The Wolf Inside the Insta-Gym

“You’ve got thighs like a rugby player… massive calves, too,” my male classmate informed me during a History lesson in ninth grade. It was a non-uniform day, and I’d opted for bare legs and a skirt.

“Is that a good thing?” I whispered back in horror. I had never played a game of rugby in my life.

“Dunno,” he shrugged nonchalantly, and turned around to continue flicking paper balls at the bin.

At five foot one and a half, with naturally well-endowed thighs and bum, I welcomed the Instagram fitness generation with open arms. Finally! Here were some mainstream representations of curvy women who diverged from the five-foot-eleven-legs-up-to-heaven-Jack-Wills-thigh-gap-Tumblr aesthetic I’d grown up with. I could finally embrace my short ‘scrum-half’ thighs, the anxiety over which had, among a complex multitude of other factors, contributed to an eating disorder from the age of fifteen to eighteen.

It was probably around 2016 when I felt the tide change.

Between Kayla Itsines at the willowy end of the fitness spectrum and the protein-powered bodybuilders at the other, came a hoard of girl-next-door hourglass influencers with their “strong not skinny” slogans and progress shots, providing us with resources and hope that we might one day achieve that level of thiccness* and see the light at the end of our own “fitness journeys.” However, what has become clear to me more recently is that as long as social media is fueling the fitness industry, our ‘journey’ will never end; new paths will form, and it will keep changing direction depending on the fickle barrage of images illuminating our phones each day.

*having a bubble butt and perfectly proportioned breasts, while still maintaining a corseted waist and washboard stomach – lumps in all the ‘right’ places, essentially (popular usage includes “Damn, she thicc”). 

On a visit to Berlin’s Haus der Kulturen der Welt last October, I was flicking through a book of essays on modern capitalism, and I chanced across one on gym culture. It didn’t focus on the obvious connections — the gym industry’s endless production line of products and extortionate monthly membership rates — but instead, it looked at how the mechanical repetitions of gym workouts satisfy an innate need for manual labor; a (somewhat Victorian) subconscious desire to be cogs in an industrial system.

Unfortunately, I forgot to jot down the name of both the author and the book and have had no luck locating it since, so I’m yet to discover if their hypothesis rings true. But the word mechanical stuck with me and made me look at gym culture in a new light. As did a resounding phrase in Jameela Jamil’s well-articulated critique of the Kardashians — “a wolf in sheep’s clothing.”

Before I begin my interrogation of the very structures that I myself profit from, I should probably pause for a serious privilege check: I am a healthy white western woman, my body is accepted by mainstream society, I am lucky to have the financial means to go to the gym at all. This is not a radical or brave article to write, but I think it’s worth writing anyway.

I am a religious gym-goer and regular exercise is a huge part of my life. In fact, it is vital to my mental health — I get cranky and anxious without it. Nothing boosts my endorphins like going for a run around the city at sunset or feeling increasingly strong while lifting dumbbells or falling asleep with that glorious post-gym muscle ache. Morning exercise sets up my day and objectively puts me in a better mood. For the most part, I find it empowering and therapeutic. As a recovered anorexic, exercise is also what enables me to eat huge, healthy portions and feel good about it (perhaps a problem in itself, but as anyone who’s experienced an eating disorder knows, those anxieties never disappear completely, so you just learn to adapt). It’s hardly a ground-breaking revelation that exercise is a very good thing.

But Instagram DIY gym culture can become just as toxic and obsessive as portion controlling and weight-loss regimes. And when you take a step back, it’s actually a very unnatural process — not necessarily the exercises themselves, but the intent behind them.

Unlike aerobic or functional exercise, in our current aesthetics-focused gym culture we work on remote sections of our bodies in a clinical way. We are constantly overloaded with tips, tricks and equipment for “growing that booty” or achieving that “perfect hips to waist ratio” or sharpening our abs — we don’t think of the body holistically, but break it into remote areas to work on, chipping away at ourselves like clay models.

Unsurprisingly, this can lead to dysmorphia and relentless perfectionism, and it is no healthier than watching Burberry adverts. Because you find yourself trying to enlarge your bum but not your thighs or tone your arms without making them “bulky.” Or you may exercise your chest and put weight on your boobs but not your stomach. It makes bodily satisfaction practically impossible, because there is always more work to be done. And then, it’s no longer just a case of “booty gains” but of sculpting your “side booty”, “upper booty”, “under booty” (who KNEW there were so many different parts of booty?) and suddenly your Instagram Discover page is a veritable minefield of at-home workout videos by tanned Gymshark warriors clad in beautiful pastel-colored lycra performing a hundred different variants of the same exercise. You can’t seem to take your eyes off their absurdly spherical gluteus maximus pulsing up and down like a mesmeric orb. Before you know it, you end up operating like the exercise machines you use.

I’d be lying if I said I didn’t save pretty much all of the aforementioned workouts for my gym sessions, and that I don’t feel great when my bum feels perky — the overwhelming irony of this article is that I am a complete slave to what I’m critiquing — but when you’re in the gym doing 40 donkey kicks on one side and you start thinking about how ridiculous it actually is, it does break the spell a little.

There’s absolutely nothing wrong with wanting to feel and look good — whatever “good” constitutes on the Kendall to Kylie Jenner sliding scale nowadays. The free routines and advice flowing out of the Insta-gym certainly give people more autonomy and more resources for getting fit. It’s much easier to tone your muscles than it is to drop three dress sizes and miraculously stretch your legs to conform to the Victoria’s Secret paragon. But it still capitalizes on insecurity while making us feel like we are entirely our own agents. We are told that we are in control of our bodies and our workout plans, but we’re still subscribing to an exhausting ideal that has just as much capacity for self-loathing, physical shame, and guilt as the other extreme. What starts as an easy and empowering method of toning up can often end in a desire to sculpt every limb to perfection.

We are also told that with the right amount of work, we can achieve the same physique as our favorite Instagram athlete; but it is still a genetic lottery, just a different kind of genetic lottery to the catwalk.

This tiring pursuit of “body goals” also participates in a much broader narrative — the upward neoliberal trajectory that instills in us an unceasing desire to progress and consume; a constant echo of more, more, more. It is the same narrative of dissatisfaction that convinces homeowners they need to redesign each bedroom and bathroom every two years in order to remain on trend.

It is ever-present in the language of these fitness influencers, who hark on about gains and “progress shots.” That their lingua franca is saturated in monetary semantics is unsurprising given how Instagram is becoming an increasingly capitalist platform where influencers can earn thousands through sponsored posts and fast-fashion adverts — where ‘selling an ideal’ is no longer just metaphorical. What begins as a healthy way of connecting to your body, getting out of your head and realizing the strength you’re capable of, ends up getting tangled in more images, more dysmorphia, more dissatisfaction and more spending.

Will I stop utilizing these Instagram workouts and attempt to switch off from this gym generation? Probably not, no.

But it’s still important to be aware of the wolf in sheepskin, and how addictive this ostensibly healthier approach to achieving body confidence can become. As with everything nowadays, it feels like we’re so focused on becoming that we forget to simply be.


Photos (in order of appearance) by Alida Bea, Nikki Burnett, and Camille Rose Perrett.