Dept. of Sport Sciences, Malmö University
Digital Wellness, Health and Fitness Influencers: Critical Perspectives on Digital Guru Media (2022) is a volume that brings together a compilation of disparate chapters variously dealing with the phenomenon of social media and its facilitation of faux-celebrity ‘influencers’ and personalities that have made their name promoting health and fitness advice and lifestyles. The book is interdisciplinary in its approach, a testament both to the character of the broader field of study in which it is inscribed – leisure studies – and to the multifaceted nature of the subject under scrutiny, previously evidenced by the imperative for sociological (Murashka, Liu & Peng, 2020), psychological (Robinson et al., 2017; Sherlock & Wagstaff, 2019), as well as philosophical (Daudi, 2022a, 2022b, 2023) investigations. There are things to appreciate here, and the variety of perspectives and approaches on display provide a rich description of an undeniably interesting aspect of contemporary culture. However, while individual chapters of this anthology contribute with important insights into this increasingly unignorable social avenue, a few simply lack the novelty, ingenuity, and scope to say much of meaning. In other words, this book is, in the humble views of this reviewer, quite uneven; and upon turning the last page I am regrettably left equal parts frustrated and educated.
The book comprises twelve chapters, each one a separate study, outlining its own aim, methodology, and conclusion. The central theme connecting them to each other is what this volume has opted to call Digital Guru Media (DGM). As I understand it, the G of DGM does not imply a central figure around which a digital fitness and health community emerges with the status of guru, as we ordinarily conceive it. It also is not necessarily restricted to individual people, or ‘influencers’. Rather, DGM refers to and includes everything from apps and human-technology relations to social media users with a couple thousand followers, and individuals with huge followings spread across the globe, connected by the fact that the content of their social communication revolves around fitness and health. According to the editor, Stefan Lawrence, DGM refers to “a particular emergent genre of digital media characterized … by a piece of tech and/or online actor’s delivery of content … that, in various ways, purport to offer strategies and solutions to the wellness, health and fitness demands indicative of late modern (hyper)digitalized societies” (p. 2). The aim of the book – as much as a singular aim can be attributed to its separate collection of studies – is to investigate the root problems that our use of digital media reflects back to us. It is an aim that certainly holds much promise. Whether the twelve chapters collectively fulfill this aim is debatable; some certainly come closer than others.
Black’s chapter is a thrilling analysis of how DGM and digital media impact our understanding of the subject, inspired by Jacques Lacan and Slavoj Zizek, while Myers applies evolutionary psychology to DGM to great effect, portraying it as a ‘new slant on a very old story’.
Highlights of the volume include the editor’s introductory chapter, chapter eight, and especially chapters three and five. In chapter one, the editor argues that the circumstances, pressures, and opportunities posed by the growth of digital media call for an expansion of leisure studies into a corresponding field of critical digital leisure studies. Chapter eight investigates the tensions navigated by influencers in managing an image of authenticity toward their audiences for commercial purposes, while inadvertently undermining the role of accredited professionals. Chapter three is a thrilling analysis of how DGM and digital media impact our understanding of the subject, inspired by Jacques Lacan and Slavoj Zizek, while chapter five applies evolutionary psychology to DGM to great effect, portraying it as a ‘new slant on a very old story’. Unfortunately, in the interest of space, further details of the accomplishments of these chapters will have to be left for the reader to discover on their own. For while there certainly is much to appreciate about this book, its flaws are what has dominated my attention, as they will this review.
Let me preface the following by stating transparently that, having spent much time researching the same or similar phenomena as those captured by the concept of DGM, and having formulated clear opinions informed by that research, I am not unbiased in my reading. The reader’s mileage will vary depending on their personal disposition toward the general trends embodied in DGM, and, it must be said, depending on what sections of the research literature they have previously come across and found most compelling. Although contrasting views naturally exist in the field, and the matter is still far from definitively settled, there is at this point no lack of research pointing to clear detrimental societal and individual effects associated with the wholesale integration of social media into everyday life (Haidt & Twenge, 2023), not least in the context of the digital fitness culture (Daudi, 2022a). However, this side of the literature is not engaged with here to any great extent. Such an omission would require adequate justification, something which most chapters simply fail to provide. To be sure, the editor’s introductory chapter states clearly that the volume’s aim lies beyond simply debating whether or not social media or DGM contributes positively or negatively. Nonetheless, in the chapters that do not adopt a critical stance toward DGM there is a pervasive attitude of optimism toward its potential that, on my reading, outweighs the instances of more critical perspectives. For someone who is familiar with the field, something like this needs to be adequately substantiated and argued for by reference to the relevant literature. Meanwhile, when the critical perspectives do emerge, they often leave much to be desired, needlessly directed at aspects of the phenomenon that serve to obscure what seems to be in most need of critical reflection and investigation.
One of the recurring problems I found with this book is exemplified in chapter nine, which consists of a breakdown of a few interactions with fans by the fitness icon Steve Cook. While it does contain a rather interesting take on the performance of accessibility enacted by social media celebrities, afforded by the intimacy of social media, lessening the perceived distance between celebrity and ordinary people that characterized the celebrity culture produced by the older media, it is otherwise marred by an unfortunate banality. The purpose of dissecting in minute detail what Cook says when addressing his audience in a couple of videos is lost on the reader, and likely the author as well. What do we learn here? What insights do we gain, besides just that, the specific details of what Cook says in this and that particular instance? Clearly, it is supposed to serve as a case study of digital ’guruism’, but an individual’s utterances and actions do not automatically rise to the level of scholarly interest lest the scholar who brings it to the attention of his readers elevate them thus. As it stands, the reader learns nothing of the medium or of the broader phenomenon of DGM, only what this particular ’guru’ has said and done on a few occasions. We wait and wait for the analysis to penetrate beyond the prosaic banality and lift the discussion from the absolutely local into something that speaks to a greater problem or generalizable trend, something that helps us understand more than simply Cook’s own interactions. Alas, we wait in vain.
Although I hesitate to say so, because of its heartfelt nature, I found the same issue plaguing the autoethnographic chapter on which the book ends. The author chronicles his own health struggles and experience with DGM. While it is heartwarming and, as the chapter description in the preface reminds us, eloquently written, I struggle to see what academic value it holds. Of what is the reader’s scholarly insight deepened after reading this piece? The answer eludes me.
Another of the recurring problems I had concerned the overreliance on conventional identitarian social criticism. Given the revolutionary and inherently novel character of the technological and cultural conditions whereby DGM has emerged, more novel perspectives than these are, to my mind, not only called for but also far more interesting. Chapter two discusses the group training phenomenon Les Mills and its recent migration into on-demand formats. A tacit concurrence with the author’s standard critique of capitalism as a class divider seems almost to be assumed on the part of the reader, without it ever being properly explained or justified in relation to the topic of study. ‘Physical exercise’, we are told, creates ‘institutional injustice via a ”fitness class”’, amounting to a form of ‘reproletarianization’ (p. 23) of those who do not qualify. Membership in this manufactured new underclass belongs to those with ‘larger bodies’, whose oppression manifests in the fact that not every movement or exercise is adapted to accommodate the physical limitations of larger bodies. The implication here is that the main problem with DGM, from the perspective of Les Mills on-demand, is the usual culprit: ‘class privilege’ and lack of inclusivity. Moreover, we are also informed of the other problem with Les Mills on-demand that require the attention of scholars, namely the inconvenience of attempting to follow along with instructions while watching the programs on a laptop or smartphone. I was left scratching my head, wondering whether these remarks were not more befitting of a user review than a scholarly treatise. I will let the reader decide.
One cannot help but ask – where is the conspiracy here? Are the authors claiming that weight is not changed by committed personal effort?
Chapter seven then analyzes the subset of DGM dedicated to the promotion of ‘clean eating’ and its association with femininity, opting to connect it with upper-class, white, and heteronormative privilege. We are told that the cultural idealization of clean (i.e., healthy) eating leads to ‘stigmatization of working-class dietary habits and bodily maintenance (or lack of)’ (p. 114), and that the social media clean eating trend ‘clearly aligns with how the advertising industry has emphasized how excess weight is changed through committed personal effort and a positive attitude’ (p. 118). One cannot help but ask, where is the conspiracy here? Are the authors claiming that weight is not changed by committed personal effort? Admittedly, reflexively ‘discovering’ marginalization of identity groups and ‘harmful stereotypes’ wherever one turns is par for the course in some fields. But what is really being said here, that effort does not contribute to weight loss? That it is all a ploy of advertisers, and that individuals are responsible for nothing regarding the circumstances of their lives? The same goes for the chapter’s lamentation of ‘skinny privilege’ and chapter six’s exegesis on the exclusionary nature of the idealization of some types of bodies (fit/abled) over others (unfit/disabled). Ideals are by nature exclusionary; should no ideals whatsoever be upheld? If the very notion of ideals is to be vilified, what does this nihilistic ideal of ideallessness amount to except another ideal blind to its own hypocrisy?
It is ironic that these attitudes are so often entwined with emancipatory and empowering ambitions, while thinking this way and imposing this way of thinking on the (self)construction of other people is both constraining and disempowering (see Daudi, 2023), if not a little condescending. Moreover, and more importantly for this review: are these the chief problems worth addressing concerning the developments surrounding our communications revolution and the health and fitness discourse’s colonization of so much of it? Most unlikely; rather, it merely comes down to the preferences of the authors. I find the contribution of focusing primarily on these issues to our understanding of the complex technological, social, cultural, and psychological implications of DGM to be slight at best, and scientifically disabling at worst. It reduces one of the most significant developments of the digital revolution to simply yet another social justice issue, solvable by yet more social media activism, conspicuous compassion, and public expressions of solidarity. My problem with this is that by occupying themselves primarily with tried-and-true clichés, transposed onto the context of DGM, several of these chapters obscure and end up with little to say about the truly novel issues, manifestations of the human condition, and general conditions of the emergence of the digital fitness culture. The preexisting academic literature and nature of the phenomenon itself demand more than what these chapters provide – but, again, the reader’s mileage will vary.
Copyright © Aurélien Daudi 2023
Daudi, A. (2022a). The Culture of Narcissism: A Philosophical Analysis of “Fitspiration” and the Objectified Self. Physical Culture and Sport. Studies and Research, 94(1), 46-55. https://doi.org/doi:10.2478/pcssr-2022-0005
Daudi, A. (2022b). Social Media Hedonism and the Case of ’Fitspiration’: A Nietzschean Critique. Sport, Ethics and Philosophy, 17(2), 127–142. https://doi.org/10.1080/17511321.2022.2121849
Daudi, A. (2023). Will to power: Revaluating (female) empowerment in ‘fitspiration’. Sport, Ethics and Philosophy, 1-17. https://doi.org/10.1080/17511321.2023.2182350
Haidt, J. & Twenge, J. (2023). Social media and mental health: A collaborative review. Unpublished manuscript, New York University. Accessed at tinyurl.com/SocialMediaMentalHealthReview
Lawrence, S. (2022). Digital Wellness, Health and Fitness Influencers: Critical Perspectives on Digital Guru Media (S. Lawrence, Ed.). Milton Park: Routledge.
Murashka, V., Liu, J. & Peng, Y. (2020). Fitspiration on Instagram: identifying topic clusters in user comments to posts with objectification features. Health Communication, 36(12), 1537–1548.
Robinson, L., Prichard, L., Nikolaidis, A., Drummond, C., Drummond, M. & Tiggemann, M. (2017). Idealised media images: The effect of fitspiration imagery on body satisfaction and exercise behaviour. Body Image, 22, 65–71.
Sherlock, M. & Wagstaff, D. L. (2019). Exploring the relationship between frequency of Instagram use, exposure to idealized images and psychological well-being in women. Psychology of Popular Media Culture, 8(5), 482–490.
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