From Chasing Abs To Embracing Stretchmarks: The Evolution Of Body Positivity On Instagram

We’ve all done it: We’ve spewed long-winded rants complaining about the nuisance and burden of social media, and yet, perhaps in the same breath, our thumbs habitually flicked upward, scrolling through endless photos, stories, and comments from Instagram, the wellness clan's chosen social media platform.

As Facebook has grown into a place for community updates and a forum for discussion of larger social, political, and even personal issues, Instagram has become one of the most popular platforms through which users connect to friends and gather all kinds of inspiration. Whether you’re just trying to get through #mondaze or crave some life-changing wisdom, Instagram has your back—especially when you need a distraction. But like most coping mechanisms, it often ends up sapping more precious time and attention than intended. Yes, indeed: Instagram is a steadfast frenemy.

How we use the ‘gram proves to be a polarizing topic. The future of wellness as it relates to social media looks wildly different depending on who you ask. Perhaps most interestingly, Instagram is and will remain a journal of sorts, marking trends and immortalizing moments big and small. The 'gram reveals our changing values, lifestyles, and routines over time, and it’s downright fascinating to take a look back in time.

Instagram's microtrends represent the evolution of what "wellness" means.

Chasing abs:

Kayla Itsines is one of the most powerful driving forces behind Instagram’s wellness movement. In no small feat, she galvanized her 7-million-strong community into working out consistently, using the bait that's drawn so many people to wellness over the years: before and after photos of her community sharing their physical transformations. She made Time's list of the most influential people on the internet in March 2016, the same year that her app earned more revenue than any other in its category. Late last year, she was worth an estimated cool $46 million. All this is to say that she frequently credits her success to Instagram.

It's worth noting here that "bbg" stands for Bikini Body Guide—not quite the body love terminology that the wellness crowd has worked so hard to standardize in the last few years—but the women who started as Itsines' disciples have broken out of Kayla's reign and are now making self-care, self-love, and body-positivity their collective mission.

Meet Jera Foster-Fell, known as @jera.bean (formerly @workout.bean) on Instagram, who now has 116,000 followers and started her journey using Itsines' program. "Instagram was and is crucial to my wellness journey. When I first joined and made my fitness account, it was a tool to hold myself accountable. I posted about my daily workouts, what I was eating, and both the triumphs and failures that I experienced through attempting to create and maintain a healthy lifestyle," she said. "What I didn't realize at the time was how many doors it would open for me. Instagram and fitness coupled together created something magical."

A handful of influencers who started as Itsines’ early adopters made names and hefty followings in their own right, like Foster-Fell, spreading the Bikini Body Guide way of life far and wide. Audrey’s Fitness Journal is known to her 112,000 followers as @foamrollfanatic; Remy Ishizuka, @rrayyme, has 135,000 followers; and Sarita Walsh, @saaareeee, has 43,000 followers. They have more than 400,000 collective followers.

With growing followings and increasing interest from sponsoring brands, sharing before-and-after "progress" photos regularly was common practice but put undue pressure on influencers sometimes pushing them to extremes.

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Embracing imperfections:

Then, an unexpected phenomenon happened. These powerful influencers joined by many others in the health, wellness, and fitness space—including Ms. Itsines herself—started sharing posts that highlighted their flaws. The millennial generation spoke, and a slow, subtle shift began: Authenticity became more important than perfection.

Photo: @saaareeee

More influencers began to open up about their thought patterns, negative self-talk, and mental health issues to dismantle the notion of perfection and foster community among followers. Instead of sharing how to get a fit physique, the conversation deepened to the real reason that draws us to fitness in the first place: how we feel about ourselves.

"My real #struggle is reading your stories, when you write me letters sharing about your troubled minds, pouring your hearts out crying miserably because you’re just so unhappy with your bodies. And I’m here, left feeling utterly useless, defeated by the fact that I can’t do anything to help you understand that you can change your mindset. I wanted to share this [struggle] with you, so you know that you’re not alone. And I hope that at least my struggle will help your struggle seem a little more bearable," wrote Walsh in her caption for the photo above, discussing how she struggles with the comments people make about her body on social media.

Photo: @rayray_recovering

Another instance pictured here is the "30-second before and after," in which the Instagram user posts a beautiful "posed" photo against one that reveals real-life bloating, belly rolls, or simply end-of-day-stomach distention. Check the #30secondtransformation hashtag or #30secondbeforeandafter hashtag for some Instagram realness, inspired by women who want others to know that a 360-degree wellness journey isn't perfect.

More recently, "hip dips," also known as "violin hips," went viral within Instagram’s wellness community, peaking in July of 2017 according to Google Trends. "Hip dips" refers to a specific pelvic shape, creating not one but two indents around women's hips similar to the contour of a violin. Not everyone has it and it's subtle—you'd probably have to look twice to notice it. In the comments on these photos, many women express feelings of relief and empowerment from simply knowing that others have and embrace these shapes, causing a body-positive ripple effect.

On a larger scale, Instagram is trending toward sharing an authentic, less poised look. For the last couple of years, Instagram users who took great care in styling images to a certain aesthetic (sometimes disrupting the environment and present moment experience around them to get the perfect snap) now shun anything that looks too contrived in favor of capturing the reality. Fashion and lifestyle blogger Leandra Medine and the Manrepeller team have led the charge in this style of posting, showing that real, undone moments are just as important to share as the pretty ones. As Instagram introduced stories, we saw a closer, unedited look at the lives of those we followed, which continues to change the way we use the platform.

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Sharing authentic, empowering stories:

Photo: @chinaealexander

As anyone reading mbg knows, there are so, so many ways to well-being. Chinae Alexander, @chinaealexander, a fitness influencer with 132,000 followers, did one and a half rounds of Kayla's workouts before calling it quits. She'd been weightlifting for years before she gave the workout a try, and decided to stick with her tried and true weightlifting workouts. "Overall, Instagram has improved my wellness journey as a whole but providing so much more access to knowing about trends and things that are changing the industry. I think sometimes it can add this stress of keeping up with what everyone else is doing, but overall it’s more help than harm to me," she said. Alexander now makes a living on her social media, website, and newly minted YouTube channel, with "womanhood" and "badassery" as two of three prominently placed descriptors on her Instagram profile page.

Whether she knew it or not, Itsines was sowing the seeds for a new wave of body positivity, in which loving oneself is a rebellious act; women are celebrating formerly eschewed periods and stretch marks, and Instagram is the chosen weapon. As for Itsines’ aforementioned crew, most have followed suit. All still include fitness as a part of their lifestyles, of course, but the integration has evolved and is no longer all about progress pics—it's about self-love, celebrating the body, and Ishizuka left her day job and to focus on her blog and web presence full-time, empowering other women to do the same. If Walsh’s Instagram, @saaareeee, is any indication, she’s been bitten by the travel bug. Audrey's of @foamrollfanatic remains close to Itsines as an ambassador of the program. Foster-Fell has landed her dream job as a SoulCycle instructor and shared her journey along the way. "Instagram began as an accountability tool, but it has evolved into something much greater for me. Yes, it is now my business, so I use it differently in that sense, but I look at it as an opportunity to be creative in terms of content, connect with others around the world, and create an online community for women to support and empower each other through the ups and downs of life," said Foster-Fell.

On the flip side, here's exactly how to tell if you need a break from social media.

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