We share so much of our lives on social media, but why are so many of us hesitant about broadcasting our fitness achievements? One writer spoke to gym-going women facing the modern dilemma: to post or not to post?
From job promotions, to engagements, to the new sustainable activewear set we’ve added to our ever-growing gym wardrobe, most of us love posting our personal milestones on social media. I’m no different, and I’m always ready with a fire emoji to comment under someone else’s proud moment, too.
However, there is one important aspect of my life I always second guess sharing: my gym progress.
Showing off or sharing strength?
Since I started training committedly two and half years ago, my strength has progressed in ways I could never have dreamed of. From lifting 100kg to having the confidence to tackle gym-timidation and take on the weights room alone, I’m always talking IRL about my pride in how far I’ve come. So why don’t I feel like I can post about it in the same way as I do my other achievements?
Part of me definitely worries about being seen as a show off, or self-absorbed for flexing, figuratively and literally, on the internet. There is also the fear that I’ll be judged, either on my form and choice of exercise or that my lifts might not look as strong from somebody else’s eyes.
And it seems I’m not alone in this fear of judgement. “After three years of training with a personal trainer, I still haven’t let him put up photos or videos of me during our sessions,” says Claire, 48, from London.
“As a registered disabled person with an ‘invisible’ disability, I often feel judged. I’ll get comments like “You say you’re always in pain, yet you can lift weights”. They haven’t grasped that going to the gym is exhausting for me, but it’s also a huge part of my mental and physical therapy. So I don’t really talk about my workouts online because I feel like I’ll have to explain myself,” she tells Stylist.
Exercise plays such an important role in so many people’s lives, from the positive mental health impacts to the empowering feeling of knowing what your body is physically capable of. It’s the main reason why I love strength training so much.
But even when I’m celebrating what my body can physically do, not what it looks like, toxic comparison culture inevitably begins to creep in.
Feeding comparison culture
As women, our relationship with social media – as well as our bodies – is tricky to say the least. Instagram alone may have over a billion active monthly users, but a 2020 FHE Health survey found that 87% of women compare their bodies to images they see on social media, and that 50% of that comparison is unfavourable.
“A lot of people compare themselves when it comes to exercise,” says regular gym-goer and Instagram user Kirsty, 23. “There’s a danger of becoming in unhealthy competition with yourself, and of looking back and picking out your flaws.
Claire agrees that social media creates a pressure to look a certain way, particularly within the fitness influencing community. “I absolutely compare myself to others,” she says. “I want my body to both look and work like the amazingly fit women I see. Nevermind that I might be 20 years older or that my body fails me. It makes me feel vulnerable and let down by my body because I can’t work out as hard as others.” “I feel proud that I go to the gym three times a week, but after all this time, I don’t have the super fit body others have. So I don’t take many photos or post them,” she admits.
The power of positive influencers
Of course, across social media there are also positive spaces that celebrate inclusivity within the fitness industry, from plus-size influencers to online communities like Poorna Bell’s @seemystrong, a platform that tells the “fitness stories of women and non-binary folk across colour, culture, age, body size and ability.”
Ella, 23, from Manchester doesn’t always feel the need to compare her fitness to other people’s. “If I see someone lifting more than me I occasionally feel like I have to up my game, but that’s no different to if I saw someone doing that in the gym,” she says.
“I think it’s unrealistic to compare yourself to people in terms of fitness progression, as you never know their background and how long they’ve been training for,” she explains. “A few years ago it would have affected me more. But now if I compare, I do so from a competitive place rather than a self-conscious place.”
Instead, Ella sees the positives in posting your fitness on social media. She used to post her workout videos to a dedicated fitness Instagram account, which she found helpful for tracking her progress. “I would keep videos on my phone, but having them in one place on my grid or even in my story archives helped me to see my progress, whether I was lifting more or my form had improved,” she says.
Posting = motivating
“I post fitness pictures to track my progress and because seeing the results motivates me to be consistent with my training,” agrees Yaourou, from London. “I’m not a fitness fanatic but it helps me to keep the mental strength to get up and move.”
“I’m not concerned about being judged because some people will judge you no matter what you do,” she says. “If people think that I’m showing off when I post then that’s fine. I much prefer to see it as motivating and inspiring, myself and others, instead.”
“When I look at other people, I prefer to think “I want to learn from her” rather than thinking “why does she seem so much better?” she says.
Kirsty prefers to post her running data on Instagram rather than images of herself, as she says focussing on the numbers helps. However, sharing times or lifting PBs can still be a tool for comparison. “I follow a lot of other running accounts and sometimes if I’ve done a really good split and have posted about it, I’ll see someone else on a similar training plan to me run it faster. It makes me forget about my own progress and I start taking it away from myself,” she says.
While Kirsty sees sharing gym progress online as “good”, she recognises that it’s not essential. “I think it’s important to remember that you don’t have to work out just to make gains or get faster times. Exercise can and should be for the fun and joy of it too, not just the result.”
Follow @StrongWomenUK on Instagram for the latest workouts, delicious recipes and motivation from your favourite fitness experts.
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