If a friend or loved one told you that they were struggling with body positivity, would you tell them that “nothing tastes as good as skinny feels?” That there are creams that can help smooth their stretch marks, lollipops that can suppress their appetite, or tea that can flatten their tummy? Of course you wouldn’t.
This type of image-driven language was the norm for quite some time, but there has been a noticeable societal shift in how we talk about fitness and weight loss. Size and racial diversity is what is catching people’s attention, and every day we see more and more brands striving to make this shift. However, many voices online, including those who are most influential, are still projecting this harmful messaging.
Today, more than ever, fitness & wellness influencers are being utilized to spread brand messages. People have always developed strong personal relationships with their fitness instructors and trainers, and their impact has always been profound as a result. Even in times of COVID-19 quarantine, fitness influencers and instructors are looked towards to provide a sense of normalcy and structure. In many cases, they were also the first to step up and offer value in the midst of chaos with at-home workouts that require no equipment.
As a fitness instructor & influencer who cares deeply about each person I am messaging to, I am hyper-sensitive to the effects of brand messaging. The weight of words spoken by our demographic is so impactful because it’s deeply personal. Due to more time at home, social media usage has increased drastically which has in turn increased our audience.
It’s never been more important to think before we speak, consider the ramifications of our missteps before we move, and remind ourselves of the fragility of our audience before addressing them. What may feel like raw motivation can translate to shame.
One of the reasons that fitness influencers and instructors were able to transition so easily to online teaching is the pre-established relationship with their following. When a fitness chain obtains a cult-like following, it almost always expands to their instructors and their social channels. You’re probably familiar with SoulCycle, Rumble, & Barry’s Bootcamp, but you might not realize that many members of their team have lucrative online followings. The accessibility of these instructors-turned-influencers, particularly during quarantine, is highly valuable to their followers. Afterall, one of the reasons group fitness is so popular in the first place is due to a desire for community in a time when we spend a lot of time isolated in front of screens.
Though the beauty standards in our society are evolving, you wouldn’t know it from the sheer number of people talking about the “Quarantine fifteen” online. Few things are more discouraging than the fatphobic memes popping up all over the internet. As influential people online, it is our responsibility not to perpetuate this harmful “COVID-15” rhetoric.
For much of the population there is a fine line between positive thoughts of self-improvement, and destructive thoughts of potential self-harm. This is a distinction that influencers and brands alike are responsible for treating with the utmost care.
Fitness and wellness instructors, influencers, and brands need to work together to eliminate the language that suggests that fitness is purely physical. While I do think it is okay for people to have aesthetic goals for themselves, it is entirely irresponsible for anyone else to suggest what those goals should be. Language like “get that summer body” or “don’t let yourself gain the quarantine-15” is antiquated, out of touch, and extremely dangerous. At this moment in time, physical fitness should be promoted for the sake of mental health over anything else.
The notion that one must work out in order to be attractive or indulge in social situations (RIP) can be so extremely harmful when consumed by the wrong sets of eyes and ears. I spoke with Sarah Gaines, a teacher, coach, & entrepreneur who believes that we should be speaking in terms of longevity and muscular strength rather than calorie burn and appearance. “We need to be really intentional with the words that we’re using and really think before putting words out. We need to ask ourselves, ‘what is the impact of this statement going to be?’”
According to the National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders, or ANAD, in the United States alone at least 30 million people of all ages and genders suffer from an eating disorder. Roughly 80% of Americans use social media. I think you and I can both draw our own conclusions on the sheer potential disaster when these two mix. These types of statistics are what encourage me to not only be careful with my messaging, but also with what advice I give.
“I try to make sure everyone knows that my way is not the best way, it might just be the best way for me”- Jordan Drankoski, CEO of DFD Creative
Body-positive marketing at the intersection of fitness and fashion can be tricky to navigate. But there are definitely some shining stars worth noting.
Kick It By Eliza is a fitness method with a cult following that is taking off worldwide due to one main factor: inclusivity. Founder & Creator Eliza Shirazi summed up their success for us - “Four (of many) pillars that are a part of [our] mission are: always keep it real, help people understand that transformation does not happen quickly, it will not be the same for everyone, and to come as you are wherever you are on your journey. This inspires every email marketing campaign, Instagram post, and any additional touch point for a Kick It client.” Kick It started out as solely an in-person fitness class and has now expanded to some of the largest online platforms, as well as developed its own virtual platform as a result of COVID-19. As a result, people don’t even need to leave their houses to feel personally included by Eliza.
Another fitness brand excelling in both body-positive language and mental health awareness is Pure Barre. Their Instagram page is loaded with language like “Your body loves you. Love it back”, and testimonials from real members about how the at-home workouts are empowering them to get through this difficult time. They feature people of all ages, including some that are significantly older than we are used to seeing in fitness marketing.
A great example in the fashion industry is Aerie. Their self-proclaimed mission is “to empower all women to love their real selves”. They have not retouched a photo used in their marketing since 2014. The brand recently utilized a group of influencers and activists to support this #AerieReal campaign. These chosen “Role Models”, as described by the brand, are responsible for making positive change in their communities. A quick look at these influencer’s personal social channels shows that they are not just promoting Aerie for a paycheck, but rather because it aligns with their lifestyle and goals. Is it any coincidence that Aerie just experienced it’s 20th straight quarter of double digit sales growth?
Athleta is doing a great job of this as well, even expanding their inclusivity to the world of younger girls. Marketing to youth can be especially tricky (and dangerous), but Athleta is navigating this territory quite well. They recently worked with a diverse group of girls on a campaign to get comfortable talking about bras, a topic that adorably had many of the girls giggling. Given that Athleta starts with youth sizes and goes all the way up to an inclusive fitting adult 3XL, it’s a no brainer to start getting women comfortable both in their skin & in your product from a young age.
Two additional brands that have seen success with inclusivity are Beyond Yoga and Girlfriend Collective. Beyond Yoga partnered with body-positivity influencer Noelle Downing in 2017-- trailblazing the inclusivity movement in fitness apparel. Girlfriend Collective also implements diversity into their advertising and sizing, earning themselves a huge cult following.
How can we make sure that body positive messaging isn’t just a trend? Every brand has a chance, and quite frankly - a duty, to adopt responsible language and partner with responsible people to convey it.
Influencer Vetting: It’s important to make sure that the influencers you work with share your brand’s core values. For example, avoid working with that influencer who photoshopped herself “before and after quarantine” if you're trying to position your brand as body positive.
Research Backgrounds: Find out if an influencer’s education is suitable for the types of content they are pushing. Are they a registered dietician? A certified personal trainer? A lot of this is probably available on their LinkedIn profile, but if it’s not-- ask.
Use Data to Answer Your Questions: Using an influencer marketing software's value-match tool can allow you to flag words that you would or would not want your partners using. This will help you avoid working with the 3.3k+ fashion influencers that used the term “Quarantine-15” in the last month.
These are trying times for all of us, but quarantine has presented a unique opportunity for fitness influencers to have an even more crucial role in the lives of their followers. Brands and influencers alike need to use this time to continue solidifying their position on body-positive communication. Influencers need to be intentional about their language and marketers need to be cautious about choosing partners that represent their brand’s message. Now, more than ever, we all need to understand the weight of our words.