Physical capital is the currency of the fitness industry. It always has been, and always will be. The industry is built on aesthetics, and our continued focus on weight and body fat as the sole measurements of health has some far-reaching consequences for our industry and our clients. With the explosion of social-media and online coaching, digital body capital has come to prominence. What is digital body capital, and what does it mean for us?
Digital Body Capital: Definition
Body capital is defined as the “values or capital a physical body holds according to its size, shape, musculature or competencies” . Body/physical capital is everywhere in our industry, ranging from our obsession with helping clients get their “dream bodies”, platforming lean, muscular bodies throughout the gym and even using our own bodies as a benchmark of our experience and worth as coaches.
We won’t delve too deep into it, because you can read all about it here.
With the advent of the “online coach”, body capital has infiltrated social media. Our digital world focuses on us showcasing our physiques, training and exercise routines. We do not showcase changes in mindset or relationships with food, we show before and after photos. This concept of “digital physical capital” draws on the use of “mobile digital technology to describe, display and distribute images of their own and others’ bodies”  (note: this paper doesn’t explicitly define digital capital, I just thought it was a nice succinct way of putting it – shoot me).
Digital body capital is an extension of traditional “physical capital” in an online setting.
Building Digital Body Capital
Social media platforms largely rely on user-generated content. To stand out, users become reliant on contributing content that distinguishes them from others – in essence, they’re not like other fitspos .
Image-based platforms such as Instagram or TikTok are densely populated with appearance-focused imagery, particularly in the fitspoverse. We are bombarded with physique updates, photoshoot/stage shots and transformation pics. These platforms also serve to “rank” content in the form of likes, comments, followers and overall engagement.
So, if everyone is posting their body, how do you stand out?
Thankfully, the dieting industry has carefully cultivated “body ideals” for you to aspire towards. For women this tends to be a lean, thin body and for men it is typically one of elevated muscularity and low body fat . Coaches with these “ideal” bodies report finding clients easier and generating more business .
By leveraging their bodies and building businesses around coaching individuals towards achieving a similar “ideal body” (see also: dream body – ick), physical capital takes centre stage on social media for the online coach.
If our bodies are our business cards and how we grow businesses online, how can physical capital notbe the currency of the online fitness community?
It’s Not Just About Aesthetics
You will often see individuals attempt to rationalise their rampant focus on their body with the disclaimer – it’s not just about how you look guys! And the fitspos are right. Digital body capital isn’t just a look – it’s a lifestyle!
The greatest opportunities to accrue digital body capital actually come in the form of content that shows you live a “healthy lifestyle” . Photos of your body are great if you want people to slide into your DMs (and who doesn’t want that), but if you want real buy-infrom the general population, you need to sell the story of how you got there.
Enter the humble What I Eat In A Day. Influencers will often attain social validation through “idealised” versions of their diet and training routines , which are almost ALWAYS accompanied by physique shots. And that’s all good and problematic, but often people who advocate for certain diets offer advice with no qualifications or training – What I Eat As A Woman With PCOS, What I Eat in ED Recovery. If you post these kind of videos with a link to your coaching services, you are acting so far out of your scope of practice, that the line of acceptability is a dot to you.
So, you can see that bodily capital extends far beyond just posting photos in your Lulus or stringer.
The Impact of Digital Body Capital
Building an entire industry on aesthetics presents a litany of challenges for both coaches and clients. Who would have thought?
Health is Not a One Hashtag Fits All
Digital body capital further pushes “body ideals” onto us. Body ideals are by nature exclusionary. Only a select few can actually achieve these ideals without severely compromising their health and quality of life. The relentless pursuit of body ideals has demonstrated some concerning findings in literature. Individuals chasing these “dream bodies” are at higher risk for developing disordered eating, eating disorders and a rake of other health-threatening behaviours .
Indeed, some individuals simply can’t ever get to these ideals full stop, owing to their genetics or many other non-modifiable factors. I can’t make myself shorter (as much as my younger self would have liked that). But by pushing these ideals on social media, the algorithm keeps us coming back.
The Echo Chamber of Secrets
This is perpetuated by social media algorithms. Our social media acts as an “echo chamber” , whereby we are only shown content from things we engage with or are likely to engage with. This keeps diversity out, and a selective range of body fat percentages in. Consequently, this rigid definition of “fitness” is created. It is more challenging for those outside of these “lean” ideals to get the same traction online, no matter how many physique shots they post.
It’s not necessarily the fault of the algorithm – it is designed to keep users engaged and on the platform. As long as we place a value on “ideal” bodies, we will continue to be shown them as the visual representation of health.
Won’t Someone Please Think of the Irony?
The crushing irony of digital capital is not lost on me. One of the main selling points for social media is the alleged “freedom to post what you want”… BUUUUT this isn’t true at all. If you are an online coach trying to grow your business, you will find it far more difficult to increase clients and engagement without falling into these “algorithm hacks”.
Sure you can express yourself, and show off your body. But it only matters if you’re lean if engagement is what you’re after. More engagement, more sales baby. It doesn’t mean it can’t be done, of course. Plenty of coaches have built businesses that aren’t solely transformation-orientated (thank god). However, it is something to bear in mind before we come down too hard on coaches that are just trying to make a living. All that being said, if you have built your entire business on “banishing bingo wings for good”, please seek Jesus.
To finish this article with my usual despondence, it is unlikely that digital body capital is going anywhere soon. It is likely that physique updates, What I Eat In A Day Videos and transformation specialists will continue to benefit the most from the current chokehold they have our industry in.
This means it is up to us as consumers of social media (and content creators) to be mindful of what we engage with. The less time we spend cultivating our entire industry around our body fat percentages the better. Health is not a one hashtag fits all, and if we want our industry to reflect that it’s time we damn well started to act like it. Namaste.
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