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Eating disorders, fitness, and wellness culture

Fitness and wellness are things that supposedly improve our wellbeing, but are they doing more harm than good?

I grew up doing gymnastics and dancing, sports that unfortunately revolve around body shape and size. Meaning that from a young age, I associated exercise with my body image. Most people are aware of these types of risks when participating in sports like this. We almost naturally associate dancers and gymnasts with eating disorder these days. Although as I grew older and entered my late teens, the thing that surprisingly fuelled my eating disorder was wellness culture.

I remember my intentions when I first joined a gym. They were pure and unrelated to how my body looked. I wanted to feel better and get stronger. I developed a strong interest in fitness, and wondered how I could really optimise my time at the gym, and make progress with my strength. So I did some research online, and looking back now, I realise how scary the results were.

Social media, particularly Instagram (and nowadays TikTok too), is the perfect place for wellness culture to advertise itself. Wellness culture is sneaky. It’s played off as fitness, health and wellbeing, convincing us that the behaviours promoted are normal, and beneficial to our health. I was exposed to hundreds of Instagram and YouTube accounts made by fitness or wellness ‘influencers’. ‘Fitspo’ was a huge contributor to my struggles too. This basically is a socially acceptable form of ‘thinspo’. Fitspo and thinspo refer to posed pictures of people who are extremely thin/lean and conventionally attractive, and ‘serve’ to inspire us to change. What we don’t realise is that the shape of our body is not 100% a choice. These people we are seeing most likely have genetics playing into their body shape, or themselves are suffering from an eating disorder. I didn’t know this at the time.

I soon found myself believing that if I were to be committed to the gym, I needed to look like these people. ‘Influencers’, often with very little education or qualifications, were giving out health advice or sharing their own routines to ‘inspire’ others. The health advice I came across was dangerous. Some things that were promoted included very low energy diets, calorie and macronutrient (carbs, protein, fats) counting, weighing foods to lose weight and gain muscle, extreme over exercising, obsessive behaviours such as body checking, constant weighing and measuring, and much more. These are all symptoms of an eating disorder. But for some reason we see them as more socially acceptable when they are paired with a passion for fitness or the gym. Even the gym itself can be a toxic environment because of the way we as a society have decided that the main benefits of going to the gym are weight loss and body re-composition.

This culture on social media really caused me to spiral. Lots of people aren’t aware of the dangers of this space. Once I removed this content from my Instagram page and prevented myself from being exposed to the toxic environments that can occur in gyms, my mental health and eating disorder really started to improve. Exercise has so many amazing benefits for our health, none of which are related to our weight or how our bodies look. Although until we can realise this, and are able to separate body image, diet and movement from one another, exercise can be extremely harmful. I wish I knew how damaging this culture would be to me, and so I want people, particularly parents, to be aware of the health/wellness environments their kids are being exposed to. Whether that be the wellness industry on social media, or a gym class run by instructors using harmful language about exercise and food, it’s so important that we raise awareness of these disordered behaviours so that they no longer continue to be the norm.

written by Molly Connor (nutritionist and lived experience of an ED).

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