I was sat on the platform on the London Underground the other day. On one of those massive adverts you stare at idly before a train intrudes and you never think about it again – normally they’re for Apple, or a holiday company, or something else with an eye-watering budget – was a girl I recognised.
She was so familiar I thought I must know her from school, must be a friend of a friend, or a celebrity? I could hear her voice, felt I knew her intimately. Then I realised (the crop top, free weights and the massive name branding really were quite obvious clues but it was late and I was tired) that she was a fitness influencer whose videos I’d been absorbing for a year, before I unfollowed in a fit of rage.
I am not a fitness person. I love [some] sports, love martial arts, love bragging about going once in a blue moon to an extortionate boutique “class” (I am booked into a Taylor Swift spin session at 7.30am on Wednesday, so I expect I’ll be talking about that for the next three months) and I certainly love the image of myself as the kind of woman who swans off to brunch of a Sunday in Sweaty Betty leggings with a yoga mat rolled under my arm.
But there is a difference between that and fitness for fitness’s sake. Which I cannot do. I’m not a self-starter, I have no interest in doing something that is not fun, literally ever, even if there are “results” and “goals” and “gains”. I am motivated by praise and instant gratification only.
I accept this now. In about April 2020, when everyone started doing Joe Wicks and barbells were going for hundreds of pounds on eBay, I didn’t. Quite ambitiously (and completely in vain), I followed one person who was doing free home workouts on Instagram Live.
Then another, then another, then another – they all link to each other, you see, it’s a community, and the more you get sucked into it without thinking (but with the intention of one day miraculously becoming “active”, and thus really healthy and, crucially, hot) the more the algorithm thinks you are the kind of person who knows what “whey isolate” and “resistance bands” are.
And the problem is, before long you do know what they are, and are painfully aware that you don’t drink or use them, and yet everywhere you look (which is only on Instagram, you can’t leave the house) what you had thought was a normal morning is in fact leg day or Transformation Tuesday or that all-important but sporadic “rest” day. Because you’re not seeing your real friends, you have no perspective to reassure you that the tiny pool of gym bunnies whose every move you are following on Instagram are not the real world. And then you hate yourself.
It was over a year before I realised the toll it was taking on my mental health and body image – something which, at 29, I had thought was reasonably robust. Every day, by waking up and tapping through these stories without much thought (and, I repeat, absolutely no action) I felt more slovenly, more gross, more of a failure.
It’s not any one of those influencers’ fault. From what I can tell most of them preach more or less responsible advice and though they do make a killing off it, I can’t see that they profit directly from insecurity. But they were compounding all of mine. One day last summer I mentioned one by name and my friend didn’t know who I was talking about. I realised I didn’t have to either and got rid of them all in a fit all at once and quickly.
It was not an instant fix – my self-esteem is obviously not suddenly perfect, because no one’s is – but unbelievably it only took days once they were off my timeline before I forgot their names and never thought about them again. Except on the Tube, where I squint and try not to let myself be tempted into signing up to a discounted training plan trial or convince myself that a branded crop top will force me to change the habits of a lifetime.