I read the headline with a combination of shock and disgust: “Fitness Influencer Brittany Dawn Allegedly Bilked Hundreds of Women for Diet and Workout Plans”. Turns out, Brittany had been swindling customers over the past several years by promising customized nutrition and workout plans and failing to deliver on the small detail of, you know, the customization part. When customers began to complain, they were promptly ignored and blocked on her social media channels until enough people fought back and the story made news headlines.
Long story short, Brittany gave an incredibly weak apology and has since given haphazard refunds (full, partial or not at all) or has given a refund and then proceeding to cancel the PayPal transaction. The saga is ongoing.
Atrocious as it was that so many women got scammed, it prompted an even deeper question; *“why on earth would so many people pay for the expertise of someone who is known only as an “influencer”?
*I am not blaming the victims here. It is easy to be taken in by someone with the right appearance, the right appeals to emotion and by big promises.
So who are these “Fitness Influencers”? What makes them influential? Are they qualified to dole out training and nutrition advice? And most importantly, are they overall doing more good than harm when it comes to their “influence”?
Let’s take a deeper look at some of the more influential influencers who influence.
I have to admit, I’m pretty green when it comes to the whole concept the “influencer” and more broadly, social media marketing. Sure, I have an instagram account, a facebook page and a YouTube channel (not snapchat ’cause grown-ass man over here) and yes I do use them in part as a marketing platform. Social media newbie-ness aside, I do fancy myself fairly dialed in to the fitness, nutrition and fat loss world so I was a little surprised that my “top fitness influencers” search query left me with mostly blank stares.
Of the top 20 accounts (by number of followers), I only recognized 3 names, and out of all 20 — only one of whom is actually educated and reputable in the evidence-based fitness circles. (Bret Contreras, if you are wondering). The other two I recognized are Jen Selter (the girl famous for “butt selfies”) and Joe Wicks — a guy with a charming accent and nice lettuce, who’s content I would describe as not-too-nauseating.
Some Observations about the Top Influencers
Upon perusing the top Instagram accounts a few things became clear. With rare exception;
- The top accounts are virtual carbon copies of one another — no single instagram account of the bunch had anything novel, discerning or anything that differentiates one from the other.
- They are almost exclusively combinations of photo shoots in exotic locations, exercise videos, healthy recipes, their dog, motivational quotes and some before and after pictures.
- Influencers apparently have a professional photographer on hand 24/7. And a hair/makeup person.
My general consensus is this: These fitness celebrities have meticulously and deliberately crafted and curated an image of themselves and their brand. Every post, every photograph, every video is alarmingly sharp, colorful and vibrant. Each one strategically vying for our collective eyeballs with a facade of hypersexualized perfection.
It is the modern day mash-up of a Maxim and Muscle and Fitness Magazines — beach photo shoots, exotic cars and vacations, perfectly crafted Acai and Buddha bowls and Rumi quotes — all amidst a cacophony of subtle and not-so-subtle advertisements for their products, services or affiliate sales. (more on this later).
Look, I get it — that’s the game. And it’s not a new game by any stretch but it’s a newer medium — a hyper-accessible, uber-aesthetic and limitlessly modifiable medium known as Instagram. I get that in highly competitive spaces we need to stand out. Fitness is an especially aesthetically-centered industry where standing out means both more and less; (more editing, more oil, more lighting.. less clothing). Is this all necessarily a bad thing?
In my opinion; maybe no, but probably yes.
The Case for Influencers
I need to be fair and highlight the positive side of this phenomenon. Even if only a small percentage of their vast number of followers see these influencers as inspiration; a role model or someone that gives them some good ideas to stay healthy — that’s great. Truly. I think because of their giant reach, many people will be more active and strive to live healthier lives in some part due to their influence.
The problem(s) with Influencers
I see many potential pitfalls with the prominence of influencers. The overarching issue being that they are seen as authorities in all things fitness, weight loss and health. This is troubling due to their general lack of formal education in these areas (from what I can tell, Bret Contreras is the only on in the top 20 that has the actual education background to be seen as an expert). Some have personal training certifications and rinky dink nutritional certificates, but I could not find any other in the top 20 influencers that had anything that remotely stood out as a reason to listen to their advice. Formal education certainly isn’t everything but years of in-the-trenches experience coaching people would instill less skepticism.
This 2014 Men’s Health article by Jen Sinkler addresses this concern about the aforementioned Jen Selter (12.7 million Instagram followers at the time of this writing — 3x that of what she had at the time of that article). As mentioned, Selter became insta-famous for her butt and her numerous “butt selfies” but has nothing to show when it comes to education in the world of fitness. Still, this didn’t stop numerous big media outlets from seeking her “expertise” on building a nice butt or other areas of fitness. Here are some other misgivings I have about influencers;
One thing becomes apparent when scrolling through influencer instagram feeds; This is essentially “fitspiration”. The so-termed “fitspo” is meant to motivate people towards fitness and lean bodies. The problem is that in many cases it can have the opposite intended effects. For example;
This study showed that although accounts that had high social support and access to information were beneficial, participants also reported that fitspiration content could negatively influence their wellbeing and perception of healthy goals.
This study of college age females showed that athletic ideal (fitspiration) images led to greater body image concern. Also noteworthy was that appearance comparisons were evident in each image condition and the images did not motivate participants to engage in higher levels of exercise.
I hear people defending “fitspo” sometimes, citing that “strong is the new skinny” is empowering and motivating. While I agree that promoting strength for women is awesome, the “fitspo” images are not much different than “thinspiration” (images of very thin women). This study suggests that there isn’t much difference between the 2 when examining websites. From the conclusion; “Although fitspiration posts were less extreme than thinspiration posts on the whole, notable similarities in their content support that fitspiration endorses problematic attitudes towards fitness, body image, and restrictive eating in pursuit of a fit-and-thin body ideal.”
Not Real Life:
What we see on Instagram is largely a highlight reel. Already lean people with the benefit of every possible enhancement available to bolster the image. This isn’t real life. Yes they work hard to get that body, but no, they don’t look like that all the time. And guess what? They probably don’t practice what they preach more often than we think. Take the Vegan YouTuber Yovanda Mendoza Ayeres who got caught eating fish — sparking a predictable amount of vegan backlash. Or take Instagram “model/influencer” Elle Elisa who (in an attempt to be “relatable”) took a photo shoot op of her “eating” an ice cream cone — only to promptly toss it in the trash when the cameras stopped shooting.
We are buying into what is a largely curated and contrived life, which more often than not does not reflect reality. This sets a high bar for regular folks and can lead to feeling crappy about ourselves.
Buyer Beware part I: Nutrition and Training Programs
The aforementioned Brittany Dawn Fitness scam should serve as a cautionary tale when it comes to ponying up money for nutrition and/or fitness programs. While I’m sure this kind of bilking is rare, I’d say selling generic meal plans and fitness programs also constitutes a scam. Just because an influencer likes/uses/benefits from a diet or training program doesn’t mean you will.
Buyer Beware part II: Affiliate sales
Make no mistake about it; Having a very large following can be VERY profitable. Many companies now set aside a marketing budget for influencers — to an estimated tune of over $1 Billion. According to many estimates, influencers can make about $100 per 10k followers for a single post. In a now widely public debacle, socialite Kylie Jenner was paid $250,000 for a single tweet about the unmitigated disaster known as the “Fyre Festival”. Even fitness influencers with much fewer followers (say 2 million) can expect to earn roughly $20,000 for a promotional post based on the industry estimate.
This changes the frame of trust — or at least it should in the eyes of the consumer. Feed me all the lines you want about “I only endorse products I truly believe in” but when you have a vested interest it robs you of objectivity.
Fitness Influencers: A Summary
This is a strange time to be alive. While part of me is playing this game of social media attention too, the emergence of the “influencer” has a detrimental side that needs to be explored. There may in fact be some upside to the masses in terms of inspiring people towards healthy habits without psychological cost. I fear however that the trend does overall more harm than good. I see the influencer bandwagon trend in the same vein as celebrity worship; to me they are essentially the Kardashians with more definition. I feel like we also may be blind to the potentially insidious, internalized states that this trend is cultivating. Frequent Instagram use in general and exposure to idealized images can have negative consequences — especially for young women.
If You DO Choose to Follow Fitness Influencers, take the following in mind;
- Many of the hard-bodied influencers are genetic outliers: This isn’t to say they didn’t work hard to achieve/maintain their body’s, or they didn’t diligently practice their particular sport. It means that there’s a very good chance they had some decent pre-disposition towards being thinner/ripped.
- Many of them have a competitive athletic background. They had access to training facilities/coaches and most are highly motivated to begin with — making physique attainment more likely.
- They have access to professional photographers, sets/lighting, content curators, stylists and photoshop tools. Even the influencers don’t look like themselves a lot of the time.
- Don’t buy anything from them! There is no reason to believe you are getting anything other than a generic program and meal plan. Unless they are giving you something tailored and/or modifiable, don’t shell out money for something you can get for free. Even if they ARE giving you something tailored, there are much, MUCH better qualified people for this job.
- Relating to the above — beware that being an influencer can be very lucrative from a product placement/promotion perspective. Be skeptical of supplements and apparel with promo codes or affiliate links. They have a financial interest promoting/selling third party goods.
And perhaps most importantly;
- Do your VERY best not to compare yourself (your progress, your body, your discipline) to that of a fitness influencer. This is a sure path to frustration and feeling lousy about yourself.
In the end I have no trouble encouraging people to unfollow fitness influencers altogether. There are much more knowledgeable, inspiring and caring people out there that can truly help empower and inspire people towards action.
I encourage people to follow accounts of those who have a solid blend of a) knowledge in their field b) Evidence-based advice c) those who contribute to better understanding of any given topic d) practical, actionable advice/strategies. e) Promote messages of positive body image and self-acceptance.
Here is a list of 20 amazing fitness and nutrition pros to follow based on the aforementioned;
The Big Picture: Spend Less Time on Social Media
From a pure productivity perspective, it wouldn’t hurt to reduce time on social media altogether — developing an action first default. Regardless of who we follow on social media, mindless scrolling can be a time suck — robbing us of opportunities to be active, preparing healthy meals and spending valuable time with family and friends. Consider limiting social media time to smaller windows after you have put in some solid work on yourself. Heck, if you want to share your workout, progress, take a gym selfie or a picture of some healthy recipe you made — have at it! If this is what helps keep you motivated and accountable, I’m all for it. In the end, go into every day with an action-first mentality and decentralize the role that social media plays in your life.