Sunday, June 16, 2024

‘Welcome to fat f*** university’: Fitness gymfluencers a growing ‘danger’ for young boys

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“Alright dumba**, welcome to lesson two here at fat f*** university.”

So begins one of the countless fleshy blurs of locally-produced fitness content pumped algorithmically into the feeds of Australian Instagram, TikTok and Facebook users.

It’s the sort of engagement-baiting approach that yields viewers and followers — designed to push men out of some apparent masculine malaise and into retaking control of their body and masculinity, usually via paid workout programs, products or supplements. 

It’s also the type of content increasingly filtering into the phones of teenage boys.

Meme culture is a big part of fitness and gym content.(Supplied: Instagram)

While there is a more developed conversation about idealised images on social media and body image pressures on young girls, experts say research is less advanced when it comes to boys.

“I think boys are now objectifying themselves like never before and we do need to be really concerned,” said Danielle Rowland, Head of Prevention at national eating disorder charity the Butterfly Foundation.

“The intensity of training advice, nutrition and misinformation is greater than ever.”

Feeds serving up different diet 

When Anthony Lee started high school in regional Victoria six years ago, social media had a different feel to it.

“In Year 7, it was just basically a way to keep up with your mates,” he said.

Young man wearing white shirt stands in dappled light beneath tree with river and grassy banks in the backgrounf

Anthony Lee says social media came to mean something very different by the end of high school.(ABC News: Jeremy Story Carter)

By the time he finished Year 12 last year, the feeds of his classmates had changed. So too, the surrounding culture.

“There is a growing problem with men having that feed of perfect body content,” he said.

“There are people who will see influencers on social media and say, ‘I’ve got to have bigger arms, toned legs, I got to have calves the size of mountains’.”

Two screenshots of instagram posts featuring content by young men about going to the gym

Engaging with fitness content online will generally see a user receive more and more of that type of content.(Supplied: Instagram)

Linger on one Instagram reel showing off a set of dumbbell exercises, and you’ll likely get five more videos zeroing in on how to get “boulder shoulders”, or some protein-heavy diet advice from a shirtless influencer.

Josh Ward travels to schools in Sydney and around regional NSW, hearing from young boys as part of his work as a facilitator for men’s mental health organisation Tomorrow Man.

“There’s been a huge jump in the last two to three years in the amount of boys opening up in workshops around their body,” he said. 

Man stands at front of classroom presenting to group of young boys seated on plastic chairs.

Tomorrow Man facilitator Josh Ward runs school workshops around ideas of masculinity and mental health.(Supplied: Josh Ward)

Mr Ward believes there’s no coincidence it’s occurred alongside a “big spike” in the amount of fitness and gym influencer content turning up in their feeds. 

“If someone was in school walking around with a fitness mag in their pocket, bringing it out every recess or lunch, you’d think ‘that is some strange behaviour’. But that’s what [teenage boys] are celebrating now,” he said.

“The danger for young people is they don’t realise they’re actually the pioneer generation in terms of that exposure.

“In the last five years there’s been a crazy amount of fitness content, but that’s just what they’ve always been exposed to, so they don’t realise how strange it is.”

‘It creates a false sense of the world’

For many teenage boys on the path through puberty, working out in gyms has long represented an accelerated part of the journey into manhood.

Images of muscle-ripped celebrities and athletes serving as aesthetic inspiration, if not an unattainable physical ideal, is nothing new either. 

A man rests with his hands on the floor of a gym, with dumbbells near him and a woman walking past.

Going to the gym can be an important and healthy part of puberty for teenage boys.(ABC News: John Gunn)

But it’s the nature of that exposure — the type of content and the saturation of it — that has experts concerned. 

“It’s that ‘in-your-face, all-the-time’ aspect of it,” said Associate Professor Ivanka Prichard from Flinders University.

“It’s seeing something on Instagram when we’re perhaps not in that frame of mind, making a comparison to this really fit person and have that influence the way we might feel about ourselves.

“We’re fed a whole range of things through those algorithms that we would never have had exposure to before and would never have sought out.”

Two screenshots of instagram posts featuring content by young men about going to the gym

Experts report seeing digitally altered and AI-generated images in fitness content.(Supplied: Instagram)

Multiple experts the ABC spoke to reported seeing digitally-altered and even AI-generated images of supposedly naturally-fit bodies on social media.

Ms Prichard, a former fitness instructor whose research sits at the intersection of psychology, social media and exercise science, believes the constant barrage of perfectly sculpted bodies could destabilise the mental health of some teenage boys.

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