Rise of the gym selfies

Model Bar Refaeli strikes a pose at the gym. With some chap who is very proud of his tummy.

Model Bar Refaeli strikes a pose at the gym. With some chap who is very proud of his tummy. Photo: Instagram

Here she is, front on, T-shirt lifted to reveal abs that bring to mind the sectioned torso of a ninja turtle. And here, a calf muscle or a bicep or two tanned arse cheeks squeezed into black hot pants. And here she is again in tight, fluoro attire that I guess are gym clothes because she's wearing trainers.

The Instagram frame is spliced into three sections, each showing a different angle so we can fully experience the curve of her waist, her cellulite-free thighs, her powerful shoulders.

Are you for or against? Fitness selfies are everywhere: gym check-ins, Twitter updates of muddy runners at the True Grit finish line, and friends dripping sweat and self-congratulation onto Facebook feeds. Just check out #gym and #gymflow on Instagram – there's a lot of people intent on proving their fitness wins to the digital world.

Jessica Alba is a huge fan of the gym selfie.

Jessica Alba is a huge fan of the gym selfie.

"When we take a photo of ourselves and post it on social media, we are trying to communicate a specific message," says Kellie Hodder, a psychologist at Bodymatters Australasia, an eating disorders clinic.

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"In the case of gym selfies, we are attempting to convey perhaps that we are hardworking. The pursuit of health is seen as something to be revered in society. Fitness and health have moral meanings attached. People who pursue health and fitness are viewed as being disciplined, motivated, controlled and valued members of society.'

A smug gym selfie doubles as a visual brag then, declaring with false nonchalance, "I'm better than you." Unhealthy people are perceived as lazy and undisciplined, so by posting a photo at the gym we are sharing our moral worth.

When I'm scrolling through my newsfeed, working through half a block of Dairy Milk and on my fourth cup of milky, sugary earl grey, the last thing I want to see are shiny bodies in lycra bursting from my screen.

People who only eat egg white omelettes and pretend they like the taste of kale in post-gym smoothies want the social media world to know that they are strong. And the rest of us, who sleep-in on drizzly mornings, are weak.

Gym selfies exude an irritating moral high ground. And your suspicion that these people care more about illustrating their lives rather than experiencing it, like teenagers videoing a rock concert, it's often true.

Social media continues to erode private space, and now every personal victory is broadcast. Our every action, including our fitness regimes, are constantly out there, creating a sense that our lives are on display.

Hodder shows concern that we construct our experiences through images. Instead of creating a meaningful life, we concentrate on presenting it to others.

"The other aspect of this is that people begin to believe that in order to be successful, their achievements need to be acknowledged publicly,"she says.

"What we are looking for is validation and praise that what we are doing makes us worthy."

But we are only praised if we fit the mould. Consider this meme, captioned "Strong is the new skinny" with a picture of a thin, young woman wearing a padded sports bra and lifting gloves. But she has one arm resting on her head in a classic gesture of submission, and is gazing demurely at the ground. Strong? I only see a culture of beauty obsession masked with a new hashtag.

"Gym selfies have the intent of obtaining praise for how fit or attractive the body looks," Hodder says. "So essentially, people are looking for validation that their body looks good."

Gym selfies of women with inexplicably perfect hair, are all about complying with a beauty norm.

"This contributes to the mentality that our bodies are objects that are on display and exist to be judged," Hodder says. "In addition to this, it perpetuates the belief that in order to be healthy, our bodies should look a certain way or be a particular size."

Any culture that demands a particular conformity may be damaging. "Thinspiration" and "pro-ana" sites are forums where young women encourage each other to starve themselves. Thinspiration has a new incarnation in gym selfies that Hodder calls "fitspiration".

"What makes this movement problematic and damaging is that the focus is on the aesthetic rather than health and wellbeing," she says. "The photos we generally see in fitspiration images show one type of body, shape and size. This communicates the misleading message that fitness and health are related to the appearance of one's body.'

I'm not going to lie – a newsfeed without duck faces or Lorna Jane would be a relief. So friends, I humbly request of you: decide that you are brilliant and special without Facebook validation. Embrace your individual beauty and if you want, get healthy, but don't post a photo about it.

11 comments

  • You jelly?

    Stop "working through half a block of Dairy Milk and on my fourth cup of milky, sugary earl grey" and get off your arse and instead of writing about other people and their photos get in the gym.

    I'll continue my daily morning ritual of eating egg white omelettes and taking my progress shots in the gym.

    Its the best way to track your own progress over an extended period of time.

    Instead of being cynical try thinking about it as a way of motivating those around you, clean eating, healthy living and training hard everyday gets results.

    We deserve to bask in our chiseled glory.

    Commenter
    SelfieKing
    Location
    Sydney
    Date and time
    August 01, 2013, 9:23AM
    • Great article! This makes us think we should a gym selfie post at www.selfieshare.com!

      Commenter
      selfieshare
      Date and time
      August 01, 2013, 9:40AM
      • And they called Generation X the "me" generation. We have nothing on this bunch of 20-something narcissists who seem obsessed about photographing and disseminating to all and sundry everything from the results of their latest ab workout to 'selfies' of tonight's dinner.

        Commenter
        Jace
        Date and time
        August 01, 2013, 11:00AM
        • What's wrong with looking good at a gym? Yes it is for exercise but does it mean that asethetics have to be forgotten? It is a public space after all.

          Year back when I was in a Uni in the UK the Uni Gym and sports centre the management routinely evicts patrons not wearing sports attire properly (shirts + track pants / shorts / gym skirts + sports shoes, no Aloha shirts / jeans / board shorts etc), and as a result people do dress appropriately and look appropriately at those venues. Why can't people at gyms nowadays do the same?

          Commenter
          Adrian
          Location
          Sydney
          Date and time
          August 01, 2013, 11:09AM
          • "What makes this movement problematic and damaging is that the focus is on the aesthetic rather than health and wellbeing," she says. "The photos we generally see in fitspiration images show one type of body, shape and size. This communicates the misleading message that fitness and health are related to the appearance of one's body.'

            Maybe I've been wrong all these years but surely fitness and health ARE related to the appearance of one's body? We all know that it is possible to be fit and healthy and still be overweight, but very very few people actually are. For the most part, if you look healthy (please note I am saying healthy, not skinny) then you are. And if you look unhealthy or overweight, then chances are that you are actually unhealthy.

            Whilst I agree that it is somewhat narcissistic to post photos of your body post workout, at least you are working out and you are even more likely to be healthy. I have yet to see someone in gym clothes posting a picture of their flab unless it is in the "per" phase of a "pre and post" workout program, the vast majority of it is people with the sort of healthy looking body we should aspire to. On the other hand I seem to be bombarded with photos of friends who are clearly overweight and squeezing themselves into clothes a few sizes too small yet still being told how gorgeous they look. I know which type of photo I would much rather see.

            Commenter
            Hurrow
            Date and time
            August 01, 2013, 11:12AM
            • Loved this article and Kellie Hodder's comments. So on the money. Reminded me of the glimpse I had of Big Brother the other night where all the Gen Y's were saying how much they missed their social media and mobile phones because all they wanted to do was "tweet about what they were doing in the BB house". This, coincidentally, involved sitting in deck chairs talking to each other - not doing anything particularly amusing, interesting or inspiring. You can only imagine the tweets: "Mad time, amazeballs, soooo totes incredible!"

              Whatevs!

              Commenter
              LayzeeBoy
              Location
              Melbourne
              Date and time
              August 01, 2013, 11:34AM
              • While I follow a lot of health pages on Instagram, I don't follow any soley "fitspo" pages, I like holistic approach pages, which rarely take the opportunity to flawnt their body via gym selfies. Argh the rise of these "fitspo" and "pro-ana" Instagram pages are just horrible, promoting eating disorders is absoloutly sickening. Oh and I do like kale in my smoothies.

                Commenter
                Mariam
                Date and time
                August 01, 2013, 11:37AM
                • I would agree, I cant stand the selfy culture that seems to be ever increasing. Not is it narcassitic but it also pathetic as people who posts these image clearly need validation by others.

                  Im all for taking pride in your appearance, acheivements and work ethic but when people start to constantly seek validation by posting these pictures of themselves it just becomes sad.

                  Commenter
                  Harry
                  Location
                  Newcastle
                  Date and time
                  August 01, 2013, 12:56PM
                  • The ideal gym selfie is someone *doing* something, not showing off body parts.

                    If "strong is the new skinny", then show that. Not someone "looking strong". Also, time to lose the lifting gloves (and the pads on the bar while squatting). Harden up Australia!

                    Note the first Google Image search hit for "strong is the new skinny" shows a woman doing a front lever, which is pretty damn awesome.

                    Commenter
                    GeoffL
                    Date and time
                    August 01, 2013, 1:17PM
                    • Gym selfies are just the same as most other selfles.

                      Admire me because of how I look (gym, pre-night out, pulling ridiculous pout and sticking out my chest/biceps selflies), the cool places I go & the great people I meet (selfie with celebrity, selfie with view), my luxurious lifestyle (selfie with french champagne, selfie 'loving my new {handbag/shoes/hairstyle etc}, selfie in business class).

                      I have seen the rare selfie that is self depreciating and amusing - but most are about showing off.

                      Commenter
                      Get Real
                      Date and time
                      August 01, 2013, 2:26PM

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