Are Instagram Influencers Contributing to the Female Athlete Triad?
Updated: Oct 28, 2020
Energy Deficit (Under-eating & Over-exercising) + Amenorrhea (Missing Periods) + Osteoporosis (Bone Loss) = the Female Athlete Triad
Instagram is a social media platform that allows women to share health advice not only with each other but to large audiences (Instagram.com). In fact, Instagram houses many "Instagram Influencers", which are individuals who have established credibility and an audience – often massive audiences that can range in the millions. However, the definition of "credibility" is left quite vague. Typically, Instagram Influencers do not have any formal credentials for what they present to their followers. For example, a "health guru" is a type of Instagram Influencer that can share any combination of health, fitness and lifestyle advice. Usually a woman, she often has risen to fame because they she posted the ever-popular "before and after" photo that showcases her going from overweight to a fitness goddess. These gurus portray the message that if they can do it, anyone can. Because of this, all their followers blindly take their advice – despite the fact the influencer is not a doctor, nutritionist, personal trainer nor has any kind of credible certification.
Yet, you can look up any successful Health Guru on Instagram to see that throughout the week the guru partakes of juice cleanses while exercising regularly at trendy classes – all while posting on Instagram using hashtags that claim to promote truth. The guru presents diet and fitness advice, which sometimes includes entire programs for her followers to use so they can achieve the same results. Many posts from her feed include how to love yourself and your flaws. This Instagram Influencer appears dedicated, but most of all seems incredibly happy and at peace with her "flawed" body. It is impressive to look at her "before and after" photos to see how this lifestyle has changed her body to be exceptionally lean and yet she claims that she is still a "work in progress". She receives tens of thousands of likes and positive comments on each post with praise that she is inspirational. Her millions of followers claim that they love themselves too, flaws and all – all thanks to her. They post pictures on their Instagram showing themselves as happy with a transformed life thanks to the diet and fitness advice they learned from this influencer.
Yet, we are faced with startling statistics: "approximately 80% of women don’t like how they look, 70% of normal weighted women want to be thinner, and over 50% of women aren’t happy with their current weight" (Gallivan, 2018). This brings up the question of what is going on behind the scenes when there is #NoFilter.
Profiles like the one described above can be to blame for these extreme statistics. They can pose a significant risk to woman's physical and mental health despite seeming positive. They foster the idea that women need to engage in extreme eating and exercise practices to achieve results. This can lead women to feel dissatisfied with their bodies and lead them to under-eat, over-exercise and push themselves too hard. Consequently, these actions can lead to the condition known as the Female Athlete Triad (Lebrun, C. and Rumball, J., 2002). This disorder is characterized by an energy deficit with disordered eating that leads to menstrual dysfunction and osteoporosis. In short, the “triad” is comprised of three things: a caloric deficit from over-exercising and under-eating, menstrual dysfunction and osteoporosis. However, don't let the name fool you – this disorder does not only happen to athletes. Any woman who is working out too much and eating too little can develop this serious condition (Mountjoy, M., 2014) often without even realizing it. Instagram influencers are putting women at risk for developing the condition known as the Female Athlete Triad by enabling the spread of misinformation about nutrition and fitness using hashtags.
First, Instagram Influencers fuel the misinformation of nutrition and put women at risk for eating disorders when they use hashtags like #Thinspiration. The use of this hashtag perhaps began with good intentions. The Instagram Influencers who use it typically claim it is intended to help women stay motivated as they try to lose weight. However, since images with this hashtag typically showcase thin health gurus, models or actresses, it leads women to feel dissatisfied with their bodies.
Unsurprisingly, as Zoe Brown and Marika Tiggemann discovered from their work in Body Image: Attractive celebrity and peer images on Instagram: Effect on women's mood and body image, "Exposure to images of thin fashion models contributes to women's body dissatisfaction" (Brown and Tiggemann, 2016).
As you can imagine, this is because the images feature unrealistic standards. With models and actresses, the chances of those images being edited are extremely high – often the women in the photos do not even look like that in real life. In the case of health gurus, they may claim that any number of reasons caused them to look exceptionally fit. It's important to note that often there is an ulterior motive. For example, they suggest that you should purchase their diet or detox programs – then you can look exactly like them. Yet, the truth of the matter is that often they naturally look like that and aren't doing anything special because it is simply genetics. Sadly, despite the awareness of photo editing and the fact that everyone is genetically unique we still see that women compare themselves to this impossible standard. Inevitably, this pressures them to take part in the #Thinspiration trend by under-eating to obtain a thin body type. When Instagram Influencers use #Thinspiration it encourages women to under-eat, thus putting them at risk for the Female Athlete Triad.
Second, Instagram Influencers spread misinformation about fitness and encourage over-exercising with hashtags like #Fitspiration. This is another hashtag that likely started off as well-meaning. The idea behind this hashtag is to inspire women to keep working out even when they are unmotivated. This suggests you can simply view these images and be reminded of what you can achieve if you keep working out (Al-Eisa, 2016). However, all this results in is women who are already feeling dissatisfied with their bodies to lose confidence with their performance. This is because #Fitspiration suggests all women should be able to perform like athletes if they try hard enough.
As Marika Tiggemann and M. Zaccardo found in their work in Body Image: "Exercise to be fit, not skinny": The Effect of Fitspiration Imagery on Women's Body Image: "exposure to Fitspiration images led to increased negative mood and body dissatisfaction and decreased state of appearance self-esteem" (Tiggemann and Zaccardo, 2015). We see this happen because this hashtag not only stresses that anyone can perform like an athlete, it also suggests anyone can look like an athlete. Again, we see there might be an ulterior motive because this hashtag is also often paired with exercise routines available for purchase. These programs often promise results in a short period of time, such as Kayla Itsines’ Bikini Body Challenge that promises drastic results in 12 weeks (Itsines, 2018).
Samantha Lego, a young woman who participated in Kayla Itsiness’ Bikini Body Challenge experienced the negative results herself. In her words: "I would look at all of these posts on Instagram and be like, how do I not have these six pack abs?" (Praderio, 2018).
The followers of Instagram Influencers like Kayla come forward with their own "before and after" photos and they claim her workout program changed their bodies. Yet, any number of things could have influenced those "before and after" photos, unfortunately making them misleading. This can lead women like Samantha to be confused about why she does not have the #Fitspiration body Kayla's program promised her when so many others apparently achieved it. When Instagram Influencers use #Fitspiration, it encourages women to attempt to achieve drastic fitness goals, consequently putting them at risk for the Female Athletic Triad by over-exercising.
Finally, Instagram Influencers encourage the spread of misinformation about nutrition and fitness by promoting the latest weight loss trends and using the related hashtags. Many influencers get paid to endorse products, thus revealing an obvious ulterior motive. For example, the popular #SkinnyMint is a "tea detox" and exercise routine that claims to give women their dream body in 28 days (Skinnymint.com). However, it is comprised of diuretic and laxative ingredients that can give the appearance of quick results but starve the body of calories. Partaking in weight loss trends can be dangerous for a woman's health and is rarely a successful solution to lasting weight loss. A weight loss trend like #SkinnyMint causes women to under-eat, over-exercise and puts them at risk for the Female Athletic Triad.
It was found that "the Internet provides a convenient source of support and information for obese individuals. However, many turn to the same unsuccessful solutions online (e.g., fad dieting) they turn to in the community." (Lewis, 2010).
Instagram Influencers use the hashtags for fad diets and make it look like a quick fix. Again, we see influencers who often already look a certain way from genetics claiming that this miracle solution can make anyone look like them. When Instagram Influencers use the hashtags associated with fad diets like #SkinnyMint, they enable under-eating and over-exercising, therefore putting women at risk for the Female Athlete Triad.
In conclusion, Instagram influencers are putting women at risk for developing the condition known as the Female Athlete Triad by enabling the spread of misinformation about nutrition and fitness through hashtags. The hashtags used seem well-meaning at first, but they not only spread misinformation, but they often come laced with ulterior motives. Women need to be cautious with the advice they choose to take from Instagram Influencers, especially considering most are not certified to give diet and fitness advice. It is important to remember all the potential factors that go into that Instagram Influencer's "perfect" photos. Genetics, knowledge from personal trainers, dieticians and help from photo editing apps can all be at play to create the influencer's Instagram presence. It would be wise to remember that every Instagram post with #Goals does not need to be everyone's goal.
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