They’re the stars of Instagram: professionals who post selfies doing workouts and handstands as fitness inspiration – ‘fitspo’ for short. Here are the ones to follow
BY KATE BUSSMANN | 24 FEBRUARY 2014
Jen Selter is a new type of celebrity. If you’re not on Instagram, you won’t know who she is, but within the confines of the image-sharing site she is a bona fide star, with 2.4 million followers – one million more than Madonna. Why? Because of her body: the 20-year-old New Yorker is the owner of what is often described as “the best butt in the world”. When captured in a selfie, doing squats or in a party dress, that posterior can add thousands more followers, and recently Selter has started converting those followers to cash. Over the past couple of months she has gained an endorsement deal with a chain of gyms in America, together with an agent who is now protecting her with the ferocity of any celebrity handler.
Selter is the forerunner of a trend: fitness inspiration (“fitspo” for short) – and Instagram, the social network on which users share pictures and short videos, is its stars’ natural habitat. The site has become crowded with yoga teachers, personal trainers, competitive weight trainers and ballet dancers, who post selfies of their six-packs and snaps of their healthy lunches; their followers lap up every post. Selter is at the top of the heap, but even those with a fraction of her followers are treated like celebrities.
“It’s crazy – some people get really excited when they see me. They follow me around supermarkets so they can give me a hug,” says Rachel Brathen, aka @yoga_girl , a Swedish expat with 630,000 followers who lives on the Caribbean island of Aruba and teaches classes around the world. (Swedes make up a surprisingly high proportion of the fitspo stars.) “One girl flew from Paris to LA to take a class – she landed at 4pm, did the class at 6pm and got back on a flight at 10pm. I felt so weird. I’m not a celebrity – I teach yoga and try to be inspirational on the internet – but she felt so connected to me.”
While the aim is to gain clients and market videos, what their fans get out of it, ostensibly at least, is motivation. (Male fans, clearly, may get something different out of a picture of Selter leaning over a sofa, bottom high in the air.) They tread a fine line:in December, Maria Kang, a fitness model from California, posted a picture of herself in a bikini with her three small children and the caption, “What’s your excuse?” The backlash was loud and fast, and referenced another trend, known as “thinspo” or, at its extreme, “pro-ana”, which refers to the disturbing websites that promote anorexia as a lifestyle choice. The fitspo stars I spoke to insist they are careful to avoid captions that could be perceived as negative or smug, emphasising instead how hard they work to maintain their body, or, conversely, that they’re human and prone to lapses just like anyone.
Many also talk about the struggles that exercise helped them overcome. Natalie Jill (@nataliejillfit ), a Californian nutritionist who markets her diet and fitness videos to 320,000 followers, insists that exercise brought her back from the brink. Until a few years ago she was a successful sales director, married “with money and a nice house. It was perfect. I was fit, and a bit self-righteous about it.” While pregnant, she split from her husband, gained “a lot” of weight, and, unable to travel for her work, sank into debt and depression. “I had three months of ‘woe is me’, and then looked back to what I’d done in sales training: talking to people about goals.” One of hers was to be a fitness model – and she went on to achieve it at the age of 39. “But the reality is most people can’t be a size two with a perfect hourglass figure – and a lot of the fitspo is about that,” she says.
Massy Arias ( @mankofit ) also suffered from depression. After experiencing suicidal thoughts in the wake of a break-up, she turned to exercise as an alternative to antidepressants. She is now a personal trainer in New Jersey, with a million-strong following and celebrity clients including Kelly Rowland. “I actually started my Instagram account to be more social,” she says. “I think it’s grown so much because I talk about my journey. I’m still beating depression – I talk about getting your life together, and being strong.” Of course, it’s also about the videos she posts of her breathtaking feats of strength, such as one in which she throws a man over her shoulder and carries him across the gym.
For these women, their bodies are a walking billboard. Toned and muscular, Arias does two hours of exercise a day, and usually climbs the stairs to her 16th-floor flat rather than take the lift. Karthen does between 30 and 90 minutes of yoga a day, and posts pictures of herself doing handstands on stunning beaches. A few days before I spoke to Jill, she had done a nine-hour, 18-mile hike around the Grand Canyon, but she mainly stays fit through body-weight exercises, using rings and a pull-up bar.
For all those who are clearly strong and fit, there are others who have the most improbable of bodies – six-packs etched on to skinny, busty frames. Many Instagrammers have become savvy about Photoshop, and aren’t shy to voice their suspicions. “Fitness has got sketchy,” says Jill. “I like to post before-and-after shots of my clients because it makes them feel good, but people don’t believe them. They think their abs have been Photoshopped.”
While the professional fitspo stars pride themselves on their beautifully lit, filtered and framed pictures, there are some who set up accounts for a different purpose: not to inspire others, but to motivate themselves and generate accountability. In their bios, they list their starting, current and goal weights. Tending not to bother with Instagram’s image filters that can make any picture more attractive, they share less-than-photogenic visual food diaries, pose with their old, much bigger clothes and post plenty of before-and-after shots. One example is Helene Mikanovic ( @myweightlossfr), who has dropped from 22 to 14 stone, and, along the way, attracted 120,000 followers who cheer her on. And, yes, in case you were wondering, you can now buy her ebook for £7.99.
The fitspo stars of Instagram…
The yogi: @yoga_girl
Rachel Brathen, 25, Aruba
“The pictures that get the most traction? The upside-down poses – especially if I’m in a beautiful location – paired with some words of wisdom. People are really hungry for inspiration, not just for tips on how to do poses.”
Rachel Brathen, aka @yoga_girl (Rachel Brathen)
The ballerina: @balletbeautiful
Mary Helen Bowers, 33, New York
“The photos of me dancing pregnant were popular because they were so unexpected. No one had seen a ballerina in a leotard doing advanced moves like that. Ninety per cent of the comments were supportive, but it made some people uncomfortable.”
Mary Helen Bowers, aka @balletbeautiful
The celebrity trainer: @mankofit
Massiel Arias, 25, New Jersey
“A lot of people do ‘shout-for-shouts’, where they ask you to follow their friends. I could have three million followers if I did that. My followers are all word-of -mouth. I want to show people that working out should be fun.”
Massiel Arias, aka @mankofit (Mankofit)
The pole dancer: @sarahscottpole
Sarah Scott, 27, Somerset
“People think pole-dancing is for strip clubs and expect you to be grinding on a pole, but there’s a gymnastic side to it. My favourite is when people post comments to their friends such as, ‘This looks like fun, we should try a class.'”
Sarah Scott, aka @sarahscottpole
The superstar body: @jenselter
Jennifer Selter, 20, New York
“I don’t really post a lot of face pictures. I mainly do body selfies,” Selter said in a recent interview with the New York Post. “Not that I care what people think, but they don’t want to see my face.”
Jennifer Selter (Corbis)
The personal trainer: @nataliejillfit
Natalie Jill, 42, San Diego
“There’s a few things that work: the picture needs to be colourful and happy, and people like seeing me do tricks on my rings. The ones that get the most likes are my morning work-outs. I try to teach something, not be all ‘look at me.'”