Not too long ago, models were known to project an image of cool that involved standing around looking wafer thin while smoking a cigarette. You could maybe throw a vodka martini into that picture.
Today, as wellness cred arguably has as much cachet as designer labels, that’s changing.
Instagram is a gallery of the gorgeous showing off where and how they sweat: Gigi Hadid at Gotham Gym, Karlie Kloss at AKT, Victoria’s Secret runway hopefuls training with Michael Olajide. Studios regularly market their workouts based on how many models swear by their method, and publications (including this one) are now reporting on how often these tall, lithe beauties hit the gym, what exercises they find most effective, and what motivates them to move.
The most obvious issue with looking to models for workout inspiration is that most are in the profession because of a specific body type they were born with.
At first glance, it all seems like a huge improvement over the cocaine-negates-calories mindset that once reigned. Exercise is healthy; strength is empowering; muscled models inspire movement. But what about the message lurking beneath the surface: Could this new ethos be messing with women’s body image in a new, more subtle way?
The skinny jean gene
The most obvious issue with looking to models for workout inspiration is that the vast majority are in the profession because of a specific body type they were born with. So if the message being communicated by any party (gym, studio, trainer, etc.) is “if you do this workout, you will look like this,” it’s setting up the majority of women, with varying body types, for major disappointment.
“Models are, in fashion, the equivalent of Olympic athletes in sports,” says Will Torres, the founder of Willspace in New York City, where he often trains runway regulars. In other words, if you ask Michael Phelps for his swim routine and start following it, it’s still highly unlikely you’ll be onstage at the next medal ceremony.
“Some models work very, very hard. They box, bend, some do CrossFit. Some of them are tough. And then some don’t have to—they go do yoga and run a couple of times a week. But in general, overall, they’re genetically gifted,” Torres says.
Which brings up an important point: It’s of course unfair to write off the hard work models are putting in at the gym. Gotham Gym founder Rob Piela says the models he works with, like Hadid, are often the most focused of all of his clients. “I find that [models] are really dedicated, and that’s because they’re being judged on how they look, potential jobs are based on how they look,” he says. “They’re really focused on results.”
It’s really unfair to compare yourself to someone who’s literally working to maintain her physique.
If your job is not dependent on the flatness of your abs, however, it’s often hard to put in the kind of time models are. Long hours at the office may do more for your career than spending two hours a day lifting, for example. It’s really unfair to compare yourself to someone who’s literally working to maintain her physique.
Strong is the new skinny…is the new ideal
The real root of the issue seems to lie with the mantra-of-the-moment: “Strong is the new skinny.” It’s an inspiring phrase that resonates with many women (including this one!) but unfortunately, it can backfire, says Natalia Petrzela, a professor and trainer who often tackles feminist topics (and is also Well+Good’s fitness historian).
“It just creates a new physical ideal that still demands so much attention to appearance,” Petrzela explains, especially in the case of models, since we’re generally seeing naturally thin women working out or “getting strong.” In other words, now not only are we supposed to be super skinny like them, we should also have toned triceps and a six pack on top of that.
Here’s the thing, though: It helps to keep in mind that models are subject to even more ridiculous body standards than the rest of us and often suffer from the effects of working in a body-obsessed industry. A recent (small) survey by The Model Alliance found that more than 30 percent have had eating disorders, almost 50 percent restrict their eating to lose weight, and 68 percent suffer from anxiety or depression.
Erin Heatherton recently came out publicly about her own struggles with body image at a time when she was regularly posting about her awesome workouts. And fitness model Anna Hanks wrote on Well+Good about how the pressure she felt to become “a better model” contributed to the self-talk that literally made her sick, with Celiac disease and Epstein-Barr virus.
So rather than believing the hype around “model workouts” that will whittle your waist or looking to models’ Insta posts as body templates, it helps to keep in mind that the glossy images you’re seeing are not telling the whole story. It may also be possible to draw inspiration from the sweat a model is showing off rather than the shape of her bicep.
In the end, we’re all searching for our own definition of “strong,” and yours is likely going to look seriously different than Adriana Lima’s, no matter how similar your jump-rope routine. That’s a good thing.