I took a photo last year of my stomach. I’d been out running and it was a hot day. I was running round the park and getting hotter, so I took off my t-shirt and ran in shorts and a sports bra that looks like a crop top.
When I got home I took the photo and posted it to Instagram to highlight the thought processes that had gone on in my head for a few laps before I took off my shirt: what will people think!
I was hot so I took my top off, in an ideal world that’s all that anyone would think. But we don’t live in that world. I was worried people would think I was arrogant, that I was showing off or that I shouldn’t have my stomach out because it wasn’t perfect.
Stomachs are a much fetishised area in the fitness media, both online and in print. You can’t walk into a newsagents without headlines screaming out to you to ‘Blast belly fat’ and ‘Get a six pack’.
I have a scar from an operation on my stomach, one weird white hair that grows about an inch long and (despite running 40 miles a week and going to the gym) I don’t have a six pack. There aren’t many stomachs like mine on Instagram, and that’s part of the reason why I posted it. My body is strong enough to run 80k, I don’t need my muscles to be visible through my skin to validate its existence.
I follow a lot of great women on social media: women doing marvellous things. Women challenging themselves, going on epic adventures and having a great time. I know that there’s this other side to social media, the side that is motivated by inches lost and gained, and by presenting perfection. But I choose to ignore it.
One of my January ‘resolutions’ was to stop clicking the little magnifying glass icon on Instagram. This icon brings up a feed of pictures from people you haven’t chosen to follow but that the app thinks are relevant to you. Largely, when I click it, it shows me six packs and pictures of avocados. I’ve nothing against avocados but if you’ve seen one, you’ve seen them all. And yet I’d scroll through looking at photos of people I didn’t know whose snapshots of their life I’d compare to my own.
Social media is a real opportunity for us all to unite again the unrealistic ideals presented to us by mainstream media, to claim a space for our own and show our lives in all their glorious, messy imperfection. But we’re failing to take it.
I have a WhatsApp group chat with five friends. Last month we challenged ourselves to swim the English Channel virtually as a group and kept a log of our collectives miles in the pool. We encouraged each other, shared pictures of goggle marks and laughed a lot. We made two and a half virtual crossings of the Channel. I met all these women through social media and now they’re real life friends.
I read an article last week about the rise in feminist newsletters and how women are carving out a safe space for sharing writing and ideas free from online trolls and commenters. Maybe, subconsciously, this is what my group and friends and I are doing with our WhatsApp group, using it as a safe place to encourage each other and share a few jokes free from the butting in of other unhelpful or negative commenters.
A few simple rules for a healthier online life
Follow accounts that make you want to go outside and have adventures, not those that make you want to hide under the covers.
Follow people that make you feel good about yourself, not those that make you feel bad about yourself.
Be less bothered about what our own and other people’s bodies look like on and offline, and focus more on what they’re doing.
Post ‘imperfect’ pictures of yourself. Let’s drown out the airbrushed six packs with an avalanche of real life.