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Chasing perfection: The unhealthy side of fitspo phenomena

Allison Graham
Allison Graham

17-year-old student living in Jakarta

Jakarta  /  Thu, November 16, 2017  /  01:15 pm
Chasing perfection: The unhealthy side of fitspo phenomena

Social media’s healthy lifestyle has gone mainstream. Just how healthy is it? (Shutterstock/File)

Looking at social media feeds today, it is impossible to ignore the prevalence of pure eating and fitness in popular culture. Beyond the hashtags, these trends are playing out on city streets — where green juices may once have been rare, many grocery stores and restaurants now serve multiple.

Social media’s healthy lifestyle craze has gone mainstream. But just how healthy is it?

When we think of moderation, we often think in terms of moderating the bad — sugar, dairy, TV and alcohol consumption — and yet good habits such as exercise and diet need equal moderation. Without it, we run the risk of not only physical pain, but mental pain too.

ERs are already seeing a rise in injuries caused by over-exercising and hyper-dieting. In fact, many doctors have specifically reported increases in yoga-related injuries, and many more have voiced concerns over paleo diets and juice cleanses that often ebb and flow on social media feeds. This rise of "pure" living has brought with it hordes of malnourishment and gym-related injuries. Moderation has become martyrdom. Self-restraint, it seems, can also be done in excess.

Present trends have made athleticism mainstream in a way it never has been before. Gym buffs now drink green smoothies, hit up a CrossFit gym and boast about their latest diet on social media for their friends and followers to see. Nike and Adidas have become commonplace as "athleisure" takes center stage in popular fashion. Just look to the rise of fashion-forward sneaker culture and jogger pants (neither worn for any kind of running or jogging) for further proof of this trend.

Read also: Orthorexia: When 'healthy eating' ends up making you sick

Not all young people today run on kale, gym every day or wear high-fashion Nike sneakers, but many have adopted at least part of the trend. Be it in unashamedly wearing jogger sweatpants to school, eating more greens or taking up jogging, for many these trends have moved from social media feeds to action. Fitness bloggers, nutrition-based Instagram accounts and the idea of "pure" living has trickled down through social media into our physical culture.

Elements of this are well-deserving of praise — I see many of my friends eating healthier than they used to, and I know that many of them follow recipes from their favorite healthy-eating food bloggers.

Doctors have been trying to encourage healthy eating and exercise habits for decades, and yet these social media accounts reach people in ways they never could. The people behind these accounts aren’t healthcare professionals, and can offer only their own anecdotal experience, but it doesn’t seem to matter. Many turn to these accounts for healthy-eating tips, watching blenders making luxuriously creamy smoothies and liking posts with clean-cut vegetables on rustic chopping boards. In fitness bloggers, followers often find not just a handful of good workouts or exercise tips, but an entire lifestyle. Their social media feeds are beginning to define what "healthy" means. These feeds contribute to poor body image and only build on preexisting pressure to achieve perfection.

However, these pictures, sometimes videos, populating social media feeds aren’t real.

Yes, they are real people, but as many have pointed out before they are real people at their best. Looking their best. Eating their best. Comparing an entire life, complete with highs, lows and in betweens, to a carefully curated collection of only highs sets us up for failure.

Beyond that, to assume that these moments represent a complete lifestyle creates unrealistic and unhealthy expectations of what it means to be fit and healthy. It ignores genetics and individual circumstance — not all versions of healthy look the same. Many of these same #Fitspo accounts, and the real people behind them, agree. The pressure to eat the perfect diet and have the perfect body goes both ways. As follower counts grow, these bloggers face increasing pressure to be perfect models for good health — to be their best, 100 percent of the time.

Read also: Status: Online, but not present

So great is this pressure for perfection that some fitness bloggers have stepped out from behind their meticulously cultivated image to reveal something that should never have been a surprise: they, like us, can’t be healthy all day, every day. Some fitness bloggers, breaking from a steady stream of defined abs and toned legs, have taken their followers behind the scenes to see how camera angles, lighting and a morning’s breakfast change the end result.

The simple truth, a truth that more and more #fitspo and health accounts are acknowledging, is that it is impossible to be 100% healthy, 100% of the time — it actually just isn’t healthy. Not for the mind, at least.

These bloggers are sharing their off days with their followers, and in doing so are teaching them that bloating, off days and sickness are perfectly natural parts of good health. Even the healthiest of eaters have cheat days replete with pizza and sugar. In discussing these challenges, these self-made health icons spread a far healthier message than carefully chosen images ever could: truly healthy lifestyles aren’t devoid of flaws or limits — they understand and work with them.

Acknowledging that health is a developing goal, not a fixed, perfect target, is an important step towards actually cultivating a healthy lifestyle beyond today’s social media trends. A truly healthy lifestyle withstands changes in health trends — from legwarmers to kale smoothies — and embraces workout-free days, bloating and the limits of mind and body. There is no fast way to health, nor is there a single model for what health is.

We must know our limits, good or bad as they may be. Know how much sugar our bodies can handle, how much weight we can lift, how much food we need and when our minds and bodies just need a day off. More than this, we must understand that whatever "health" means to us, chasing perfection isn’t healthy at all.


Allison Graham is a 17-year-old student living in Jakarta. She’s an Irish-American born in Singapore, but since then has lived in Mexico, China, Australia, Chile, Oman and the United States. 

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Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the official stance of The Jakarta Post.