The modern fitness industry, particularly the segment that thrives on social media, has long been enamored with the notion of the "amazing transformation” (“look at these abdominals—doctors and dietitians hate him,” “he did a 72-hour fast and the unbelievable happened,” etc.). This concept, now far beyond clichéd, typically involves a mix of anabolic steroids, a rigorously controlled diet, and a painstakingly curated workout plan. Such putative “awe-inspiring fitness journey,” documented in carefully-shot Instagram posts and YouTube videos, feature ripped bodies and stark before-and-after images that are designed to inspire stans, simps, and couch potatoes to like, share, subscribe, and hit the notification bell. However, as 2023 recedes, this formula seems positively antiquated. The audience's appetite for such transformations or adjacent content, like bizarro workouts, is waning, indicating that the threshold for novelty is now well beyond the reach of even the greatest of influencers.
The redundancy of this narrative is due to its predictability. The stories, though individually unique, follow a familiar arc: a journey from the ordinary to the extraordinary, facilitated by heavy drug use and heavy weightlifting. Yet, these transformations, once considered extraordinary, have become the new normal, diluted by their ubiquity. The predictability of the outcome, the homogeneity of the narratives, and the overt commercialization of these branded personal journeys have contributed to a collective yawn from an audience seeking something fresh and uncharted.
In a world where muscle-bound influencers are as common as smartphones, the public's desire for something genuinely extraordinary continues to grow. The fantasy of transformations that mirror comic book escapades is becoming increasingly appealing. Picture a fitness influencer, not just sculpting their body, but radically altering their very being in ways that echo the feats of the Ultra-Humanite—an evil genius famed for implanting his genius brain into gorilla bodies—or becoming an actual heavenly body like Ego the Living Planet. Such outlandish transformations, while rooted in fantasy, underscore the truth about our current fitness culture: the mundane and the ordinary no longer suffice. We must go beyond.
This craving for the extraordinary isn’t just about rejecting the physical. It's about challenging the limits of human potential and imagination. Why limit transformations to what's achievable through conventional means when the realms of science fiction and fantasy offer a plethora of ideas? The appetite for these fantastical transformations is a commentary on our times—an era where technology and reality intertwine in unprecedented ways, and where the boundaries of what's possible are constantly pushed.
The archetypal fitness journey, as portrayed in countless social media narratives, follows a well-trodden path: embarking on a steroid-enhanced regimen, peppered with long-winded, trite captions celebrating the human spirit's triumph over physical limitations and the contempt of others (“I learned to love myself” after several years of drug abuse that, while admirable in some ways, isn’t all that different than a lengthy chemotherapy regimen). This narrative, once a source of inspiration and awe, has now become a caricature of itself. These faux-uplifting stories adhere to a monotonous pattern, losing their power to engage and inspire.
My criticism of such fitness journeys is more than just a critique of repetition; it's a reflection of a broader societal trend towards superficiality and a preference for style over substance. The focus has shifted from the authenticity of the journey—which was perhaps possible a century ago, though even then it was commodified by the likes of the ubiquitous “The Insult That Made a Man Out of Mac” ads used to pimp the exercise methods of Charles Atlas—to the aesthetics and engagement bonanza of the outcome, with little regard for the nuances and complexities of the transformation process. The commodification of fitness has led to a scenario where the essence of the journey—the struggles, the setbacks, the genuine human experiences that result from using your meat suit or flesh prison to actually do something positive for yourself—is often glossed over in favor of a polished, marketable end product.
The same fitness journeys that I’ve criticized for their banality continue to garner attention and engagement on social media—even if the returns are diminishing ones. This phenomenon is indicative of a larger trend in content consumption: despite voicing boredom, audiences remain inexplicably drawn to these narratives, clicking “like” as easily as they might slide their flat or bunion-afflicted foot into a worn old shoe. This paradox suggests a complex relationship between content creators and consumers, where the act of engagement is driven by factors beyond mere interest or entertainment, instead becoming a strange kind of workaday “clock-punching” in the world of social media. Picture Ralph Wolf logging on to like Sam Sheepdog’s posts before heading home after a long shift in the content mills and you’ve got the general idea.
This phenomenon might be partly explained by the comfort of familiarity. In a world brimming with uncertainty and change, there’s reassurance in the predictable. Moreover, the act of engaging with these insipid stories, even if they’re derided as dull, offers a sense of community and belonging, key aspects in the age of digital connectivity. This also speaks to the power of habit in shaping our media consumption behaviors, where scrolling through predictable content becomes a reflexive act, divorced from the search for genuine engagement or novelty—perhaps undertaken while “gooning,” another reflexive act that helps pass the time during each long day’s journey into night.
Consider the ne plus ultra of all this jazz: fitness influencer couples, clearly the pinnacle of this racket. Nothing is more fascinating than when these single-minded narcissists join forces over social media—perhaps having a meet-cute at some muscle event where influencers go to be seen—then stage-manage their self-love affair for all to see. Their combined social media presence, filled with motivational quotes and mutual adulation, often thinly disguises a shared path dominated by steroid use and an obsession with superficial physical transformation. Whenever I see such a couple, one happy thought comes to mind: “Ah, these two have it made—they can safely needle each other in their ass meat, an area less likely to get sore than the thighs you’re probably using as an injection site if you’re all by your lonesome.”
Continued high engagement with content that is simultaneously boring and predictable suggests a deeper issue at play: a disconnection between what audiences genuinely want and the same-old, same-old they are presented with. This gap offers an opportunity for influencers to explore uncharted territories, to blend the realms of reality and fantasy, perhaps not in the literal sense of becoming celestial entities or undergoing outlandish transformations, but in the metaphorical sense of transcending the ordinary.
It’s high time for creators to acknowledge and adapt to the changing tides of audience preferences. The challenge lies in creating content that’s not only visually captivating but also intellectually and emotionally stimulating. This isn’t just a call for change; it's a call for a revolution in fitness influencing. When I interviewed the fitness influencer Jujimufu years ago, he admitted that it kept getting harder and harder to impress the fans with new looks and new fitness stunts—yet here he is in 2023, still on that grind, still trying to up the ante while playing for penny stakes.
Look, I understand that it’s hard out there for a workaday grifter. I recognize that you’ve got to get yours before you get got. I realize you’ve got to do the work. But we know what has to be done, influencers. Implant your brain in a gorilla’s body. Become a planet. If not now, when? If not you, who?