigger than she was when she was playing sports and allowing herself to eat desserts have all been a process, Jiongo said.

In terms of fitness culture gurus online, there’s not enough reflection on whether these people are qualified to be giving anyone health advice, she said. These influencers could also be struggling with body image issues and eating disorders behind closed doors because they’re under the same scrutiny to look a certain way.

Personal trainers, fitness gurus and instructors should be tailoring workout routines to their client’s specific physical limitations and abilities, Jiongo said. Focusing on specific areas of the body and realizing two people with the same diet and workout regimen aren’t going to achieve the same physical results are important, she said.

Jiongo has seen a shift toward inclusivity recently from fitness gurus online. They’ve begun varying the size and attainability of workouts on platforms like TikTok, she said.

Being surrounded by supportive people can make things easier and less anxiety-inducing, Jiongo said. Remaining patient when results aren’t quick and continuing one’s fitness journey even when it’s uncomfortable can also build confidence, she said.

Ramirez said knowing one’s physical and mental limitations and finding what works individually are two keys to having a successful fitness journey, as well as understanding that one’s progress toward fitness is their journey and no one else’s.

@alexushurtado

features-editor.shorthorn@uta.edu

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