Smarter audiences are pressuring fitness creators to run ethical businesses
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In May 2015, Taylor Chamberlain posted her first fitness vlog to her YouTube channel.
Shot the day before she graduated from Purdue University with a degree in dietetics, Taylor describes her fitness journey from childhood with athlete parents to side hustle selling nutrition and fitness plans. But she says it’s her first bodybuilding competition that inspired her to document her fitness journey on YouTube.
Taylor’s first upload is a fitness vlog time capsule complete with a shaky camera, garish title cards, and royalty-free music mixed at a level slightly too high. If you’ve never engaged with Taylor’s recent content, her first video borders on mundane. Shot mostly in her car, Taylor spends several awkward minutes describing the contents of her lunch box before showing viewers a lacklustre shoulder workout with next to no useful instruction.
But if you follow Taylor now, her first YouTube upload is a fascinating relic that captures an era before a #girlboss life as founder and CEO of two fashion brands, influencer with 700k+ Instagram followers, and the main character of an active subreddit dedicated to scrutinizing her every decision.
A fitness angel’s fall from grace
If you were to stumble upon r/Unbalanced_athletica, you’d be scrolling through a byproduct of Taylor’s evolution from YouTube creator to CEO of two brands that don’t always live up to their promises.
With flair like “Taylor Chamberliar”, the subreddit is dedicated to “snark on all things Balance Athletica, Toluca...”, Taylor’s athletic apparel and bathing suit brands. Amidst the petty gossip about revisions to Taylor’s Instagram bio (“Her CEO title disappeared, what could it mean?”), sub scrollers stand to learn about how both brands have disappointed followers with performative inclusion, copycat design, and products that a lot of people say aren’t worth the price.
Reddit will always be Reddit—a space dedicated to snark will inevitably come with a lot of unverified claims—but much of the criticism carries substance. When Taylor launched Balance Athletica with her sister Chloe in 2018, the pair said they wanted to fill “a gap in the athletics industry for high-quality, reasonably priced athleticwear that would fit all shapes, sizes and backgrounds”—which may come at the cost of original design.
Since it launched, Balance Athletica and Taylor’s follow-up bathing suit brand Toluca have been accused of ripping off designs from small indie designers like Brittany Allen and larger brands like Free People, Lululemon, and House of CB. While it’s not uncommon for brands to take inspiration from each other—there are only so many ways you can design a pair of workout leggings—the copycats were especially galling for a brand whose company narrative read “designed from scratch”. (Balance Athletica has removed this text from their website.)
Two years after launch, New Balance sued Balance Athletica for trademark infringement, saying Balance Athletica “uses the confusingly similar mark BALANCE ATHLETICA to sell the same goods, to the same consumers, using the same marketing channels. Actual confusion in the marketplace has already occurred.” The case was settled out of court.
While people complained about everything from Balance Athletica’s pilling on leggings to Taylor’s tone deaf posts during the Capitol riots, Taylor’s follower count on Instagram has been steadily declining. Many r/Unbalanced_athletica devotees have taken to watching her tumbling follower count just as they would a YouTube fail compilation—with a combination of schadenfreude and genuine cringe.
The fame-responsibility paradigm: Where fitness creators go wrong
If you reach beyond the gossip, it’s not hard to see where Taylor Chamberlain is veering off path as a fitness creator and entrepreneur.
On one level, Taylor’s audience can’t relate to her anymore. Her audience growth and subsequent businesses have earned her a spot on the socioeconomic ladder that most people will never reach.
On a deeper level, Taylor seems unable to live up to the responsibilities that come with that same move up the ladder. Many of her followers see contradictions between what she says and what she does, such as pushing inclusivity messaging through Balance Athletica and Toluca while making low-quality apparel that some people say doesn’t actually work for larger body types.
Here is where popular fitness creators succeed or fail: Remain humble, authentic, and ethical, and your audience will reward you with sustained attention and financial support. Become out of touch with the realities of middle-class life outside your own experience, however, and a large portion of your audience will either turn away or turn your comments section into a daily nightmare.
Health and wellness content is high stakes content
The “fitfluencer” industry is particularly vulnerable to missteps because the stakes are high when you’re creating content about health, wellness, and body image—all sensitive topics, especially for marginalized people who are forced to contend with their appearance in ways others aren’t.
COVID demonstrated what can happen when health misinformation runs rampant — earlier this year, the Center for Countering Digital Hate released their The Disinformation Dozen report, which attributes two-thirds of recent anti-vaccine content to just 12 influencers, many of which are seen as health and wellness “experts”.
At the same time, many fitness creators have helped people divorce physical appearance from performance, which is especially important for people who were socialized to value thinness over strength. But this progress has also rewarded us with a sharper critical eye when we’re evaluating the values of any one particular fitness creator.
We’re smarter, and our bullshit detectors are set at an all-time high.
So what does the “ideal” fitness creator look like? How can someone who’s just now building their audience as a fitness creator avoid so many of their predecessors’ mistakes?
Fitness creators need credentials
“Anyone can become an online creator”—but does that mean they should?
Health content is high stakes content. Creator recommendations can lead people to make life-altering decisions about their physical and mental health.
When fitness creators grow audiences without the credentials to back up their content, people eventually notice and become vocal about inevitable missteps. A lack of credentials can reveal itself in many ways, from bad form in workout videos to experts posting reactions in response to pseudoscientific nutrition advice.
When asked to recommend fitness creators who are worth following, Redditors point to those who have or are pursuing high-level credentials in their field.
In the absence of any one regulating body telling fitness creators what they can and can’t post, the community regulates itself with two powerful social tools: praise and shame. While creators may not be required to hold degrees in any discipline before they begin sharing exercise and/or nutrition content, many audiences are able to sniff out false claims.
At the same time, it can be so difficult to find trusted sources online that when people do come across creators who have put in the work to become true masters of their craft, they’ll sing their praises to anyone who will listen.
Tip for brands: Don’t compromise on credentials when you’re looking for creators to promote your products.
If a creator is selling exercise programs, make sure they have a degree in exercise science, kinesiology, etc. or a personal trainer certification from a reputable organization like the International Sports Sciences Association or the National Academy of Sports Medicine. If a creator is offering diet advice, make sure they are a registered dietician. Understand regulations in your state (or lack thereof) and take them into account when you’re working with wellness creators.
Check out this list and discussion on Reddit about reputable fitness and nutrition accounts on Instagram as a starting point.
Fitness creators need multiple revenue sources
One of the best ways for creators to earn and maintain respect is not to rely solely on brand sponsorships for income.
Miriam Fried, founder of MF Strong, says she’s grateful that she’s able to make a healthy income from her personal training business. “I'm a personal trainer who just happens to have a large platform on Instagram. I'm very lucky to have that platform because it allows me to grow my business, but my income isn't entirely dependent on the ads I do. This model lets me stay true to myself.”
In an ideal world, creators work with brands they already love so that their recommendations are genuine. In this same world, creators have the financial freedom to turn down offers from brands that don’t align with their values. But that’s not the case for many creators who are just starting to see some audience growth and may not feel they can afford to be choosy.
For fitness creators, however, prioritizing brand sponsorships above training consultations, nutrition plans, fitness apps, etc. could mean the difference between maintaining a solid reputation or losing clout. Long-term success as a fitness creator means maintaining credibility, which depends on good research practices and selectivity when partnering with brands.
“Early in my career, I had a past experience with a brand where I thought we were aligned,” says Miriam, “but then I found out more about the company’s ownership that didn’t align with my values. I felt guilty for promoting this brand for years afterward because my audience trusts me. Since that experience, I’m much more cautious about who I partner with.”
Miriam’s story is a good cautionary tale, especially as audiences become smarter about investigating company practices when it comes to sustainability, staff treatment, and diversity. Years of performative brand messaging have sharpened audience criticism, and words without action won’t cut it for much longer.
For example, according to a new study from GreenPrint, an environmental technology company, “a majority of people have doubts when companies say they are environmentally friendly, with 53% of Americans never or only sometimes believing such claims.” That number is set to rise as the climate crisis worsens and as more people experience the direct impacts of climate change.
Ethical brand partnerships are a two-way street: Brands should prioritize fitness creators who demonstrate legitimate expertise, and fitness creators should prioritize brands with a demonstrated track record of ethical business practices.
Tip for brands: Partner with creators who operate a well-rounded business with several revenue streams. When researching creators who may be a good fit for your brand, look for those who sell science-based programs based on progressive overload or well-rounded nutrition plans that don’t promote undereating.
Fitness creators need to practice thoughtful body positivity—or body neutrality
The body positivity movement may have begun long before Instagram was founded, but its current form on social media began in 2008 to 2010 when larger, plus-sized Black women began posting content on platforms like Tumblr and Facebook.
According to Stephanie Yeboah, a fat acceptance advocate and author of Fattily Ever After: A Black Fat Girl's Guide to Living Life Unapologetically, “It was a space where larger-sized Black women and women of colour could talk about the ways in which our identities prevented us from being treated like everyone else.”
As time wore on, more fitness creators of all sizes and ethnicities bought into the body positivity movement. And while it’s not inherently bad for thinner, white women to post about body positivity, many miss the original point: People with marginalized bodies experience the world differently than someone who has a little bit of cellulite or some hip dips.
For fitness creators, navigating the body positivity movement wasn’t always easy — but we now have a blueprint. Many body positivity advocates have instead adopted an ethos of body neutrality, which is inherently unconcerned with appearance and may instead focus on performance.
Fitness creators who focus on teaching people about what their bodies can do rather than how they look are winning respect among audiences that are sick of being told that “bikini season is coming up, so here’s a workout that can get you ready for it.”
Tips for brands: Design your products for inclusivity by making sure they fit larger bodies well. Work with plus-size creators of color who understand what it’s like to be marginalized for their appearance. If your inclusivity stops at images on your website and product description pages, you’re not doing enough to promote body positivity in practice.
What NCAA athletes can learn from fitness creators—and vice versa
On July 1, 2021, the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) adopted a new policy to allow college athletes to make money off their name, image, and likeness. While the NCAA had historically prohibited its athletes from even making money off side businesses, a series of court rulings — including one by the Supreme Court — forced the NCAA to revoke the limitation.
That means athletes like basketball player Shareef O’Neal (2.6M Instagram followers, 1.5M TikTok followers) and gymnast Olivia Dunne (1.3M Instagram followers and 4.6M TikTok followers) are now monetizing their accounts, which have already surpassed some of the largest creator audiences in the fitness category.
Soon after the announcement, Fresno State basketball players Hanna and Haley Cavinder signed with Boost Mobile while Alabama defensive end Ga’Quincy “Kool-Aid” McKinstry signed a deal with — you guessed it — Kool-Aid.
NCAA athletes with high follower counts face a problem many fitness creators would have prayed for when they first started: how to manage a sudden influx of sponsorship offers from brands.
Whereas many fitness creators painstakingly built their audiences over time before landing a large deal with a brand like Gymshark or Alphalete, successful NCAA athletes now suddenly need representation teams to properly handle partnerships, financials, and marketing. In many cases, colleges themselves are helping NCAA athletes make smart decisions about their personal brands — which makes sense, since both college and athlete rely on each other to maintain good reputations.
NCAA athletes and fitness creators can learn a lot from each other in the journey toward growing monetization.
Fitness creators are a scrappy bunch who know how to make great content. While fitness creators come from a variety of backgrounds, so many of them learned the hard way how to build audiences from scratch with many missteps along the way. These creators have first-hand experience in the co-creation of content with their audiences, which has led to a fine-tuning process that many NCAA athletes haven’t had to develop.
NCAA athletes, however, build content from a place of passion and expertise about their sport. They know their sport, they live their sport, and they can talk about its intricacies with a depth of knowledge akin to a cardiac surgeon’s knowledge of heart anatomy. Their credibility simply exists rather than needing to be earned through the grind of audience engagement.
Does this mean NCAA athletes are prone to make some of the same mistakes made by fitness creators who have lost touch with their audiences? Perhaps. But it probably helps to have a team of experts who can whisper, Don’t, before any one athlete says something potentially damaging. We’ll be watching.