My mom has been a group fitness instructor for as long as I can remember. Some of my earliest memories are coloring on a yoga mat while women around me jumped, kicked, and squatted in totally ’80s leg warmers and leotards. I became a personal trainer and kickboxing instructor in high school and taught classes all through college. Daily workouts were something that made me feel happy and were a way to manage stress. But after I graduated, got married, and popped out twin boys, fitness went from being a part of my life that I loved to something I barely had time for anymore.
Recently, as I sat at home on my couch, bored while my kids played, I’d scroll through before and after pics on Instagram and look up workouts and healthy recipes on Pinterest. All these ladies looking fierce in yoga pants that were actually being used for yoga made me thirsty to get my ass back in gear. I’m shy about posting my own workouts or hashtagging my meals with #cleaneating, because I don’t like the thought of people looking at my photos and judging my level of fitness based on a single selfie. But when a girl who I know from writing online (but who I’ve never met IRL) was posting a lot about how she was losing a ton of weight, I messaged her about it. She told me she was a Beach Body coach, and asked if I wanted to join her secret online motivational fitness group? Here’s where I made my big mistake: I swiped right.
Women supporting women! What could possibly go wrong?
At first I was hesitant, because I didn’t want to be forced to buy anything, but when she promised me that this wasn’t a sales pitch, just a place for like-minded woman to cheer each other on in their fitness goals, I thought, “Sure, why not.”
In the beginning, everything seemed great. Women in the group would share #sweatyselfies, photos of themselves fresh from a workout, no makeup, no filters, all sweaty hair, don’t care. Everyone was really supporting each other. Even if someone’s admitted in a post that they struggled to get through a workout or couldn’t finish a run, no one said anything negative.
But instead of motivating me to get up and move so I could post my own photo, seeing these women’s accomplishments all day every day started to make me feel bad about myself. I’d be proud that I ran 3 miles, only to log on to Facebook and see that someone in the fitness group just ran 6 whole miles—and then lifted weights too.
As a trainer, I know that every person’s body is different. But when you start to form relationships with people they’re not just strangers in your Instagram feed, but people with names whose personal circumstances you’re familiar with. In that sense, it’s harder not to compare yourself directly to them. And that’s what I started to do. I let my competitive side take over, and compared to the rest of my fitness group, I felt behind the pack. They were acing it, and I felt like I was barely passing. I started pushing myself to workout every day, even on the days when I knew my body needed rest, just for the satisfaction of being able to post my #sweatyselfie.
Don’t talk about my brownie like that
Then came the food shaming. Usually, I love running and buttercream frosting in equal measure. I’ve worked really hard to think of food in terms of fuel, rather than in terms of being good or bad for you. I genuinely like to eat vegetables and don’t really care for red meat, but I do have a sweet tooth, and I don’t feel guilty for having a nightly ice cream bar or flavored coffee. I know I’m at a healthy weight, and my doctor isn’t concerned with any of my blood test results. But my fitness group didn’t see food the way I did.
Eating a cookie or two was grounds for saying that you “messed up.” Guzzling water to ignore natural hunger cues was encouraged. Some of them would routinely go on a three day “cleanse” diet that consisted mostly of powdered drinks and then brag about how much weight they lost, only to wail about it days later when that water weight reappeared on the scale again. Full body measurements were to be taken often and then posted to compare results.
The rational part of me, the part of me that was a trained fitness instructor, knew this behavior wasn’t healthy. But at the same time, group think is very real and very powerful. I totally get now how platform wedges became a trend, even though they looked good on absolutely no one.
Soon enough I was one of them, only allowing myself one “bad” meal a week and posting pictures of my anemic breakfasts in hopes of getting internet high-fives.
Although the group’s founder made good on her promise not to try and pressure me into buying any of her multi-level marketing fitness products, that didn’t stop her from using me as part of her sales technique. I don’t share the details of my workouts on Facebook, but I found out that the group leader took it upon herself to approach one of my close friends and tried to sell to her. Her pitch? That I had used the products (I ordered a yoga program at one point and returned it, opting to use a set of DVDs my mom lent me instead) and saw great results. I was appalled that my body was being used as a marketing tool without permission.
At first I didn’t say anything for fear of being kicked out of the group. But the more I thought about it, the more uncomfortable I was with the situation. I was allowing myself to feel guilty about the foods I used to enjoy and was developing restrictive food habits—all in the name of losing weight. Worse, these women were supportive of it. Now, my bad habits were being used to promote this way of life to others…behind my back. Something had to give.
The heart wants what it wants
After almost nine months in my Facebook fitspo group, I left. I didn’t have the courage to explain my reasoning to the other women in the group, because honestly, I didn’t know that I would have the strength to leave if they’d ask me to stay. The group did help me lose weight. I’m about five pounds lighter than I was went I first joined the group. But I feel as though the experience has completely messed with my self-image and relationship with food.
I’d be lying if I said I don’t miss it. It’s hard to scroll through my feed and not see their posts, to eat my breakfast and wonder how it measures up to everyone else’s and not know. But I’m confident I made the right decision. For me, this fitspo group wasn’t inspiring at all. It just made me obsessive about my body and lead me down the path to disordered eating. I know I need to step back and remember what it’s like to eat and work out in a way that makes me happy again, and that removing myself from the group is the first step towards getting there.