Make Yourself a Gift

Under social distancing, to be healthy is to post, to post is to be healthy

By and large, we’ve become comfortable with the idea that people often seek out experiences to create shareable images. It has affected everything from travel to dining to participation in politics. The same can be said of the built world — architecture, museums, retail — which, pre-pandemic, was already being reshaped to remain relevant (and profitable) in the social media age. It should not be surprising, then, that the body has become another physical site being repurposed to maximize its Instagrammablility. The everyday centrality of image construction, production, and consumption on social media has helped further shift our sense of the body’s utility away from how we experience it from within and toward how photographable it is.

This has affected the psychological rationale for fitness, as upkeep of the physical form is increasingly connected to opportunities to showcase the body as an image. To a certain extent, working out has moved from a vehicle for “health” to a means to the end of recording yourself, whether through literal images and videos of your actual body, or through exercise metrics (culled from fitness tracking apps and wearable tech) that seek to substantiate your efforts. Before the current lockdown, gyms and fitness studios provided a designated space not only for working out but also for indulging various fantasies around one’s self-image. The results of working out became content — progress photos, gym location tags, etc. — which could be rationalized as a form of wellness that had been “earned” through the effort of physical exercise. Where body-forward content might otherwise have been coded as self-indulgent, “fitness” provided a guise to occasion it.

The Equinox ad campaign acknowledged that a body that simply feels good to inhabit is less useful than a documented body

Pre-corona, advertising for high-end fitness brands had already begun to articulate this relation between vanity and virtue. An early 2020 ad campaign from the luxury fitness chain Equinox urged gym-goers to “make yourself a gift to the world.” The ads situated this ethos in a quasi-religious, time-jumbled origin story: nude men appeared saint-like against a heavenly sky; an aging man danced to club music in a satin loincloth; cocktail party-clad disciples attended an open-casket funeral for a shirtless young martyr. In one particularly bizarre clip, an ersatz prophet relays a warped version of the Narcissus myth to a group of transfixed schoolchildren. Equinox distilled the essence of the campaign to one, singularly convoluted question: “If self-obsession turns you into a gift not just to yourself but a gift to the world, does that not make self-obsession the most selfless act of all?”

In this reframing, Equinox posits self-obsession not as narcissism but a form of effective altruism — the more vain you are, the more you have to offer. This marked a departure from traditional fitness-industry rhetoric, which tends to represent health and wellness as internal conditions rather than outward appearances. This messaging has long been muddled and euphemistic — often, fitness companies vaguely espouse “health” to avoid pointing out the obvious: that people work out, sometimes to an unhealthy degree, because they are concerned with how they look. In contrast, the #MakeYourselfAGift campaign dispensed with the health alibi to assert directly that vanity is not just the driving incentive but the ultimate objective of working out (or at least, of joining an expensive gym). The campaign acknowledged that a body that simply feels good to inhabit is less useful than a documented body, which can be leveraged on online platforms for both attention (likes, followers, shares) and economic advantages (sponsorships and jobs for the aspiring influencer, intangible social currency for the rest of us). The call to “make yourself a gift” translates quite literally as a directive to “turn yourself into content.”

Despite not being an Equinox member (or even in the target demographic), I found these ads resonant. They refracted back an idea that I apparently harbored (or at least, wanted to hear validated), that working out to produce the body as content is a dignified form of discipline. For many of us, obsessive gym routines are not about seeking some dysmorphic mastery over the physical self, but prosocial mastery of the documentable self. The ad campaign reflects the fact that conceiving of oneself — and then crafting oneself — as a ready-to-post image takes concerted effort; it’s not simply a frivolous impulse instantaneously indulged. Fitness, then, conditions not only our bodies but also our minds for the effort of self-presentation, which today may be just as rigorous as the workout itself.

Though the coronavirus has foreclosed access to gyms, social distancing has, if anything, intensified the need to self-document. Now that we are seen only through screens, the #MakeYourselfAGift logic seems even more plausible than it did pre-pandemic. Self-documentation under quarantine inarguably serves as a form of wellness and social engagement rather than vanity, so it makes sense that fitness is showing up more explicitly in social media posts, making that subtext text. Fitness-related content renders the desire to be seen as a kind of commendable, effortful struggle: a display of mental and physical fortitude in these “unprecedented times.”

Self-documentation under quarantine inarguably serves as a form of wellness and social engagement rather than vanity

Despite the real appetite for physical exercise during quarantine, the potential to self-document has become a critical motivator in staying fit. Working out under lockdown is not just in service of looking good but of forging ourselves as compelling content; it offers a path through which to pursue a social sense of embodiment in the absence of physical gatherings. As such, the associated motives for this behavior — brand alignment, personal accountability, self-mythology — seem less like vanity and more like social survival skills, since preserving one’s status admittedly often relies on preserving one’s physical form.

If quarantine has made exercise itself a more private activity — we no longer have to interface with real bodies (and contend with our own insecurities) at a gym — it has raised the value of branded exercise “proof.” The status value of fitness has, for the time being, fully shifted from physical-world constraints to Instagram-scannable class signifiers. There’s the expected body-centric content — flexed mirror selfies, Boomerangs of women in matching workout sets, hyperlapsed yoga sequences, and the like. But the definition of the “self” worth documenting has also noticeably expanded during quarantine to include branded body-adjacent metrics, such as screenshots of completed Peloton workouts, Strava split time PRs, or the Apple Health app’s daily step count. As much as any beautiful visual representation of the body itself, this additional data counts as evidence of one’s discipline, externalizing any strictly internal experience of fitness and encoding cultural attunement to trends, studios, brands, apparel, and even certain celebrity instructors.

While the pandemic has forced brands to dispense with the decades-old physical-world model, it has also enabled them to reach a drastically wider audience — now they’re just trafficking mainly in a different medium of social currency. Now that this content is being churned out at a higher volume and frequency than before, consumers can test out new classes, methods, teachers, and apps that were previously unavailable to them due to location, cost, scheduling, or other barriers. In turn, these efforts are screenshotted, filmed, dm-ed, posted, tagged, and reshared, creating not only a public map of one’s personal fitness history but also a clickable pathway for viewers to discover and engage with new branded workouts (and the accompanying consumer culture).

Fitness-related content, which foregrounds a body’s documentability as one of its primary purposes, existed, of course, before the pandemic literalized the shift to a made-for-Instagram world. And luxury gyms were never strictly in service of physical well-being but served to rationalize workout behavior as an acceptable form of status seeking. This underlying function has mapped relatively easily to our new reality, in which other forms of displaying fashion and wealth have fallen away — we can no longer post pictures of lavish vacations or expensive meals out. But fitness still scans. Under these conditions, the luxury of being able to work on yourself — that is, your image — shows through.

Emma Baker is a freelance writer and a graduate of NYU’s Cultural Reporting and Criticism program. She writes about self-image and consumer culture, and lives in Brooklyn.