Is GymTok a Fitness Life-Hack or An Eating Disorder Nightmare?

The gymtok trend has taken over social media. A quick search on this hashtag reveals thousands of fitness videos encouraging you to ‘get in shape’.

I’m an athlete. Or… I used to be. It’s complicated. Throughout my eating disorder, I didn’t realize achieving a thin ideal became my identity. Exercise and eating disorders are intrinsically tied up in one another because they feed into the lie that burning calories and being fit somehow make you special. 

Exercise is so often used as a compensation mechanism for those of us struggling with eating disorders. 42% of high school female athletes report eating disorder behaviors, which increases their injury risk eight-fold compared to their peers. In my case, I knew I was straining my heart and vital organs in the never-ending quest to satisfy my eating disorder. And I secretly loved it.

Exercise and eating disorders

Exercise can be an eating disorder addiction, masqueraded as a healthy hobby. It’s the physical manifestation of the psychological compulsions that characterize the illness. Stigma and fear of judgment were what kept me from seeking help for so long. I’m not alone. 91% of female collegiate athletes present symptoms but only 25% compete on campuses with eating disorder management policies. Schools are failing to provide the resources and education needed to intervene. 

This alludes to a larger societal problem. Just how many people are willing to put their health at risk to fit into a societal expectation to be thin. Social media trends glamorize unattainable beauty standards. Workout videos marketed as slim-down, sexy, tight, toned, fat burn, all villainize other bodies and commodify thinness.

Countless fitness influencers have built their brands on ab-blasting videos and problematic before-and-after transformations of fans, often promoting unhealthy behaviors and attitudes regarding fitness and food, fuel.

The dangers of social media

Viral trends insinuate that smaller is superior, and their popularity indicates that the public agrees. In 2021, what-I-eat-in-a-day hashtag garnered over 80M views for the top ten videos on Youtube combined. These posts feature unrealistically small portions of fruits and vegetables which mimics orthorexia, an eating disorder where the sufferer obsesses over the quality of food intake. Previous viral weight loss trends include 2013’s thigh gap, and China’s 2016 A4 waist challenge where young women proved they were narrower than a regular, 8.27 inch, paper. 

Social media’s portrayal of the thin ideal is psychologically harmful. Meta’s whistleblower Frances Hagen proved that in October 2021. German research found 25% of eating disorder patients reported Pamela Reif, a 2020 Forbes 30 Under 30 honoree and fitness influencer with 8.1M YT subscribers, had a significant impact on their eating disorder development.

This content can also be unlawful. In the U.S., it is illegal for non-Registered Dieticians (RD) to sell detailed meal plans. RDs must earn bachelor’s and master’s degrees, pass a standardized exam, and have a state license to practice medical nutrition therapy, unlike social media influencers. Their fitness programs and diet books have become a lucrative part of their business, at the cost of thousands of followers buying into non-guidelines-based practices.

A dangerous trend

Just because disordered eating behaviors are normalized, it does not mean they are healthy or safe. There are 40,500 Google searches each month for 1,200 calorie meal plans, which is dangerously below the clinical starvation boundary. Once the body enters this state, it experiences the same physical health risks associated with anorexia and orthorexia. This includes malnutrition, mood swings, hormonal imbalances, and risks of multiorgan failure. 

Cutting out entire categories of food, like carbs for keto and Atkins, are harmful for nutritional and metabolic health. Diets risk becoming serious and uncontrollable mental illnesses. Especially for the 53% of dieters who are already in the healthy weight category, but are still attempting to lose weight.

Now that I’m in remission, I know it was not me who loved exercise’s toll on my body and mentality. My eating disorder loved it. And I am not my eating disorder. Nor am I only an athlete. I’m also a sister, voracious reader, and long walk lover. It’s possible to start again. But I had to recognize how diet culture has poisoned the way our culture views self-worth in relation to food and body size. It would be remarkable to see what would happen if we channeled our resources into mental health care, education, and wellbeing instead.

(Last Updated: August 5, 2022)

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