More than half of Instagram’s top fitness influencers promote dubious information

Flinders University associate professor Ivanka Prichard, one of the study’s co-authors, says her findings raise concerns that many accounts claiming to promote health and fitness post images of an objectified and sexualized nature and unrelated to fitness.


She explains that a culture of thinness in the media has influenced the types of images we see in the health and wellness space. We have internalized this subtle ideal and equated thinness with health.

But we know that all kinds of body shapes can be healthy, she continues. It’s more about the behavior of what we do rather than how we look, like engaging in healthy levels of exercise and eating a healthy diet.

Prichard adds that finding a high percentage of sexualized images is also concerning. When women self-objectify, they value themselves for their looks. People see this and may think it’s regulatory and they should post [this type of content] to get likes or followers.

Lauren Calvin, founder of the National Women’s Fitness Academy, is looking to expand this narrow thinking about what a healthy body looks like in the fitness industry. She started the academy after struggling to find a trainer who understood pregnancy fitness.

The lack of body diversity in fitness media made me feel like I had to look a certain way to be taken seriously, which fueled my eating disorder, and the lack of support I could find throughout my pregnancy and postpartum made me realize that there was a huge hole in the education provided to personal trainers about women.

The National Women's Fitness Academy.

The National Women’s Fitness Academy.

Calvin, who suffered from bulimia as a child, says this turned into another eating disorder when she discovered the world of online fitness as a teenager. I discovered clean eating and fitness, which gave me a sense of control. I traded that eating disorder for another orthorexia, an obsession with clean eating.

The academy’s social media promotes body diversity, as well as sharing information on everything from lifting weights during pregnancy to working out during Ramadan.

He’s all toned, tanned youthful, perfect bodies. Advertisements for PT classes were usually a fit young male coaching a fit female. He really annoyed me. I felt like you have to look a certain way to be considered knowledgeable.


People will say we’re promoting obesity, but that’s not the case at all. Overweight people deserve to feel safe and comfortable at the gym, not judged and discriminated against, says Calvin.

Academy graduates receive Certificate III and IV in Fitness, but are also educated on body image, eating disorders, pregnancy and postpartum, menstrual cycle, hormonal conditions such as PCOS [polycystic ovarian syndrome] and endometriosis, intestinal health, menopause and business.

So what can Instagram users do to protect themselves from potentially harmful content?

Associate Professor Gemma Sharp is Head of the Body Image and Eating Disorders Research Group at Monash University and a Senior Clinical Psychologist at Alfred Health. You say the concept [of the audit tool] that’s great, it helps people be more savvy in how they consume this content.

Sharp, who has written extensively on the effects of social media on body image, suggests using a method called protective filtering, which involves taking control of your social media experience by unfollowing or blocking content that causes negative feelings towards you. of your own body.

But Instagram’s algorithm, a mechanism that recommends new content to users using machine learning, can complicate things. Instagram has always carefully guarded information about how its algorithm works and the behaviors and types of content it rewards are constantly changing. As Sharp acknowledges, there are limits to what the individual can do when the power of the algorithm is at stake.

In December 2022, Australia’s eSafety Commissioner called for greater transparency and robust risk management from social media platforms and online services about the dangers their recommendation algorithms pose to users, especially children. While acknowledging that there may be positive benefits to recommendation algorithms, he highlighted potentially negative mental health impacts on vulnerable groups, including those who struggle with body image or eating disorders.

Sharp adds that the responsibility shouldn’t lie solely with the individual user. It would be great if you had Instagram that rewards body-positive fitness influencers. Co-design, she says, with users and companies working together, would help develop an effective solution to this problem.

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