The quickest way to tell if a fitness influencer has edited their body in a video is to look at the background. Curvy poles and warped windows are dead giveaways. Other times you’ll find crooked shadows in photos or a filter momentarily disappearing from the video.
John Dorsey, known online as “Goob” or “your favorite influencer’s least favorite influencer,” is an expert at spotting these blatant — and subtler — manipulations. In one video, he argues to his 70,000 Instagram followers that Chinese fitness influencer Jessica Shen seems to be using a waist-cinching filter in a post about a bodybuilding contest that she won.
“I can’t say I understand this. … You won,” Dorsey says in the video. “You beat everybody. You got this video after beating everybody, then said, ‘Let me make my waist even tighter.’ Why?”
The 32-year-old bodybuilding coach has gained notoriety by calling out bad behavior in the fitness industry online, ranging broadly from revealing the criminal background of an influential member of the powerlifting community to alleging that a fitness microinfluencer faked cancer to exposing edited photos. Dorsey’s account has been taken down for alleged community guideline violations 12 times, which he attributes to fitness influencers and their fans fighting back.
Dorsey is not alone in calling out edited posts. Dozens of communities exist on Instagram, Facebook, and Reddit dedicated to spotting inconsistencies and edited images posted by image-obsessed influencers. BuzzFeed News interviewed eight fitness influencers popular on TikTok and Instagram, and they all acknowledged that editing and filters is an open secret among the industry and that almost everyone does in some capacity — although, of course, all of them vehemently denied doing it themselves.
The tweaks are often subtle, they said — a slightly bigger bicep for men and a more cinched waist for women. Often, they’ll see someone has edited their photos with adjustments to the hips and butts to achieve a look that’s attainable, if unrealistic. Technology has progressed to the point that it takes mere seconds to edit a photo with apps like CapCut, BodyTuneEditor, Facetune, and FaceApp. Videos and livestreams, which previously served as proof of authentic bodies, can easily be edited as well.
Olivia Marcarelli, a 25-year-old fitness influencer with 400,000 TikTok followers and 150,000 YouTube subscribers, said that most of what she sees other creators post on social media is “toxic and unrealistic.” Her posts show off her “fit thick” physique and booty-focused exercises, but she said she’s recently become disillusioned with other fitness creators because their posts are so frequently edited.
“Girls literally get famous because of Photoshop. They create a whole identity around their fake bodies,” she said. “Just today, I saw one with 2 million followers of men who think she’s real, but it's so obvious. She edits everything.”
Marcarelli didn’t want to call anyone out by name for manipulating their photos; she’d rather keep things positive. But Dorsey, who attended law school, has no problem calling people out for false advertising. After revealing that a major influencer had been posting edited photos, he received messages from his audience thanking him for helping them realize why they couldn’t achieve that level of perfection — the results are a fabrication.
“It’s human nature to compare yourself to others, and it’s a relief to find out that someone who looks perfect was all smoke and mirrors,” he said. “After I expose a popular influencer, people DM me and tell me that they’re the same height and weight as them and that they could never understand why they don’t look like that.”
Subtle tweaks to an arm or a butt might be obvious to other fitness influencers and seasoned online sleuths, but usually their enormous audiences of millions on YouTube, TikTok, Facebook, and Instagram aren’t aware of the extent of digital manipulation. There’s a push and pull on both sides. Followers of these fitspo accounts are immersing themselves in unrealistic and often unattainable images, and creators feel pressured to alter their posts to achieve the perfection favored by algorithms.
As a result, people often equate a “perfect” body with someone who can actually give fitness advice. Influencers feed off this, selling exercise plans or simply using their large followings to hawk products such as protein powder and athleisure. And fitness creators in turn have become celebrities with millions of followers. And now there is an entire thriving subculture of creators within the $100 billion fitness industry that is rife with misinformation, misleading images, and influencers with little to no training experience.
Lawrence Obioma knew that having a muscular physique would help him get a social media following. The 26-year-old tech consultant, who has 480,000 TikTok followers, first went viral for working out while solving a Rubik’s Cube one-handed. He told BuzzFeed News that as his audience grew, people started asking for his workout regimen. Just by looking like the ideal version of a fitness influencer, he became one. He has posted videos of himself lifting weights, but he’s open about the fact that he doesn’t hold any formal certification.
“I didn’t release my workout plans for monetary gain,” he said, though they’re still available for $10 to $12 on his website. “I did it because people wouldn’t stop asking me for them.”
Obioma said he hasn’t felt the pressure to edit or alter his videos because he looks “the same or better in real life,” though in 2020 he posted a series of videos questioning whether influencers were “natty” (not using steroids) or editing their posts, which he says is a huge problem in the industry. Obioma no longer identifies as a fitness influencer, because he’d rather focus on his comedic content. He now shares videos with dating advice and claims to have more than 100,000 matches on Tinder.
But his story embodies the conceit for the entire influencer industry. Creators sell their audience something aspirational — be it outfits, vacations, or perfectly ripped bodies — and people pay them with likes and follows. And that does result in actual money, whether it’s from brand deals, merchandise, or TikTok’s Creator Fund. Looking hot and fit is key because research states that people are more likely to trust someone they deem attractive.
Still, having a clichéd #fitspo body online doesn’t mean you have health or fitness knowledge. Claudia Elizabeth, a 23-year-old bodybuilder and certified personal trainer with 250,000 TikTok followers who doesn’t share her last name online for privacy reasons, said she has noticed that some people can’t tell the difference between someone who gives good advice and someone who has a good body.
On her page, the self-described “muscle mommy” doesn’t really share advice. She posts videos of herself working out or flexing, but never suggests that other people copy her. She privately works with a coach who makes plans personally for her, and she doesn’t want anyone to interpret what she does as a professional athlete as advice that will work for them.
“Stuff like ‘what I eat in a day’ videos can give people meal ideas, but I don’t recommend people do things to look like me,” Elizabeth said. “I’ve learned from my work as a trainer that everything needs to be individualized.”
“An authentic photo isn’t going to get the same amount of likes, but it is important.”
But even certified instructors feel the pressure to present the best possible version of themselves to gain followers. Elizabeth doesn’t edit her body in photos, but sometimes she feels self-conscious about her posts and knows how to pose to shift the focus on her body to create content the algorithm will love. She rarely faces the camera directly and instead shifts her hips to accentuate her waist and butt.
“I’m aware of what the fitness community wants to see and what will get me on the Instagram Explore page,” she said. “An authentic photo isn’t going to get the same amount of likes, but it is important.”
As a fitness influencer, your body is your brand. The better you look, the more likely you are to gain the attention of the algorithm, which translates to followers, which attract money from companies, which can then use your body to advertise a product. When digitally altered photos become commonplace on social media, societal expectations change, and even non-influencers feel the desire to edit themselves to perfection.
A 2019 Mental Health Foundation study found that 1 in 4 girls and 1 in 10 boys ages 13 to 19 have edited their images due to poor body image. A separate study conducted at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020 found that 90% of women would edit their faces or waists before sharing their photos online.
Image manipulation contributes to body dissatisfaction by normalizing unrealistic ideals, even if it is a tiny cinching of the waist. Dorsey said that going offline to avoid this kind of pressure just isn’t sustainable for most people. What’s posted online has become our reality because we’re constantly immersed in it.
“People forget what kind of effect the internet can have on their perception when it’s in their face all day,” he said. “Then they see the receipts that something has been edited, and they realize it’s not actually reality.”
He said influencers will continue editing themselves as long as they can get away with it, and he can’t catch everyone. There’s no quick fix for such a deeply rooted societal problem, but body-focused influencers can have a real impact on their followers.
What’s posted online has become our reality because we’re constantly immersed in it.
Psychologist Holly Schiff told BuzzFeed News that exposure to inauthentic fitness photos creates impossible standards that can result in lower self-esteem, depression, anxiety, and body dysmorphia.
“These feelings can cause people to engage in unhealthy behaviors that they think will help them attain these physiques they are seeing in manipulated photos,” she said.
Nicole Axelson, 26, started documenting her “fitness journey” when she was a teenager. She shared all the typical things a fitness influencer would, like her workouts and what she eats in a day, treating Instagram like a public diary. It all changed in her early 20s when she realized that the passion for exercise she was feeling wasn’t determination, it was self-hatred. She decided she didn’t want to perpetuate that to her followers.
“I didn’t want them to feel like if they wanted to look like me, they had to track their food and go to the gym or buy a $60 supplement,” Axelson said. “I was actually very miserable while I was doing a lot of those things.”
Axelson stepped away from fitness influencing in 2020 to post about other aspects of her life and started a line of exercise gear with inclusive sizing. The Colorado resident said she is now in recovery from an eating disorder; though she still follows fitness influencers, she’d rather focus on ones that celebrate empowerment rather than looking a certain way. The problem with the industry, to Axelson, is not necessarily other fitness influencers — it’s anti-fat discrimination.
“I wish more influential creators would talk about their bodies in ways that aren’t just aesthetic,” she said. “It means a lot to me to be honest in promoting my story.”
And that honesty translates into followers too. Caleb Marshall, a 29-year-old from Indiana who has more than 1 million followers on Facebook and TikTok, said he started posting workouts online in 2014 after working as a certified group fitness instructor teaching dance classes. Over nearly 10 years, trends have come and gone, but he has remained relentlessly spirited and goofy in his videos of pop-centric dance workout routines.
“If you’re looking perfect, you’ll get a following for looking perfect, and that will be your thing,” he said. “But being pretty and perfect is not something that necessarily has longevity.”
Many of the most popular “authentic” fitness influencers who post unflattering angles, cellulite, and tummy rolls are still image-focused and aspirational enough to draw in followers in the first place. In fact, there’s now an entire genre of social media post that leads thin influencers to reveal that they look bigger in some angles than others, which has been criticized for implying that it’s bad to look fat.
While many influencers tweak their bodies with editing software that is accessible, easy to use, and cheap, others are going more extreme. Some fitness influencers have gotten plastic surgery (like Tammy Hembrow’s breast augmentation) or use steroids (like the Liver King) to achieve an ideal look, but that yields more drastic results with potentially deadly side effects.
Marcarelli said that while she has felt pressured to edit her photos, she hasn’t given in. Like Obioma, she became a creator when her friends started encouraging her to share her workouts after noticing how her physique changed with frequent exercise. She quickly gained a lot of followers (many of them men) as what she called a “booty influencer” — literally women with strong, perky butts of pure muscle.
“I recommend doing a big unfollowing spree. If I’m not helping, unfollow me too.”
“I took a step back in 2022 when I realized how oversexualized it all was,” Marcarelli said. She started ignoring comments from her mostly male followers and unfollowing women who seemed to be posting for men’s attention.
“I would rather my community be a bunch of girls that I could chat with and help out. That’s what gives me a purpose,” she said. “I recommend doing a big unfollowing spree. If I’m not helping, unfollow me too.”
Meanwhile, Marshall said he doesn’t feel the need to edit any of his images — he gets the most views when he is his unedited self. Some of his top videos involve him messing up a dance routine, or sweating profusely.
Unlike Elizabeth, Obioma and Marcarelli do not have any fitness training certification. Obioma has effectively left the industry, and Marcarelli said she’s learned enough from professionals in person and online that she feels comfortable selling workout plans for $30 to $45 per PDF with the caveat that her advice is just what works for her. That’s a lot cheaper for her followers than hiring a personal trainer.
Though online workouts make fitness more affordable and accessible to a wider audience, the best way to get top-quality advice is not from a stranger online — at least that’s what offline experts say. Putting your trust in someone without official training can be “incredibly dangerous,” certified personal trainer James Dixon told BuzzFeed News.
“It can make a person incredibly insecure about their body, which can lead them to lean on unhealthy workout routines and diet plans,” he said.
There are a number of certifications that fitness professionals can obtain, like CPT (certified personal trainer), CNC (certified nutritional coach), NASM (a course from the National Academy of Sports Medicine), and so on. Depending on the program, it costs roughly $500 to $5,000 to gain access to classes that can last between 4 and 15 weeks. Sometimes, creators list their certifications in an alphabet soup of initials in their bios, which fitness influencer watchdog Dorsey said is a red flag.
“I think a lot of fitness certifications are predatory because they rely on people thinking they need them to work at a gym when they don’t in most states,” he said. “I coach professional bodybuilders. There’s no certification that says, I’m good to help people get jacked and tan.” He clarified that he’s not giving any kind of medical advice — you shouldn’t come to him for weight loss guidance or tips to get started on your fitness journey, and you won’t find any on his Instagram either.
“The worst thing that’s ever happened to the fitness industry.”
Jaedon Mitchell, a certified personal trainer and nutrition coach, said that the power most fitness creators have over their audience has inspired a rise of unqualified influencers, which is “the worst thing that’s ever happened to the fitness industry.”
He said that one day at the gym, he saw a new member hanging upside down from a pull-up bar doing the “most absurd” exercise he’d ever seen, which could also result in serious physical injury. The gymgoer told Mitchell that he had seen on social media that the exercise could help with core strength. When Mitchell found the post online, he found that dozens of young people were excitedly commenting that they wanted to try it, too. The creator who shared the pull-up exercise had no official training at all.
“It was as if the influencer was the leader of a cult, creating these bizarre exercises on his own, and his followers believed everything without question,” he said. “Not all influencers without credentials are giving bad advice, but would you trust someone to do surgery on you if you weren’t sure they were a licensed doctor?”
Though it seems social media algorithms currently favor aesthetics over everything, some extremely successful fitness influencers shift the focus away from what they look like in a way that ex-influencer Axelson said she craved.
“Not all influencers without credentials are giving bad advice, but would you trust someone to do surgery on you if you weren’t sure they were a licensed doctor?”
Marshall said his goal is not to help people look good — it’s to help them feel good. Posting like other fitness influencers just doesn’t bring him the same level of joy as being goofy.
“I fell in love with making normal people feel like superstars,” he said. “We all have our moments where we’re not so confident, but when I tried to post like other people, it just wasn’t fun for me.”
Marshall added that people were prioritizing their personal goals and emotional well-being during the early stages of the pandemic, which led to a craving for more authentic content like his. To him, the transformation of the fitness industry isn’t just possible. It’s already underway.
“Aesthetics will always be something that people chase, but we just found out how bleak the world can be,” Marshall said. “I think the influencers who are focusing on mental and overall wellness are the ones who will succeed.” ●