#Gymlife: does Instagram’s fitness trend have the potential to negatively impact female body image?

Milly Morris


I watch the two women from the treadmill as they stand in front of the large mirror at my local gym. They take it in turns to pose whilst the other takes their picture; holding weights, lunging and squatting. They complete their impromptu photoshoot with the money shot; the mirror “selfie.” As I stagger past them, profusely sweaty and embarrassed by my oversized “Miami Heat” t-shirt, they huddle over the phone to debate appropriate filters and hashtags for one another’s Instagram account. Many would not find this unusual; Instagram’s ability to crop life’s mundane experiences into a neat little square and lace in a bohemian glow have caused it to become a part of many women’s every-day life. According to a survey conducted by Appdata, 65% of Instagram’s 150 million users are female (Smith, 2014).

Anyone who has Instagram will recognise the images integral to its “health and fitness” trend: tightly toned women flexing in a gym mirror, eating avocado on wholegrain toast or sipping brightly coloured smoothies. Instagram celebrities, such as Jen Selter, Emily Skye, Lyzabeth Lopez and Rachel Brathen are famous for such “fitness-orientated” selfies aimed to inspire women into living a healthy lifestyle. These women generate thousands of followers and are referred to as Insta-famous. Selter, for example, is particularly famous for her buttocks; often uploading images of her squatting in the gym. Likewise, Rachel Brathen’s Instagram fame is based upon “beautiful yoga selfies.” Her profile has 1.4 million followers and is strewn with flawless images of her stretching in exotic locations accompanied by poetic “feel-good” captions.

It seems that the women I saw taking pictures in the gym, along with many others, attempt to emulate this trend set by the Insta-famous. Similar to the male trend of “gains”, if you type the phrases “gymselfie” or “gymlife” into the Instagram search bar, a plethora of images of women sharing their healthy lifestyle will flood the screen.

And what’s wrong with this? It can be argued that we should celebrate these women who are healthy and seemingly confident in their appearance amidst an apparent “obesity crisis.” Surely, showcasing women’s fitness acts as a symbol of female empowerment?

Yet there is more to these images than a demonstration of health and female strength. The women’s poses are purposely sexual and all mirror the perfectly-groomed models in magazines, rather than the sweaty and dishevelled post-gym appearance of the average woman.

Feminists such as Wolf, Gill and Orbach argue that a beauty myth pervades the traditional media and wider society. This myth teaches women from birth that to be valued they must be tall, thin and white (Wolf, 1991). The negative impact that the traditional media’s representation of beauty has had upon women has been well documented. For example, the National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders cites cultural influences as a contributing factor into why women are much more likely than men to develop an eating disorder (ANAD, 2015).

One only needs to cast their eyes across the covers of magazines to see this archetypical notion of beauty within models and actresses, displayed and presented as a “superior breed” of female. In contrast to women within the traditional media, Insta-famous women reflect the sentiment of meritocracy; they have become famous online by documenting their “hard work” at the gym via social media. Selter often accompanies her daily uploads with motivational messages, implying that her followers can look like her if they simply try hard enough. For example, one comment stated:

“Every day that you push yourself you are one day closer to your goals. The body achieves what the mind believes” (jenselter, 2015)

The comments on the image reflect this sentiment, referring to Selter as “ultimate goals” and “perfection.” In this sense, the beauty ideal is portrayed as attainable rather than something which is reserved for models and actresses who have won a genetic lottery. Consequently, does this have the potential to intensify internalized feelings of shame, guilt and disgust for women who do not reach this goal? Recent research demonstrates a significant rise in women reportedly feeling “unhappy” and “disgusted” by their appearance (Meikle, 2013). Thus, it is important to consider that such Instagram trends are intensifying existing messages perpetuated by the traditional media: to be successful, happy and desirable as a woman involves two key ingredients – to be slim and beautiful.

This may be why the two women at the gym felt it necessary to document their fitness regime; to prove to an online audience that they are striving for an Insta-famous body. It is easy to dismiss this behaviour as self-absorbed and narcissistic. However, this ignores the obsessive documentation of self which has become normalised by social media (Zimmer). Thus, in an age where we seemingly live by the rule of “pictures or it didn’t happen”, it is worrying that women seek validation from an invisible crowd from their attempt to achieve “perfection.”

I must clarify – I believe that an individual’s health is important to leading a happy lifestyle. Yet, these women are not solely promoting this message. Jen Selter, Lyzabeth Lopez and other Insta-famous women market their bodies to an online audience who do not admire them for their fitness levels, but for reaching the pinnacle of feminine beauty.

Overall, it is essential that we discuss the trend of health and fitness on Instagram which is arguably becoming an integral part of many young women’s lives. As discussed, the traditional media bombards women with an idealistic standard of beauty in magazines, TV shows, billboards and films. However, in the digital age, there is no respite from the constant stream of images and clips uploaded to social media. In this sense, Insta-famous fitness models have the potential to intensify feelings of body-shame by ensuring that reminders of the “perfect” female are constantly accessible via the touch of a screen.

Work cited:

ANAD. (2015). Eating Disorders Statistics. Retrieved December 6th, 2015, from http://www.anad.org: http://www.anad.org/get-information/about-eating-disorders/eating-disorders-statistics/

jenselter. (2015). Wake up every morning and do your best to follow this daily to-do list: Retrieved December 12th, 2015, from http://www.instagram.com: https://instagram.com/p/uOCz14GkUY/?taken-by=jenselter

Smith, C. (2014). Here’s Why Instagram’s Demographics Are So Attractive to Brands: Retrieved 17th December, 2015, from http://www.techinsider.io: http://www.techinsider.io/instagram-demographics-2013-12

Wolf, N. (1991). The beauty myth: How images of beauty are used against women. London. Random House.

Zimmer, C. (2015). Surveillance Cinema: Narrative between Technology and Politics. New York: New York University Press.

Creating safe space in our research, at conferences and online

Sylvia Frain & Massi Urbano


As two Ph.D. students in the post-fieldwork and “what am I trying to say?!” writing stage, we have been grappling with concepts of colonial oppression, capitalist censorship and patriarchal exclusion both theoretically and methodologically as well as addressing the continuation of these lived experiences into the digital realm in online platforms. The creation of safe space takes numerous forms, each contextualized by those using it for collaboration in the field, within institutions, at conferences or online in collective and individual spaces.

Threats to these safe spaces can take the form of conservative editors, sexist Department Heads, conference bullies, online trolls and ________ (you fill in the blank). Regardless, this is a shared experience, varying in degree, issues and perspective among women and queer researchers worldwide.

What does it mean to create safe space to collaborate in our research, at conferences and online?

Using emancipatory theories and Participatory Action Research (PAR), our research aims to resist imbalances within academia and support social movements working to create new systems of interaction and information. We work collaboratively with women and men involved in indigenous decolonisation and demilitarisation activism in Oceania, and anti-capitalists social movements in Italy, and use our research as resistance. We are challenging the colonial and patriarchal structure of most academic institutions and traditional approaches to research and productions of knowledge. Our intersectional research itself acknowledges and resists the hyper-masculine, late capitalist and racist system we currently live in, and our research works to deconstruct destructive policies and structures while supporting the social movements despite and in spite of this perpetual violence.

Decolonise and Feminise Research

While we cannot control all of our spaces, we believe it is our responsibility as privileged researchers to continue to decolonise and feminise research as a process and as a product. We also have the duty to decolonise our imagination and challenge the logic of competitiveness that lies within the academic institutions that wants us to work against each other rather than in collaboration with each other.

Publications, meetings and online exchanges between academics and activists must be chances to experiment what it means to be finally able to act as if those differences that are created by the dominant system and traverse our everyday lives – such as gender, race, and class – did not exist. Neoliberal practices of everyday surveillance limit not only our everyday lives by controlling physical and online spaces, but most of all they (try to) colonise our minds. We are becoming accustomed to thinking that alternative ways of being in society are impossible because every effort to do so is systematically boycotted, denied, and repressed. This is why when we have the opportunity we must act as if those differences that the system has created to divide us and that we have so much internalised, do not exist. We must seize any opportunity to experiment how it would be to act as if we were already free, as if our gender, race of class belonging did not matter.

Creating Safe Spaces at Conferences

A recent cutting edge feminist conference: Trans/forming Feminisms: Media, Technology and Identity organized collectively at the University of Otago by the Media, Film and Communication and Sociology, Gender & Social Work Departments in collaboration with Dunedin Free University, Fresh and Fruity Gallery Collective, Blue Oyster Art Project Space, and The Tertiary Education Union (Otago branch), provided a suitable chance to reflect about the need to create safe spaces to ensure the production of new ideas.


The Trans/forming Feminisms conference collective dedicated much effort to ensure an atmosphere of collaboration and circulation of ideas, not just to enhance our academic CV but also to foster genuinely a more active exchange between academics, activists and community. In this sense, it becomes crucial in such a kind of context not to “dwell on the things that did not work in the past” and not to engage in unproductive debates or narcissistic monologues that do not embody the spirit of safe spaces.

Most of the attendees were activists-academics, each passionate and dedicated to a wide range of activism from queer and trans activists fighting for the abolition of prisons in Aotearoa, to efforts to having more women elected into local government. Publications ranged from Aotearoa’s first women created and published anthology of comics to a keynote presentation on the American and Australian-centric, The Feminist Porn Book. In addition to the scholarly presentations from seasoned academics and undergrads, the program provided for several skill shares and practical workshops.

A closing hui (discussion) invited delegates to share their thoughts, reflections, highlight what worked and examine how to improve this type of dynamic and unique conference. Emphasis was put on post-conference continuation: how do we keep the momentum going? Much enthusiasm was expressed around the possibility of forming an online network to continue the exchange of ideas and to organise future events. It was agreed that we need to support each other in continuing to decolonise, de-capitalise and demilitarise our research areas, conference venues and online spaces.

DIY Feminist Cybersecurity

Ensuring online safe spaces are just as important (as mentioned in the ‘About’ section of this blog). As we research (mostly women-created content) the profound vulgar and violence created by (mostly male) trolls is astounding. The International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) and its Gender Council launched a campaign in solidarity with the UN Campaign to Eliminate Violence Against Women to Stop Bullying Online #IFJVAW and highlighted this treatment of women content creators, including journalists, bloggers, and academics online.

So what can busy scholars do? In addition to signing online petitions, sharing hashtags and raising these issues at academic institutions (what policies does your institution have in place in relation to cyberbullying?) you can always begin with yourself and your online presence.


The DIY Guide for Feminist Cybersecurity, created by The Safe Hub collective and applicable in small parts, includes a Cheat Sheet to get you started. While online trolls are one threat to your online (feminist) security, government surveillance squads, corporation marketing teams and malicious hackers (or even ex-partners) are also threats to our safe spaces.

As early activist-academics, we are grateful to the women and men who came before us to venture into challenging research areas, confronted traditional academic settings and use online digital platforms for theoretical exploration. We encourage all researchers, feminist and beyond, to continue to work to create safe spaces that are culturally sensitive and contextually relevant to those resisting and challenging patriarchal-capitalists structures.

In peace & solidarity,

Sylvia & Massi



All images used with permission:
trans/forming feminisms collective twitter account:  https://twitter.com/transfem15
Safe Hub Collective: https: //www.facebook.com/safehubcollective/timeline