When Kate misses a workout, she gets nervous.
"I find myself checking my ab definition and the size/rotundity of my arse when I can't get to the gym," says the 23-year-old, who aims to lift weights at least three times a week. "Whether it's down to illness, other priorities or social occasions, missing a workout makes me genuinely afraid that my figure will have gotten 'worse'. I worry about how it will look for upcoming social events, and especially about the cumulative effect of other workouts I might miss in the future."
To her closest mates, Kate will admit that her anxiety surrounding exercise owes a lot to the pressure she feels to meet a certain "ideal". For her, that's "abs, an hourglass figure and a thinner face" – a body type epitomised by influencer @gracebeverley (formerly @GraceFitUK), who inspired her to start weightlifting. But to others, Kate's not as forthcoming.
"When I talk to people I'm not so comfortable around, I say it's because I enjoy feeling strong and fit, and refer back to a story about showing myself up as unfit when I went on a run with my boyfriend and his housemates, portraying it as a catalyst for health-motivated change," she explains. "I also say it helps me get out of my own head a bit. Each explanation is truthful, but when I say it's solely down to physical health, I know it's dishonest."
Kate's experience is a familiar one. Since 2016, I've been a faithful adherent of sweating it out on a regular basis. When I first began exercising regularly, with only dumbbells and a Jillian Michaels home workout DVD, I was open about my motivations: to lose fat and develop muscle tone. Now, I tell people I do it for the mental benefits and my enjoyment in feeling strong. It's only partly true; I'm omitting to mention that I have clear aesthetic goals, that I eat a restrictive low-sugar diet, that I get stressed out if I haven't made it to the gym at least three times a week (it used to be four). Although I wouldn't judge others by the same yardstick, when it comes to my own body I'm terrified of putting on a substantial amount of weight. But rarely will I admit this anymore.
In the three years that have passed since I learnt what a deadlift was, there has been increased mainstream conversation around body image – an issue that disproportionately affects young people and is fed by social media pressures.
Millennial-driven campaigns, like the body positivity movement, have raised awareness of fatphobia and body-shaming. The rise of mainstream feminism has also helped to equip the public with the language to talk about unrealistic aesthetic expectations placed upon women (remember the backlash to the infamous ProteinWorld "Beach Body Ready" ads in 2015?), with attention now turning to the damage being done to young men who feel they have to emulate some ripped Adonis. Meanwhile, brands which capitalise off presenting consumers unattainable body standards, like Victoria's Secret, have seen profits collapse. Instead, wellness has become all-consuming, with its ostensible focus on mental and emotional health first and foremost.
The fitness industry has noted these changes and accordingly rebooted its branding. Gone are the overt promises of weight and fat loss. Fitness influencers who once talked in terms of pounds shed now speak in hashtags like #strongnotskinny and #gainingweightiscool, posting pictures emphasising stretch marks and stomach rolls for relatability points. Magazines speak about healthy "lifestyles" and discuss fitness through a framework of "mindfulness" and "strength".
It would appear there has been a positive shift in how we talk about body image, with emphasis placed on the non-aesthetic benefits of exercise, such as increased cognitive functioning, how it can alleviate depressive symptoms, the improvement it has on cardiovascular health and so on. But the associations of exercise with fat loss and a specific body type are still there too, under a new guise.
Coded language like "toning up" is rolled out frequently, while "strong" has become a synonym for "visible abs". Fitness adverts still almost universally feature conventionally slim and muscular models, and dominant sportswear brands like Lululemon and Gymshark (the UK's fastest growing fashion firm) only offer workout gear in a limited range of sizes (Gymshark's largest size, XL, is equivalent to a UK size 12). When Nike placed plus-size models on display at their Oxford Street flagship store earlier this year, they were met with criticism for allegedly "normalising obesity".
A void has opened up between discourse and reality, putting many in an impossible position. The pressures to conform to a specific body type are still there, but they exist alongside a more recent expectation that we should know better than to actually do so. This can cause stress and shame for those who feel personally compelled to attain an idealised shape, while theoretically disagreeing with it in general. Thanks to the lip service fitness marketing pays to inclusivity, there's a new social stigma to admitting you're susceptible to its subliminal messaging. After all, it's the opposite of #empowerment to cop to internalising the idea that getting a flat stomach will equal higher levels of happiness. These notions can fester in people who go on to develop unhealthy relationships with exercise and dieting, while outwardly insisting they've never felt better.
Megan, 31, says that embarrassment is what causes her to tell people her weight-lifting routine is purely motivated by a desire to get stronger, even though this isn't true.
"My primary reason for exercising is weight loss," she explains. "But I feel like I'm letting the side down when it comes to body positivity and feminism if I admit that I'm mostly focused on what my body looks like, rather than my health or strength. I don't want to be thought of as vain or vapid either." However, Megan is also keen to note that this critical eye is only one she casts over herself.
"I think people of all shapes and sizes are beautiful, but these feelings don't seem to apply to my own body," she says. "The whole thing makes me feel disappointed that my relationship with my body is so tied in to my general feelings of self worth, and that as little as a week without exercise can change how I feel about myself so radically."
Liam, 27, also says he's well aware of the toxicity that comes with thinking of bodies in terms of "good" and "bad", but can't help but buy into those ideas when it comes to his own fitness.
"I feel most content with my body when I can pinch my stomach and not feel any fat," he admits. "Although I can be honest and say I exercise for aesthetic reasons, I'm more likely to go for the more palatable explanation that it's 'for mental health', because I don't want to be perceived as shallow or playing into ideas about what a 'good' body is, which I find damaging and toxic, particularly within the gay male community. I feel like I'm a fool for buying into these ideas around attractiveness, which I would prefer to reject entirely."
If someone does manage to achieve the body they're chasing, external positive reinforcement can further entrench toxic ideas around fitness. For Kate, conforming to a certain body shape has her perceiving that people treat her better after years of bullying. "Now that I exercise all the time, I can see the results I wanted," she tells me. "So I would say I have a good relationship with my current body image, but maybe not a healthy one, since it's so contingent on meeting a set ideal."
"Once I started to 'get in shape' and wear makeup at around 20, I was treated better," she explains. "People asked me if I was OK, smiled at me, would open doors for me and not use me as the butt of jokes. The idea of this dynamic slipping is still quite scary to me. Being treated nicely and respected more is addictive, and so the terms on which I receive this treatment – beauty and fitness – are too."
It seems we're being fed two opposing messages surrounding fitness. A surface-level line that urges us to exercise for "ourselves", and a covert message that implies we should all be aiming for a Kim K or Chris Evans physique. Of course, there are thousands who unashamedly buy into the latter, and proudly declare their desire to #eatclean and #getlean on every social media platform going. But for those who are cognisant of what drives these aesthetic pressures – and who exactly profits from fatphobia – a real internal struggle can develop. They remain just as anxious about their body image, while also being less likely to discuss it. They are aware of how the messaging works, how it's meant to make them feel – but powerless to resist it all the same.
For Rosie, 27, reframing the way she viewed working out took changing the type of exercise she was doing and focusing on the mental health benefits. After being signed off work earlier this year for anxiety, Rosie cancelled her gym membership, swapping weight lifting for cycling and yoga.
"My mental health struggle forced me to find exercise that I actually love and can do that won't bring me more anxiety, like going to the busy gym would," she says, citing YouTube series Yoga With Adriene as helping to alleviate her anxiety on particularly bad days. "I loved weight training, but it's a lot to do with how it ends up making you look. So even if I was getting physically stronger, it was really easy to slip into the mindset of, 'But what am I going to look like?'"
There's no clear cut answer on how to deal with aesthetic pressures beyond being alert to them, actively challenging intrusive thoughts surrounding them and removing influences you find harmful, like particular Instagram stars or certain kinds of exercise. The truth is, most of us haven't stopped positively associating fitness with fat loss. Until we're honest about that, we can't begin to really tackle the causes properly, and that means we'll never be able to just enjoy exercise on our own terms.