The bigger the better? Unmasking the ugly face of male fitness
By Emma Price
Male Instagram fitness accounts are a whirlwind of masculinity. They centre around the triumph of the ‘riser and grinder’, the ‘struggle’ and the ‘hardship’. This contributes to a dangerous affirmation that never giving in is a sign of strength.
In the face of rising awareness about male mental health, the implicit messages behind male motivators’ accounts are potentially dangerous. They go against the positive improvements society has seen regarding men talking about emotions and reaching out for help.
I realised a crucial element was missing from the male fitness accounts, after hours of scrolling through Instagram. Women fitness influencers share encouragement and recognise vulnerabilities: the gym can become a platform for self-love and communal effort. But too often, I felt a cold withdrawal of emotion on the male accounts. Their purpose was purely to lift more and look good with a shirt off.
This deprives men of the opportunity for self-love through exercise and sets unrealistic expectations of body image and gender roles. Instagram promotes the ‘ideal’ body as a symbol of optimal masculinity. A whole array of symptoms come with this toxic portrayal.
Men are culprits (as well as women) of editing photos. However, the adjustments are more likely to go unnoticed. Influencers often edit photos to falsely advertise a ‘quick and easy’ route to look like them. Although a quick money fix for the promoters, it can have detrimental impacts on men’s self-esteem and body image.
Companies offering protein and other supplements can be useful. But, many exist solely to profit off insecure, vulnerable beginners who don’t know any better. Some of these products are also backed up by poor research and can be dangerous. Gymtalk argues that the ‘shortcut to fitness’ concept is a main marketing approach of such companies.
On the topic of irresponsibility is the deception that surrounds steroid taking, particularly on the male side of fitness. The physiques of many of the ‘biggest’ models cannot be achieved naturally on a 5-day split program eating rice cakes and chicken. But our unhealthy obsession and innocent naivety can deceive young men into buying falsely advertised and unrealistic body types. Not only this, but the disappointment of not reaching the desired outcome, even after months of dedication, could lead to serious negative emotions.
Peter Ward, a second year student, commented on this problem: “There is a vast amount of very influential people that claim to be ‘natural’ but in fact, they’re taking some sort of hormone enhancers”. He also noted a change he has personally witnessed on Instagram. “Only recently have some [fitness influencers] started to come clean about the supplements they have been taking and why. This is a step in the right direction.”
There is a long road to recognising the misuse of Instagram to abuse men’s search for information about fitness. The repeated message of ‘hard work’ and ‘self-motivation’ glazes over the vortex of false advertisement and unrealistic bodies. For the sake of both physical and mental health, there needs to be a collective movement to make Instagram more transparent.