In the first gloomy weeks of 2020, paparazzi photos of Adele made the tabloid rounds. One of the grainy shots shows a joyful woman, frolicking on the beaches of Anguilla with famous friend Harry Styles. In the pictures, Adele looks happy, and she also looks thin—too thin, some fans speculated, voicing the sort of faux-concern commonly reserved for weight loss. Adele reportedly lost over 100 pounds, which is notable, but more so is the way the media approached her body as if it had nothing really to do with how she looked and everything to do with her internal mental state. “It was never about losing weight,” an “insider” told People in January. “Her weight loss happened because she has cut down drinking and is eating more real food. But she now loves her physical transformation too. She is more confident, dresses differently and she just seems happier overall.” There is no indication that Adele’s transformation is temporary: We are now in thrall to the first leg of a fitness journey—the implication of the journey is that it is an epic but never-ending odyssey.
The “fitness journey” is now everywhere, from blog posts to YouTube, where earnest, 35-minute long, monetized videos abound. On social media, the fitness journey is rarely the purview of men. Instead, it is a deliberate repackaging of weight loss, adding an emotional element. To carve out a new body from the one that previously served you is good for the physical but also for the mental. You will be fine, of course, if you live in the body you currently inhabit, but wouldn’t it be fun to discover whether or not an ab or two will emerge from your tender midsection?
Though working out releases endorphins, which makes the body feel good and also temporarily alleviates any mental stressors, this fact is remarkably absent from the contemporary notion of the fitness journey, which implies that getting in shape isn’t explicitly about mental or physical health but, more broadly, about wellness. A fitness journey is a spiritual undertaking, but one that requires external and internal motivation. In order to fully succeed on this endless journey of transformation, your motivations and intentions must be pure. Starting a fitness journey for weight loss only is not enough to sustain the journey; there must be a stronger, internal motivation that pushes you towards this path. The prevailing narrative of the fitness journey is that you will ultimately fail if the only motivation for getting in shape is to look hot.
The 2019 movie Brittany Runs a Marathon picks at the darker side of the fitness journey. In the movie, Brittany (Jillian Bell) is a caustic, guarded woman uncomfortable in her own body and deeply unconvinced of her own worthiness for love. After a doctor sternly informs her that her BMI places her in the “obese” category, Brittany takes up running. One block becomes three, which inevitably becomes a mile. Watching the movie for fitness motivation is useful. If you are resistant to the idea of “goals” or “motivation” in any way, then Brittany’s path to success feels manageable.
In the movie, working out is essentially tending a garden. That garden is your body, and the invaders are self-doubt, longing, and the slow heartbreak of thinking you’re never quite enough. Brittany’s body image issues, which underscore her entire journey to weight loss and also health, aren’t ignored, nor are they glossed over in a way that other, less sensitive filmmakers might. The despair of not thinking your body—perfectly fine and perfectly lovely—deserves love and attention causes rot from within. Brittany contends with this rot through self-destruction but eventually turns her life around, so that she hates herself just a little bit less in the end. While Brittany appears to be in a much better place at the end of the movie, a crucial part of the fitness journey is reckoning with what is causing the pain in the first place. It’s one thing to self-improve for actual self-improvement’s sake, but doing so without contending with the fact that the world will always see you a fat person, despite how you may look now, isn’t necessarily a recipe for success. Women who lose weight and get in shape as a part of their fitness journey will always contend with the shadow of their former selves—their pre-journey body exists as an imminent threat. But this part of the journey is ignored, because it does not quite fit the shiny empowerment narrative that wellness bloggers and Instagram exercise enthusiasts endorse.
Cassey Ho, the popular fitness vlogger behind Blogilates, documented her own personal fitness journey on YouTube, which she began in part because she felt bad about her body. The narrative of Ho’s video is the same as the others that populate the internet: a fitness journey undertaken because she no longer felt comfortable in her body. For Ho, her body is her livelihood, as her very popular YouTube channel can attest. “I’d first like to say that I don’t have an eating disorder,” she says. “I don’t have a body image disorder. I don’t hate myself. This journey wasn’t for you, it was for me.”
While Ho’s insistence that this was for her is irrefutable, I have to wonder if it is in part spurred by the fact that her body and the way it looks is how she makes her living. Still, the narrative is clear: in order to embark upon a successful fitness journey, you must find the impetus within. That is the only way you will actually be successful.
The fitness journey narrative began on YouTube, but it has really blossomed on TikTok, a platform that, if curated properly, can bring joy in small, measured doses. But, as on Instagram, fitness influencers have glommed on to TikTok as a means of disseminating information, providing helpful exercises that target specific parts of the body, usually the butt and the arms. While the health aspect of this specific journey is ostensibly the draw, the underlying message is clear: Losing weight, whether it’s part of a journey or not, will make the body more palatable and desirable to others. These pressures are both cultural and discriminatory, in a society where thinness and whiteness both remain the dominant aesthetic.
The end result of all these corrective measures, is, of course, a new body—stronger, toned, and aesthetically pleasing to a culture that values thinness. To admit to the first two goals is fine, but admitting out loud that quite simply that the fitness journey was about weight loss feels wrong. This is the direct result of the corporate appropriation of the body positivity movement with its blanket insistence that all bodies are beautiful and that embracing your body however it looks is a necessary evolution.
Admitting that the motivation behind losing weight is to look better first and that health is a secondary concern feels in part like betraying a sacred liberal feminist covenant that insists we must love ourselves the way we are. Self-love and self-acceptance should go hand in hand. But really, they are two discrete units: acceptance of who you are and then accepting that regardless of any perceived flaws. TikTok is awash in fitness journeys—condensed versions of the longer vlogs as seen on YouTube and Instagram. The algorithm that powers TikTok’s For You Page is powerful, mercurial, and extremely intelligent in a way that I don’t love. The algorithm quickly caught on to what I liked and inundated me with video after video of toned, buff women doing squats and lunges, all promising that with repetition and dedication, I, too, could achieve a small waist and a fat ass. This sort of content is part of the fitness journey, but a more insidious part lurks in the videos that rigorously document what a person eats in a day. Calorie deficit diets and intermittent fasting are both big on TikTok and proponents of both lifestyle choices include dietitians, physical trainers, and regular people alike. Watch enough fitness and lifestyle content on TikTok, though, and any stray hints of body acceptance or positivity disappear rather quickly, replaced by lingering feelings of self-doubt and the desire to push yourself more to achieve results.
Viewed in aggregate, the TikToks are meant to be supportive. Like most things these days, though, in-person support is in short supply. TikTok has stepped in to fill that void, serving as a personal trainer, life coach, and entertainment. But the app encourages binging and the algorithm learns quickly. Watch one video of a personal trainer’s squat routines and soon enough, your feed will be taken over by the same sort of content, over and over again, repeated enough times to make you feel as if whatever decisions you are making for your body are worthless, inefficient, and in need of change. The fitness journey, then, is a means of exerting control over a situation that feels largely uncontrollable, and it is no real surprise that the many fitness videos I’ve bookmarked on TikTok are all meant to replace a previously-quotidian part of human life, like going to the gym and working out in the company of other sweaty strangers.
But another essential and less-emphasized part of the fitness journey is the part that actually produces visible results: diet. TikTok videos about what to eat in a day for a “caloric deficit” proliferate just as much as butt workouts. The fitness journey isn’t just working out five days a week, but also changing your life holistically, from the inside out. Achieving the taut, toned stomachs and rippling adductors of a fitness influencer is possible but it requires real, hard, and uncomfortable work outside of the dutiful cardio and strength training. Watching teens on TikTok detail their food intake for a day is distressing, and often skirts around disordered eating. But the body transformations that are routinely seen in the press of celebrities like Adele are highly dependent on the privileges that money affords: personal trainers, dedicated weight loss routines, and diets prescribed by medical professionals are all key to the transformations: a step on the journey that, like the rest of the process itself, is endless.
About seven months into her fitness journey, Adele posted a picture on Instagram of herself, nearly unrecognizable, dressed in a Marine Serre top and black leggings, underneath a still from Beyoncé’s Black Is King, where the dancers on screen were dressed just like her. “Thank you Queen for always making us feel so loved through your art,” the caption reads. Adele’s overwhelming respect for Beyoncé is the focus of the image, but the comments and the media focused on, of course, the transformation. Revealing the results of your fitness journey and expecting the world around you to respond as if nothing had ever happened is standard for normal people, but for celebrities, whose livelihood rests upon not only their talent, but the way they look, the Instagram post that draws little attention to the physical transformation is its own silent acknowledgment of the fact.
This is what Adele’s body looks like now and the change from how she looked before is truly revelatory—but acknowledging that change in a way that doesn’t feel harmful is difficult. The faceless mass of the comments section has no qualms about sharing their opinions about Adele’s body because there is little chance for blowback. But when your best friend suddenly drops 30 pounds in quarantine and emerges with defined shoulder muscles and a propensity for crop tops, there’s no real way of acknowledging the work without making everybody feel uncomfortable. Remarking upon weight loss or gain unprompted is to stab the body positivity movement in the throat. We are not just our bodies, and our bodies as they are, are beautiful. Acknowledging a loss or a gain as a net positive is insensitive to the fact that the change in appearance might have stemmed from trauma, heartbreak, or otherwise. But a journey’s success is marked by progress—and the acknowledgment of that progress absent judgment is essential.
Self-improvement for self-improvement’s sake is never bad, but fetishizing the process itself as a journey indicates that there is no real end, except for death. We will sit on stationary bikes and participate in primal scream therapy, pedaling to nowhere and screaming until our throats are raw, until we die.