Everyone's lives look more polished on social media than they do in real life, but nobody looks as beautiful and happy online as Instagram fitness models. If you're into wellness, you probably follow a few of them—those girls with half a million followers and eight-pack abs who post sunny, flawlessly composed images of themselves doing yoga all over the world. For many of these women, uploading aspirational fitness photos to Instagram has become a full-time career supported by #ads sponsored by activewear and wellness brands, plus modeling contracts and other business ventures they've been able to secure as a result of their social media fame. It sounds like a dream job, but none of today's successful fitness influencers actually aspired to these careers. Because less than five years ago, they didn't even exist. Just ask influencer Melissa Eckman (known on Instagram as @melisfit_), who worked as an accountant for six years before inspiring over 100,000 followers with her skillful scorpion poses and colorful wardrobe of leggings. Only after taking on part-time work as a barre instructor and documenting her fitness journey on social media did Eckman realize that making a living as an online fitness guru could be a reality. Same goes for Australian influencer and founder of fitness site Sporteluxe Bianca Cheah-Chalmers (@biancamaycheah). "Goodness me, I'd never set out to work in the fitness industry," she told us. "But there are so many unbelievable parts of this career. … I don't remember the last day I 'worked.'"
The serendipitous nature of their success makes online fitness models' lives seem all the more enviable. They have perfect bodies, full passports, and lucrative new entrepreneurial opportunities popping up every day. But can it all really be as pristine as it seems online? Do these women truly just spend their days working out, jet-setting, and baking gluten-free muffins? Do they ever feel insecure about their bodies, unmotivated to exercise or post?
To find out the truth behind the 'gram, we had an honest chat with four top social media fitness stars about body image and career. As it turns out, having a job that depends on looking fit and confident online actually comes with some real challenges. Keep scrolling to take an inside look at what being an Instagram fitness model is really like.
Here's what's true: Instagram fitness models do get to travel the world and make their own schedules. But what their followers don't see is that running their brands is like operating a business, and the stress of that is not always glamorous. You won't find these women sleeping in on a weekday (or any day, for that matter)—before breakfast time, dancer and fitness influencer Danielle Peazer has already answered two dozen emails and edited a video for her YouTube channel. The rest of her day is filled with meetings with her managers to brainstorm content ideas and plan any campaigns, travel, or events happening in the weeks ahead. "I even have to plan when I'll be able to see my friends and boyfriend," Peazer says.
Because Bianca Cheah-Chalmers runs a fully functioning lifestyle website in addition to her social media ventures, her schedule can be especially taxing. Meetings with her staff of writers, PR reps, and clients; photo shoots; and events consume her life more than you'd ever guess from her zen, beachside Instagram posts. "I struggle with finding the time for me," she says.
Unlike it is for other business owners, that "me" time is particularly important for fitness influencers because staying in 'gram-worthy shape is crucial to their brands. And that takes daily maintenance. No matter how exhausted she is, Chalmers does 45 minutes of Vinyasa yoga with five-pound hand weights before dinner. Melissa Eckman prefers to do her workouts in the early morning, waking up at 6 a.m. every single day to attend either a Barry's Bootcamp, Pilates, or yoga class. "After my workout, my days are mixed between shooting and creating content for my blogs, modeling jobs, and meetings. I usually don't stop working until about 8 or 9 at night," she says.
It's taken me 26 years to look how I do and feel confident in my body, and I still have days when I despise my face or body.
It probably comes as no surprise that most fitness models genuinely do love being active and inspiring others to be active as well. Peazer worked for 10 years as a professional dancer before transitioning into the fitness world. Living a super-fit lifestyle comes naturally to British influencer Rebecca-Louise Smith (@rebeccalouisefitness) as well. "I was on every sports team you could imagine at school, so I am not surprised I have ended up in the fitness industry," she tells us.
That doesn't mean these women don't feel self-critical or pressured to maintain a model figure. For them, just like for many women who use social media, body image issues are par for the course. "I definitely look at other girls [on Instagram] and think, 'Wow, she's got an amazing butt,' or, 'Her abs are great,'" says Peazer, adding that her "least favorite" part of her job is the "constant comparison" between herself and other influencers or her followers. "It's frustrating … when my followers compare themselves to me and end up feeling negative," she confesses. "Understand that it's taken me 26 years to look how I do and feel confident in my body, and I still have days when I despise my face or body."
Eckman too has struggled with body image as a result of the job. "When I first started fitness blogging and modeling, I had the mindset of wanting to be thinner and always watching my weight on the scale," she tells us. "I was constantly comparing myself to others." The comments section on Instagram doesn't help either. "There are days when someone tells you that you look too thin and then days where people mention you gained some weight, often within the space of a week," says Smith.
But according to Eckman and Peazer, learning to acknowledge the negativity, let it pass, and focus on empowering their followers is the key to their continued success. "Being successful in the fitness industry (or even in your own personal fitness) isn't about a flat stomach, the number on the scale, or worrying about what other people are doing—it's about finding balance in your life," says Eckman. "Some days I'm going on a three-mile hike and eating an açaí bowl, and other days I just want to watch reruns of my favorite old TV shows and snack on M&M's." If Eckman and her fellow influencers led with self-hatred, their followers would surely pick up on it.
Some days I'm going on a three-mile hike and eating an açaí bowl, and other days I just want to watch reruns of my favorite old TV shows and snack on M&M's.
Make no mistake, though: Being a fitness influencer is a dream job, and not one of the women we spoke to would trade it for anything. Getting to travel the globe on brand trips and to teach fitness classes is a great perk, of course. But our influencers agree that receiving messages from their followers, either online or in person, about how they've inspired them to get healthy is by far the most rewarding part of the job. "My favorite thing is the feedback I get from my followers who have bought my 12-Week Body Plan, which gives exercises and recipes to help you on your way to a fitter lifestyle," says Peazer. "To know that something I've created has contributed to someone feeling more confident and better about themselves is so rewarding."
Who knows what the lifespan of an Instagrammer's social media stardom looks like—but for business-savvy women, the role of "fitness influencer" could have some longevity. Smith is working on an app that will make the workouts she shares on her Instagram more accessible to consumers. Peazer recently created a dance fitness method called DDMcollective, which she hopes to expand in the coming year. And Chalmers has some exciting new projects in the works for Sporteluxe.
In the end, these women's lives are no more "perfect" than any other business owner trying to make their dreams a reality. Their stomachs might be a little flatter—but that's just part of the job.