The problem with gym selfies

Originally written for published 17 February 2017

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We see them all the time on our Facebook and Instagram feeds. Gym selfies have been a ‘thing’ for a while now and we know that if you’re narcissistically inclined you’re more likely to be posting them for the world to see.

Research out of London’s Brunel University found narcissists were more likely to: write status updates about their diet and exercise to publicise the effort they put into their physical appearance; and frequently write updates on their achievements, motivated by the need for attention and validation.

So, what’s wrong with paying a little attention to how you look and showing the world how hard you worked for it? Well, a few things actually.

Selfie culture is encouraging a society that’s increasingly more inward focused and concerned about how they present themselves to the world – this is much more evident when you look at gym or workout selfies. As #WomenNotObjects campaigner Madonna Badger says, girls are growing up thinking how they look is more important than how they feel, who they are, and what they can do.

Selfie takers are often self-objectifying, that is, viewing and treating themselves as objects and inviting others to evaluate them according to how they look. This usually goes hand in hand with constant monitoring of outward appearance.

This sort of preoccupation with self and how one looks to others can lead to several psychological and experiential consequences.

Body shame and appearance anxiety

People on both sides of the selfie are equally affected – the selfie taker for not receiving the validation and attention they’re looking for and the observer for believing they can never live up to impossible ideals, leading to feelings of inadequacy and unworthiness. This can drive some to ‘fix’ their physical ‘flaws’ and ‘blemishes’ through Photoshop or more extreme measures like cosmetic surgery.

Gym selfies can also be seen as body shaming behaviour – the post of the ‘perfect’ body conveying, consciously or unconsciously, that ‘my body is better than yours and therefore I’m better than you’ or ‘I’m working harder than you, you lazy cow’.

Either way, no one wins.

Reduced concentration

All that attention focused inwardly and considering how you look to others means less headspace and reduced concentration on mental and physical tasks. Considering how to meaningfully contribute to society, what we hope to achieve or what’s important are crowded out by continual thoughts of ‘how do I look in this?’ or ‘I hope my hair looks OK’.

It turns the spotlight towards considering how a moment will look to others when captured, filtered and edited to perfection and takes the participant away from fully experiencing or being in the moment. Perhaps the rise in popularity of mindfulness is a reaction to this.

Reduced awareness of internal body states

As attention is focused from an outsider’s perspective it reduces awareness of our body’s internal states – the self-objectifier pays less notice to feelings of hunger, fatigue and emotions. Consequentially, there’s increased mental health risks such as depression, feelings of isolation and eating disorders.

Thanks to body acceptance and body positivity movements, we’re moving away from the thin ideal that’s been predominant in our society for so long. As a result, we’re seeing varied body shapes in social media. This is a good thing, but all it means is that we are seeing a slightly wider range of bodies in gym selfies.

The bottom line is, selfies are still turning bodies into objects and publishing them in social media is still encouraging the world to judge those bodies by how they look.

You may argue that many people use selfies as a tool for empowerment. Empowerment is historically a term for the process of increasing autonomy, strength and self-determination in marginalised people and communities.

Although the term now seems to have been appropriated to refer to almost anything you do and is very focused on the individual, it should not be confused with external validation or approval and it should mean more than ‘feeling beautiful’ or ‘feeling like otherpeople think I’m beautiful’.

Empowerment, self-worth and happiness is more than skin deep and not defined by how you look or how others think you look.

‘Strong’ may be the ‘new skinny’ and while body acceptance and body positivity movements are all about loving yourself as you are, if you’re posting numerous gym selfies it still comes down to one thing – the selfie is simply asking the viewer to judge the subject according to how they look – it’s still objectifying bodies, just dressing (or undressing) it differently.

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