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Column: Gym culture targets impressionable young men on the internet

Cardio machines lie on the basketball courts in Ram’s Head gym on UNC’s campus on Feb. 6, 2021.

Last year, I started going to the gym.

I had no idea what I was doing. Naturally, I would save videos on my Instagram explore page for workout tips. 

It was completely innocent. Yes, split squats would give my legs a burn. But dividing workouts into push, pull and leg movements is the most efficient way to workout, duh.

Shortly, my algorithm replaced helpful workout videos with "motivational" workout posts. Like those posters with a cat hanging from a tree saying “you’ve got this,” but instead of a cat it's a 20-something buff dude. They were too rancid to not click on. I loved how much I hated them. 

I wanted to be motivated. 

As I continued to click another transformation occurred. The fitness content on my feed became more intense. Videos with the virility I had only seen in Tucker Carlson rants and sports camps I was forced to attend as a child. The algorithm sucked me into the motivational “gymfluencer” pipeline. 

These videos weren’t like the typical healthy lifestyle influencers we’ve had since the dawn of YouTube. We know how to deal with the Chloe Ting, LuluLemon and pilates influencer content. At least those creators try to disguise the fact they benefit from people’s insecurities by reforming them into less obviously harmful trends like the “it-girl” aesthetic. “It-girls” have equated their trendy appearance with self-worth, and have done so almost without question.

There’s no disguising that these new gymfluencers are just a glance at something incredibly harmful: another pipeline targeted toward impressionable young boys who need role models.

Years ago, it was videos of the far-right figurehead Ben Shapiro arguing with people on their political stances. This year it was Andrew Tate. Now it’s buff guys pairing videos of them working out with slightly alarming captions like “nobody is coming to save you.”

What’s the common denominator between these algorithm pipelines over the years? They tell young boys that it’s them against the world.

Hearing this as a fully developed adult might sound ridiculous, but these gymfluencers are the men that prepubescent boys idolize like scripture. When you’re young and intimidated by life, someone telling you those fears need to be channeled into spite and anger is an accessible place of solace.

Seemingly innocent topics have become home to these values being pushed on the internet. Next thing you know, it could be your younger brother’s favorite baking videos pushing those extreme views.

Spend five minutes watching those videos, and you’ll come out with one message: if your biceps aren’t 18 inches, you’re weak and ugly. Also, eat more protein and go to the gym twice a day. Also, it’s the world against you. Also, get mad and channel that anger into your lifting. Dating and having friends is a waste of time. You could be using that time to be stronger. Bigger biceps is equal to being stronger is equal to political power is equal to a new plane of heightened existence. 

Even while writing this article I came across a video of a gymfluencer walking around and flexing with the text “If I was that small,” (referencing me, the viewer), “I wouldn’t be partying on the weekends and chasing pointless women.” Because partying and having fun is bad. And women are pointless. That’s why we’re “small” and he walks around flexing.

Not all gymfluencers are bad. There are tons of people on the internet that encourage healthy and active lifestyles and make the gym an accessible and exciting place to exercise. The new wave of gymfluencers don’t tell me I suck — but they are just a microcosm of a vicious internet cycle profiting off of the young men.


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