A woman leaning on dumbbells in the gym

‘The fitness one’: what happens when training becomes your identity

Posted by for Strength

If you love exercise, it can become a key part of your life and identity. But there’s a pressure that can come from being seen as ‘the fit one’ for too long. 

In a recent interview with Tally Rye on her Train Happy podcast, influencer Oenone Forbat explained how she grew her following during her prep for a bodybuilding competition. “It happened the minute I got to this tiny, tiny place. People started paying attention to me, they asked me questions. I literally got eyeballs on me by virtue of the fact that I’d lost however many kilos.” 

Years of being deemed ‘the fit one’ began to take its toll on Forbat. “I’ve always been curious and interested in [other] things, but fitness narrowed my mind… [when you’re a fitness influencer] everything in your world becomes very small because it comes down to ‘am I lean enough today?’,” she said. While Forbat still loves exercise, she began moving away from sharing her fitness online, and now is better known for posting about fashion, food, wine and social causes. 

Our identity – both how we see ourselves and the world sees us – is important. But what happens when we let a hobby like exercise become what we’re known as?

The highs and lows of being the fit girl

Lauren Flymen has always been known for loving sport. “I was in the first team for everything at school, I swam for my town and I played squash for my county. At school, I was named as most likely to win a gold medal at the Olympics,” she laughs. But it was only recently that fitness became her public persona.

During the first lockdown, she picked up a skipping rope and fell in love. She wanted to join the community of jump ropers she found online, so set up her Instagram account Lauren Jumps. Despite her friends knowing that she loves exercise, and openly talking to them about skipping, she “started a new account because I was embarrassed for my friends to see what I was doing,” she says. 

“It’s funny that I was happy for random people to see videos of me skipping, but not for my friends. I guess I didn’t want them to see me trip up – I was falling a lot. My personal Instagram account was very much a highlight reel and my videos were so far from perfect.” 

For many, the identity as the ‘fit one’ can come with certain expectations: to nail every workout and to be a natural at every sport. But the truth is that exercise can be pretty exposing. You can’t hide behind something when your body is moving through the air. That’s particularly true when it comes to what we look like. Unfortunately, there’s still layers of aesthetic expectations that come with enjoying exercise unlike, say, reading or playing the guitar.

Now Flymen has built a huge following of 380,000 people – she’s made skipping her career and launched a skipping programme on fitness app Truconnect – there’s more eyes watching her workout routine. “I hate that people assume that I diet or restrict myself,” she says. “I’m actually very relaxed with food, and even have a regular glass of wine to the point where I sometimes feel reluctant to share about my food or social life because it might not always be deemed responsible by some of my followers.”

This is also true for Mara Hafezi. The avid runner and weight trainer has found that being open about her fitness routine has opened her up to commentary, and often criticism.

 “When I tell people about a race they think I’m weird. I’ve been told that I shouldn’t take protein powder because it will make me bulky. Often, when I am around friends and family, there’s always a comment about me eating too much for my ‘fit’ lifestyle or not eating enough because I am obsessed with being ‘fit’. There’s an extra element that comes with being South Asian; a lot of my family think I should be at home being a wife rather than exercising,” she says.

But both women love being known among their friends and followers as ‘the fit one’. “I see fitness as being a big part of my identity and I love exercise,” Hafezi says. Flymen adds: “I see skipping as a hobby like watching TV, rather than a workout – it just so happens to be something that gets my heart rate up. That means I don’t really have that much pressure or stress when sharing my routines. Honestly, I just want to inspire people with the rope.”

The importance of identity

For some people, such as Forbat, it’s not as easy to switch off the pressure. “We have a part of our brain, called the amygdala, that is constantly switched on and trying to protect us. As well as keeping us safe from physical danger, it also works to protect our identity and our sense of who we are,” says sports psychologist Dr Josephine Perry. 

That can be great for making your hobbies into habits. “We want about 90% of what we do in life to be a habit. We don’t want to have to think about things, because then we might talk ourselves out of it,” says Dr Perry. “Seeing yourself as a fit person means when that alarm goes off you don’t lie there questioning whether you should get up. You just do it. You get the trainers on and do the thing you were going to do.”

However, the problem with letting this part of the brain grip onto an identity is that “it doesn’t act rationally,” says Dr Perry. “When our sense of identity is attacked, we might start acting differently or taking it as a personal judgement on ourselves. For example, if we believe that we are ‘the fit one’, and then we lose a fitness competition or suffer from an injury that means we have to take time off the gym, it can be exceptionally hard to deal with. The solution is to have more than one thing that makes you ‘you’. But in a social media-orientated world, where personal brands and fitting a niche is more important than ever, that can be hard. 

Flymen deals with it by keeping Lauren Jumps purely about jump rope to avoid fitness critique seeping into the rest of her life. For Hafezi, it’s about keeping other interests alive. “I had an injury last year which really reduced what I could do in terms of exercise. It was really tough because it was also during lockdown, and I find exercise a crucial way for me to process and clear my mind. It did feel like some of my identity was taken away from me.

“But I’ve always thought it’s important to diversify what you like. For example, I do a lot of work around diversity and equality, so that’s another passion of mine I was able to direct my full attention to during the time I didn’t have sport.”

Dr Perry agrees: “I’ve loved watching Tom Daley at the Olympics, but from a psychological point of view it’s amazing to see how he has fostered different identities. The fact that he can be a knitter and an athlete at the same time is really important, and probably incredibly hard for someone on the international stage from the age of 14. Being able to see yourself as a diver, but also a knitter, also a dad and also a husband, means that when one area struggles you aren’t so scared.”

While you might laugh off comments about being ‘the fit one’, or attempt to mould yourself into the role, don’t underestimate what having a strong sense of identity can do. 

Images: Pexels

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Chloe Gray

Chloe Gray is the senior writer for stylist.co.uk's fitness brand Strong Women. When she's not writing or lifting weights, she's most likely found practicing handstands, sipping a gin and tonic or eating peanut butter straight out of the jar (not all at the same time).