In a world where looking good can be your livelihood, a body is rarely just a body. It’s a walking ad. It’s no wonder an image-obsessed industry has created distrust in what is real and what is fake. A study by the University of Glasgow found that 9 out of 10 fitness influencers give inaccurate and untrustworthy information about weight management. But even with the level of distrust in the fitness space, it’s impossible to escape.
The industry can actively damage both our bodies and our minds, instilling toxic narratives that can be difficult to shake. With an explore page filled with “perfect” physiques, the ordinary everyday body is presented as a problem. We conducted a survey last month to assess just how consumers in the UK felt about the fitness industry today. From dedicated weight trainers to newbies to the space, we uncovered widespread discontent.
Consumers are waking up to the spread of misinformation, and are calling for a space that’s expert, transparent and ego-free. Today, the global fitness industry is worth approximately $100 billion dollars. Yet it’s a industry that’s consistently misinterpreting its audience’s needs. At worst, it commoditizes our insecurities and sells them back to us. A space labelled as “health” gets a free-pass to pedal short-cuts and quick-fixes. Fat metabolisers and testosterone boosters (dangerous hangovers from diet culture) are deftly repackaged with new language for a new audience.
The Kardashian’s endorsement of appetite suppressant lollipops was, for many young people, a formative introduction to the space. It shows how predatory the industry can be, transforming supplements into sweets so that women (with surgically altered bodies) can sell them back to their impressionable fans. Gen Z, who have grown up with the intensity of online comparison, are now rejecting brands that invite unhealthy mindsets. Our study found that consumers are frustrated by the “posed” inauthenticity of fitness online. Without a backstory, images meant to serve as aspiration will only alienate.
Part of the problem is that our definition of perfect has become distorted. Idealised stereotypes of what bodies should look like damage those within the community as well as those on the fringe. The “perfect” male body has only become bigger and more muscular over the years. It’s a standard that’s so pervasive, that even children’s action figures are bulking up, altering their perceptions during their most formative years. From then, pursuit of perfection can be all-consuming. A study found that 22% of men aged 18-24 reported muscularity-oriented disordered eating. Muscle dysmorphia or “bigorexia” is simply a symptom of the fitness industry’s image obsession.
Ideas of “perfect” bodies even prevent women from being active. A Sport England study famously found that 75% of women did not exercise for fear of judgement about their appearance and ability. Even spaces lauded for their honesty and authenticity (like TikTok) are contributing to a damaging conversation. Last year it was found that TikTok “shadow-banned” or limited the reach of videos by users who were fat, LGBTQ, or had intellectual disabilities, in a misguided attempt to prevent cyber-bullying.
The move once again silenced and hid people with larger bodies, and perpetuated the idea that skinny is the standard. Countless young people have spoken out on how apps like TikTok have warped their body image. Trends like #whatieatinaday has invited dangerous comparison culture, causing Gen Z to obsess over their diet and exercise. The comments sections of these videos are often even more toxic, with users tearing down their own bodies. This kind of culture is deeply unhealthy, and is created and perpetuated by young people themselves. But the blueprints have been handed to them by brands.
YouTuber Chloe Ting went viral on TikTok with fitness tutorials promising “hourglass waists” and “bubble butts” in as little as two weeks. Language this cartoonish feels laughable, but it’s become an industry standard. In 2019 Virgin Active was called out for selling “dieting” meals named “Thigh Gap” and “Skinny Elvis.” It’s alarming, but also bizarrely off-brand for a gym to be promoting an unhealthy relationship with food and exercise. Yet time and again this is what we see.
Our study found consumers are increasingly wary of content that they see as damaging, and platforms given to people they see as unqualified. Already 47% of the UK see social media as “not trustworthy at all.” When you look at the landscape it’s not hard to understand their skepticism. They know that perfect six packs are the product of more than just the protein powder they’re advertising. They’re aware that “beach bodies” are tools designed to profit off their insecurities. There’s an urgent need for transparency in the fitness industry, one that consumers are crying out for. Our study found that consumers are seeking a trusted voice in a saturated space. To reposition for a new audience, brands need to cut through the noise, and offer expert utility where others won’t.
The fitness industry’s working off insight that’s a decade out of date. Gen Z wants to evolve the industry’s narrow standard of fitness. They’re seeking voices that talk about health in more complex ways, where aesthetics and body image are just a bi-product. They want a space that’s open, honest and accepting, and they’re already spearheading the change they want to see. Today, Lizzo is a leading voice in veganism on TikTok, challenging preconceived notions about weight. For Gen Z, fitness is a complex space where body image is just a part of the equation. Health and happiness are serving more aspiration for this audience. What’s clear is that there’s a disconnect between what the industry perceives as aspirational and the modern reality. Brands need to reimagine their roles more holistically. To reconnect, they must embody the change young people want to see, not the standards they’re fighting to change.