The Rise of YouTube Workouts: Are They Tackling Diet Culture? By Emma Brine

Over the last few months we have seen a huge rise in the amount of YouTube workouts being viewed. Whilst it is great that people are finding alternative ways to exercise, does this rise in viewership have to do with something darker?

We have been stuck in our homes for what seems like an eternity (apparently it's only been four months), with just our TV's and the voices inside our heads for company. As we wallow in self-pity and despair, we wonder how to pass the never-ending boredom that looms over us. A lot of people, in response to this, have chosen exercise to help pass the time. This is not surprising, given that the only way in which we could leave our houses towards the beginning of lockdown was for exercise purposes. In fact, new research conducted by WAU has shown that one in three are exercising more in lockdown than before.

Many of us have been turning to YouTube as an alternative; jumping along with the nation's P.E. teacher Joe Wicks, doing Chloe Ting's two-week shred challenge or joining in with Pamela Reif's six pack workouts. Whilst these programmes do have their positive effects, helping to boost our energy and mood, they also have the potential to be very damaging to our mental health. The pressure to stay fit and conform to a certain body type can be triggering for many of us.

Every day, woman and men face pressure to look a certain way that conforms to what society deems as an 'acceptable' body type, but the pandemic has spawned a more aggressive wave of it. The comment sections are filled with people discussing how they are preparing their 'post-lockdown bodies', however, YouTube is not the only perpetrator. Recently on TikTok there has been a rise in pro-anorexia videos, with people sharing their 'tips and tricks' for losing weight. We're just minding our own business on frog TikTok, and then BAM: change your body. Look this way. I did not ask for this content, leave me and my frogs alone. And on top of this, we now have our wonderful government waging a war on 'obesity', planning to introduce calorie counts to menus, something which can be extremely triggering for those living with eating disorders. And yet they have also introduced a plan that allows people to get 50% off McDonalds... Seems legit.

The fact is, society deems our worth based on our external appearance, and if you don't fit this 'brand', then you are seen as less valued, less beautiful and less important, which is, frankly, bullshit.

The workout videos that tend to dominate YouTube often focus on how to change our physical appearance rather than encouraging regular, healthy exercise. Video thumbnails are filled with how to get the perfect peachy bum, or a six pack, or, what is even more toxic, how to get rid of a certain part of your bodily features, such as 'hip dips' or 'love handles'. Chloe Ting and Pamela Reif are just some of the YouTubers who are complicit in this, with 12.7 and 4.21 million subscribers respectively, this rhetoric reaches many of us. We ingest this and start to perceive it as 'normal' and something to be 'achieved'. But not all YouTubers follow this rhetoric; Rozanna Purcell and Natasha Ocean are influencers who focus on health and strength, all whilst encouraging self-love. And, of course, Lizzo. Follow Lizzo on every platform, she is our queen.

This is not just a problem emerging from lockdown though; over the past few years we have seen an increase in diet culture - a system of beliefs that worship thinness, equating it with health and beauty, as well as valuing weight, shape and size over mental and physical wellbeing. Many companies capitalise off diet culture, using people's insecurities and 'flaws' to create a business. Five years ago, 'hip dips' didn't even exist, they were named by the diet and exercise community as something for us to change and get rid of. The Kardashians, the fast fashion industry, some parts of the exercise community - all of them have a particular knack for making us feel shit about ourselves.

"Many companies capitalise off diet culture, using people's insecurities and 'flaws' to create a business."

For those of us living with or recovering from body dysmorphia, eating disorders or exercise addiction, the rise of YouTube workouts has been especially damaging to our mental health and can affect our recovery. The intense pressure to work out and the focus on it in the media has forced many to revert to more harmful and obsessive ways of exercising. Suddenly there is an increased pressure for there to be 'no excuse' to miss a workout or have a 'cheat' meal, further putting strain on those trying to recover from these damaging thought processes.

Whilst the online exercise scene has been beneficial for some, it is important to address how they may be triggering for others, especially during this time. Exercise is great, however the toxic community and body ideals it has spawned needs to change. Lockdown has forced many people to focus on their bodies, punishing themselves for not looking the way society has told them to. Well, little known fact, in the 1900s larger bodies were seen as beautiful and something to be attained, however clothes manufacturers realised it was cheaper to make smaller clothes, and so society began to change what is classified as 'beautiful', and hasn't stopped alternating between differing body types since. We have moved from admiring Marilyn Monroe's curves, to glorifying the 90s heroin chic body, to athletic silhouettes and now to the 'hourglass' figure, which glamourises impossibly small waists. It is physically impossible for one body to reflect all these 'trends', so why punish yourself for not achieving the impossible? It's time for people to become aware of how toxic certain aspects of the community can be and to create their own rules.

In summary, capitalism sucks, you are beautiful and diet culture needs to go.


Created with an image by Kari Shea - "Virtual Yoga Class"