Have you noticed a big change in the cultural landscape recently?
And I am not talking about the rise of the orange spray tan and the 90s’ comeback.
A new beauty and lifestyle model has developed, fed by Instagram hashtags and Pinterest-perfect Paleo snacks.
The same concept has taken different forms and found new icons, but it can be summarised as a revolution regarding the ideal body.
Pop culture icons like Kim Kardashian, models like Kate Upton, fitness trends like crossfit, the proliferation of #healthyeating blogs and even new psychological disorders like orthorexia (the obsessive adherence to a healthy diet and exercise regime) all point towards a specific direction: a change in what it is perceived to be the ideal body and the glorification of the effort it takes to maintain it.
It is not a coincidence that the rise of social media and visual-based interaction has led to bodies becoming #goals and every instant of daily life been perceived as a possibility to share, document and sell yourself in the most attractive package possible.
What does this mean for something like sports and physical activity?
For a long time the effort it often takes to maintain traditionally desirable bodies was kept under wraps: fitness wasn’t cool and your sweat and tears weren’t something you wanted to share with the world. However, in recent years fitness has become one of the parameters to judge one’s success and desirability.
It could be argued that the glorification of fitness and a new body ideal are positive trends: isn’t it good that other body types besides emaciated are considered attractive and that physical activity is regarded as a positive thing?
Absolutely, but as all ideals this one tends to exclude those who can’t or don’t want to follow it. The other problem is that with the possibilities of sharing one’s life publicly comes the scrutiny that doesn’t allow much room for nuances. If you are promoting a healthy lifestyle, then you need to commit to it 100% and every deviation from the norm you are promoting will be read as a failure or a betrayal.
Such an ideal is intimidating for those who haven’t committed to the concept of healthy is the new skinny (with a side dish of “you can never be healthy enough”) and who might join instead the ranks of “healthy at every size”, the body-positive movement that aims at fighting the assumption that you can only be healthy if you look thin.
But in any case the end result is that physical exercise or simply getting off the couch becomes a matter of personal identity and branding rather than the willingness to have fun without fears about looking good, doing it right and getting the perfect gym selfie.
This often causes a divide between those who commit to the healthy lifestyle full time and those who don’t. If things need to be all or nothing there is no space for moderation and small, gradual changes.
More importantly, there is no space for fun, as being healthy and active is perceived as serious business. There is little doubt that healthy is the new skinny or fit is the new sexy are not the solutions to get most people moving, as both focus on exclusion rather than inclusion and on physical attractiveness as the ultimate goal.
How could we promote sports instead?
A good example of a marketing campaign that wants to promote physical activity in a positive, inclusive, and celebratory manner is “This girl can”, the 2014 campaign by Sport England:
Encouraging people to move should be about the joy and fun that come with it rather than preying on insecurities and selling body ideals.
To those who find the culture of beauty-oriented exercise daunting and those who can’t or won’t commit to a daily regime of kale smoothies and squats, other alternatives can and should be offered.
Rather than “healthy is the new skinny” we should adopt “make sports fun”!