by Aly Teich | photo by Chris Fanning Photo
Before I dive into this piece – I’d like you to know a few things. First, I’ve made several attempts at writing this post over several months without publishing it. So please know I’ve put a lot of thought and consideration into the topic itself and also how to broach it, so this is not coming from something that just happened or a sudden burst of anger. I’ve written a few pieces that speak to this topic a bit, but have yet to just be fully honest and address it head-on. Second, I realize this post may ruffle some feathers, and I’m not in the business of pointing fingers or picking on people, BUT I feel strongly enough that this has to be addressed and the conversation needs to start being had – both among ourselves and with ourselves. I also realize this may elicit some negative feelings, or perhaps I’m even about to tumble my whole platform, but I am willing to take the risk. So here goes…
When I started The Sweat Life in 2013 as a website and web series aimed to help people explore the world of health and fitness in an up-close-and-personal way - someone told me I also had to start an Instagram account. Mind you, I barely knew what Instagram was, and I don’t think the term “influencer” was even in use yet (or maybe it was, and I was just too uncool to know!). I’m 37, so this whole world of Instagram and social media and the power it holds is still something even I am trying to wrap my head around — I lived a lot of my life in a world where social media did not yet exist. But, I digress.
My point is, it was never my goal to become an Instagram influencer, and to be completely honest, the notion of it still makes my stomach turn a little (especially after watching the #FyreFraud docs). Or perhaps I just think it’s all a bit silly, or ruining us all, or all of the above. But here we are, and here I am, and there you are — all 74.6K of you (which in some people’s eyes is a big number, and in others…not). However, I will say, whatever my feelings might be about the world of social media and influencers, if I’m going to be one, I couldn’t be prouder of the platform The Sweat Life has become or of the community we have cultivated (you!) or of what I stand for and how I stand for it. I couldn’t be more grateful that I get to spend my days helping people explore the world of health and fitness, introducing you to the incredible people, experts, methods, and brands of this space, and inspiring you to live healthier and happier lives. I get to connect with you, hear your amazing journeys and stories, and learn from you constantly. Additionally, as much as I worry about the toll social media is taking on all of us, I also respect its power for good, and even with my regularly peppered-in sense of humor, I actually take this all quite seriously – because it is serious. Why is it serious? First, because I am, at the end of the day, influencing people, and that’s not something to take lightly. Second (and here is the crux of the point of this post), I am influencing people about decisions they are making about their health and about their bodies – and THAT is about as serious as it gets.
This isn’t fashion, this isn’t beauty, this isn’t home décor, this isn’t travel – this is people’s health – and it cannot simply be treated as another trend or cultural category or cool thing to talk about. It has to be taken seriously, handled delicately, and given the greatest amount of respect and consideration. To be a health and/or fitness influencer, you MUST actually know about health and fitness. And just as importantly – you must know what you DON’T know about health and fitness. It is the most important responsibility of any influencer to be open and honest with their followers about what they do and do not know. It is simply irresponsible not to.
Let me be clear, I am not claiming that I know everything about health and fitness, because I don’t. However, most especially when it comes to fitness and the fitness industry, I do know A LOT, as I have spent a lifetime playing sports, and have now dedicated the last 6 years to trying almost every type of modality available in the space. I spend hours upon hours meeting with, talking to, and learning from some of the top trainers, instructors, athletes, and studio owners about their methods, philosophies, and theories. I dedicate the majority of each week to trying these workouts and methods myself, so I can, in turn, show you and tell you. And this is one of my most important roles in all of this —- I am a constant student. I am not perfect in my own health: my diet is inconsistent at best, and as you know, I have struggled through my fair share of ailments and injuries. However, I am open and honest about all of this. I am clear about the fact that I am NOT a trainer, I am not an instructor, and I am not a health expert — and I hold the people who are the real experts in the space in the highest regard. I am a guide, I am a storyteller, and I am your guinea pig. I am honest about what I know and don’t know. I don’t give advice that I am not qualified to give (even if I know the answer). I am open with my own journey and how that affects my point of view. I have spent years exploring the health and fitness space, and nothing matters more to me. I feel confident in my qualifications to keep playing this role – and I hope you are, too.
With that said, I can no longer sit quietly on the sidelines as I watch this space get more and more crowded with young influencers who have jumped onto the health bandwagon because it’s the trendy thing to do, and simply have no business talking to people about their health or how to get healthy. I will go as far as to say it’s dangerous. In fact, I believe there should be actual rules around this. Rules like:
You cannot talk to people about their health if you are not healthy yourself – mentally or physically.
You cannot offer reviews or advice on studios, classes, workouts, or fitness methods that you have not actually tried or are not able to properly do yourself (and trying the products in the bathroom or taking a cute photo in the lobby doesn’t count).
You cannot offer reviews or advice on health products or services you have not tried yourself.
You cannot repurpose claims from actual experts in this space and falsely make them your own. And unless you ARE an actual expert in something, you should not be making claims about anything. Ever. Period.
You cannot pretend your level of influence or the amount of money you get paid by brands replaces knowledge, experience, training, or education.
You cannot pretend that wearing fashionable fitness clothes means you know anything about actual fitness. Fitness fashion is not fitness – it’s fashion.
You cannot pretend you are healthy when you’re not – even if you look the part.
Don’t get me wrong, I am ALL for anyone sharing their own personal journey about anything in life — including their health. I love when people share what has worked or not worked for them, what foods make them feel good (or they just enjoy), recipes they love to make, what products they like, what classes or trainers motivate them to workout, or even their favorite brand of leggings. I love when people share stories of overcoming illness, or getting through injury, or any other personal health journey they’ve been on that could help others get through similar struggles and journeys. Some people have even built entire platforms around sharing their own health journeys, and it’s beautiful and inspiring — these are people who can give real, deep, meaningful, and helpful advice based on their own experiences. Not everyone talking or writing about health needs to be an expert. In fact, an entire army of incredible journalists write about health every day — impressive people filled with knowledge, and in many cases also impressive athletes. However, even they will tell you that they are journalists first, and not necessarily experts. So again, I repeat, the number one rule is that you HAVE to be honest about what you know and don’t know. I will say it again – not doing so is irresponsible and dangerous – and people are listening, especially young women.
So, I challenge all of you out there. Do you know the credentials of the people you are taking health advice from? If not, you should ask. It is easy to get fooled by cute outfits, fit bodies, and Instagram followings. It is easy to think that just because someone is getting paid to post about big brands or show up at fitness and wellness events, that you should be taking advice from them. Please know, in most cases, that has more to do with engagement numbers than education, and it’s important that you know the difference.
And let me tell you, there are true experts in our industry who have studied and trained and worked and hustled to know what they know, and do what they do — and these are the people you should be taking advice from. It has been one of my greatest joys to learn from these people, and to “bring” you to them. These are the people in whom brands who want to “invest in wellness” should be really investing in — and I think it’s a real shame that many don’t (but that’s another subject for another post). I will say, however, that I challenge studios and health brands that want to work with influencers to pay attention to the message you are sending by the people you choose to work with, and not just think about the number of people you want to reach. An even more important challenge for fitness studios and gyms: stop hiring people to teach classes and train people based on Instagram following and not actual fitness qualifications – as this is the most dangerous behavior of all.
For my readers, I’m not saying you should unfollow people you enjoy watching or following, or who inspire you or entertain you or make you laugh – because that’s the beauty of all of this. It should be fun, it should be inspiring, and it should make you feel good. However, I will say it again – please be mindful of who you are taking hard advice from and what their qualifications are to give such advice. Please make sure you are following people who help you feel like your best and healthiest self. And please take some time to follow true experts in the health and fitness space who will teach you so very much (even if they haven’t mastered the perfect way to post an Instagram story).
For all of you influencers and content creators out there - you don’t HAVE to be an expert to inspire people or to tell your story. But you DO have to be an expert if you’re going to claim to be an expert. And you DO have to be healthy if you are going to talk about health. It’s time for all of us to be truly honest and take responsibility for our parts in this — and I promise to you that I will continue to do mine.