It’s hard to deny that for many of us, perusing and posting images on social media is part of our daily routine. When it comes to your fitness lifestyle, what draws you to this medium? Desire for expression? Connection? Affirmation? Motivation? Curiosity?
Do someone’s pictures motivate you to take their fitness or nutrition advice to heart? Do you find it hard to resist a good “before and after” story that lures you in with dramatic photos? Are you partial to recipes that include pictures, or cookbooks with full-colour photography?
Some of us are prolific, posting pictures online like it’s our job (and hey, for some of us maybe it is!), while some of us prefer to look at and “like” what others share. The most engaged among us dabble in both, creating and viewing images online. Sharing triumphs, challenges, a favorite recipe, a little love for our favorite leggings—whatever it is for you—can be a way to boost our mood, nurture connections, and feel that we’re part of a community, if we are mindful of how we are engaging.
It’s probably safe to say that we all feel something about (or because of) most of the images we see and share online. It could be motivation, curiosity, or joy on the positive end of the spectrum, or envy and self-deprecating thoughts about our own body or fitness progress on the negative end.
One thing’s certain: a picture is rarely just a picture. As much as we draw motivation and positivity from a lot of what we share and post online, there are times when the feelings elicited don’t totally jive with how we want to feel, or don’t align with the values to which we wish to adhere. Sometimes this whole business of posting, liking, or merely looking at all these images can start to negatively impact the way we live and the choices we make.
Whether we change because, for example, we seek external validation or acceptance from others in our online community, or because something makes us feel badly about our own choices, we gradually stop being ourselves without even noticing.
So, do we simply unplug, stop going online, and break away from our online communities? That hardly sounds realistic when what we love about it is that sense of community! What, then, is the best way to engage with this steady stream of images of bodies, fitness, food, and words while remaining authentic and true to our own wellness values? Can we “do” wellness while documenting it? What can each of us contribute toward building a supportive, inclusive, and body-positive online fitness community?
Asking yourself the questions below and doing a little bit of introspection can help you decide how to share and view fitness-related images online in ways that align with your values and vision.
What and why do you post online?
Ask five people, “Why do you share photos online?” and you may hear five different answers:
“To track my physical or athletic progress and stay accountable to my goals.”
“To connect with like-minded people.”
“To inspire others by sharing something that inspires me.”
“To express how I’m feeling.”
“Because it’s a creative outlet.”
Ask five more, and you’re likely to hear a new and different set of answers!
Taking pictures of yourself or your eats can boost your self-esteem and body love or show appreciation for the delicious meal you’ve prepared. Sharing something that motivates you, can motivate others, and reinforce the positive vibe you’ve got going for yourself.
Yet, the very act of snapping and sharing those photos can start to impact the decisions that you otherwise would have made based primarily on time, practicality, logistics, or even budget—without you even realizing it at first. As you become more invested in how you’re representing yourself and your fitness experience online, this element in your practice, this visual journaling, could start to alter your routines and rituals.
Do you wipe off the day’s makeup before your workout (because people can be judgmental!), or hit those dark morning circles with some concealer before posting a selfie (because people can be judgmental!)? And whether you do or don’t, does the thought at least enter your mind? Either decision is one that you likely wouldn’t encounter if you weren’t taking and posting pictures.
What about your nutrition habits? Suppose you stop drinking your daily smoothie, even though it’s your convenient and healthy breakfast of choice, because upon reviewing your Instagram profile, you start to feel that it’s looking boring and monotonous with all those smoothie photos day after day. Perhaps you think, “Meh… who wants to see more of that?” and stop posting those photos (and eventually stop making those smoothies). Maybe you start making more elaborate meals, “worthy” enough to be shared online for others to “like.” All right, maybe you haven’t actually acted on the “meh…” feeling, but you’ve at least thought about it?
This concern for the kind of impression you’re putting out to your audience can begin to affect the choices you make, until suddenly, you’re no longer having your go-to breakfast and/or sharing authentically because you’re prioritizing others’ perceptions over your authority about what’s right for you and why you had started sharing glimpses of your life to begin with. Without a doubt, sharing your fitness journey online can strengthen your motivation and reinforce your healthy habits. But it can also divert your focus and influence your decisions. Knowing that, what steps can you take to stay on the side of posting that enhances your wellness and even enables you to contribute meaningfully to the online fitness community?
Be awesome, be real, be you.
Consider whether you’re posting in ways that make you feel that you’re awesome and real, rather than ways that make you wonder if they will think that about you. Does posting your daily smoothie give you a sense of accomplishment, or reinforce your commitment to taking care of yourself? Strive to create a vision board based on you. Make it the kind of place you’d like to visit. What would you post if it were for your purposes alone? What kinds of images affirm the messages and ideas about wellness that you want to champion for yourself and other women?
If you’re feeling something other than happy, that’s ok.
Consider posting not just when you’re happy or feeling super positive. Share in a way that honours your moment. While it’s true that most of us find it easiest to share when things are all sunny and happy, we also find it easiest to connect with people who are authentic and let us in. People who share images or thoughts about their darker moods or moments of struggle, along with their PRs at the gym, or a tasty celebratory treat. Community building often happens around those less glossy moments that we all experience, but seldom express.
Find gratitude through your camera lens.
The camera can help you re-frame everyday moments. It may enable you to shed light on some of what you take for granted. You might observe that pomegranate seeds are like tiny red rubies, or that the fading hues of green elevate the mighty avocado from humble to handsome. Seeing yourself in the mirror, under closer inspection and with a strong sense of self, may allow you to see how incredible your body really is—because and not in spite of–stretch marks, soft bits, double-jointed camera trigger finger and all (ahem). Use that selfie to celebrate and express gratitude for all of that.
A greater appreciation doesn’t mean putting your body through greater scrutiny or bending over backward (sometimes literally!) to present your body through the conventional aesthetic of “fit” or beautiful, it means accepting and loving whatever is reflected back to you and knowing that, in this time and place, whatever’s looking back at you is just right.
What and why do you view, like, or comment online?
On the viewing end of things, many of us (myself included) use Instagram, Facebook, or Twitter to find content with meaningful reflection, humour, powerful political or social messages, and inspiration to live well. Of course, viewing isn’t a passive state. There are opportunities to “like” and comment on what you see.
Until very recently, active female bodies in magazines or on book covers have seldom looked anything other than slender, white, modestly muscular, and hairless. The notion that a certain type of body demonstrates expertise in fitness or nutrition reinforces the idea that the only trustworthy “experts” are those who seem to, literally, embody knowledge in the shapes that we’ve learned to associate with strength.
Bodies that look a certain way attract hordes of followers for the same reasons that food pictures of a certain quality attract many followers. It gives us something to aspire to, to work toward. But looking at other bodies—almost always posed and filtered in very strategic ways—can make many women feel inadequate, guilty, or insecure about their own body or how they do or have been doing their fitness thing.
One of the most powerful features of social media as it relates to body-positivity and inclusion is how it allows for alternative representation of bodies and selves. Suddenly we can see that women who are training hard can look the same and also different from those in the magazines. Realizing that fitness and wellness come in all shapes and sizes can have an incredibly liberating effect! When strong bodies come to the fore in their various glorious shapes and sizes, the space for inclusion explodes. What can you do to keep the momentum going, and participate meaningfully in the online fitness community?
Shine the spotlight on those who inspire you to be and do your best .
Seek out and support the kinds of photos and content that would make you want to high-five, hug, talk with that person if you were face-to-face. Find your tribe. Be aware of the ideas and messages you are exposed to and perpetuating with the types of photos you seek out. Let yourself be inspired to draw from what enhances your own fitness experience or journey, rather than because you want to be like the person who posted it. Try an awesome recipe because you’d love to eat it, and not because you want to look like the person who posted it.
Mind your mind and heart.
Words and images are powerful. Minimize the types of images and words that you know could make you feel uneasy about your appearance or your choices. However, do recognize that it’s important to acknowledge when something makes you uncomfortable and do a little introspection. Though it’s incredibly valuable to read others’ stories of change (fat loss, improved health, etc.), someone else’s success is entirely unrelated to your progress toward your own goals. Celebrate their triumphs, and then let these stories lift you up and enhance your own story and the kinds of ideas and messages you want in your own life.
We’re all in this together.
Whether you’re posting or viewing online content, consider how your actions impact the movement to broaden and strengthen women’s fitness as it appears online. When you encounter visual content that doesn’t align with where your mind is, or with your values and where you hope to go in your life, save your clicks and words for “likes” and endorsements of what does resonate with you.
Don’t tear down to build up.
Comments that diminish other peoples’ pictures or choices don’t bolster your integrity. If you know what sets you off, makes you want to go on a tirade, or collides with your core values, the best course of action is to not attack it.
Approach with curiosity and engage in civilized conversation. Or don’t engage at all. That’s not to say that you should refrain from critiquing ideas, messages, or trends. Use your page, your blog, your feed—and not someone else’s—to be critical, and then constructive.
When we represent our selves, ideas, choices, and projects on a visual platform, we make decisions about what, how, when, and why we share (or not). There is a lot to consider before sharing a post detailing our workout or the day’s meals. How we choose to share impacts what we project and receive from being part of this community.
How you talk about and frame your training, eating, and wellness choices can actually impact (for better or for worse) how you carry them out. For those among us on the viewing end, all of these images of bodies, food, and motivational words can be a welcome source of inspiration, or they can impact our ability to stay the course toward our own goals.
Whether we’re snapping photos or viewing them, let’s strive to engage with this content authentically and positively. Let’s honour each other’s, and our own, individual goals and values—fitness and otherwise. We all can play a part in broadening the look and experience of strength and fitness to create and support a positive, inclusive online community.