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Content Warning: Column mentions eating habits and body dysmorphia.

When looking at models and social media, we find ourselves inundated with false depictions of what fitness looks like. I think it’s fair to assume that people like to look their best; nobody willingly settles for less when, with just a little bit of effort, they can be so much more. It’s no secret that body dysmorphia, which the National Health Service defines as “a mental health condition where a person spends a lot of time worrying about flaws in their appearance,” continues to be a problem in a world where social media makes it ever easier to compare yourself to others, especially among college students.

The issue is made worse when you realize that these comparisons are often made by young adults with phone cameras against models with professional tools at their disposal. Certain poses are intentionally taken to make parts of the body look bigger or smaller than they actually are. Behind the camera sit film and makeup crews, ready to change the stage lighting and contour the muscles ever so slightly to make that definition pop out just a little bit more. Bodybuilders posing for photos get a pump before their photoshoots to make their muscles temporarily larger for the camera. Some will even go so far as to dehydrate themselves for the sake of draining all water weight from their body to increase their perceived vein and muscle mass for a short period of time.

And that’s before all the photo processing is done. Photoshop and filters aren’t exactly rare in photoshoots. When having the perfect body is how you make money, there’s no reason not to edit out those pesky skin blemishes.

Now, compare that to your average college student. Most of us, even including the most fitness-oriented, don’t have personal trainers and probably don’t have a diet of blended chicken breasts like Zac Efron. Usually, pictures of us aren’t taken by thousand-dollar camera crews, but by our phones in the reflection of the bathroom mirror. When the fitness icon’s got everything going for them and your average college student doesn’t know the extent of the advantages a model has in comparison, you’ll begin to see how unrealistic body standards arise.

That’s not to say that a well-defined, muscular physique is unrealistic, either. With several years of training and dedication to a proper diet, you too can have well-defined muscles, veins and abs if you’d like. However, you’d be led to believe that it’s easier than it really is, with a plethora of videos online suggesting several falsehoods. Some examples include the idea of being able to “spot reduce” overall body fat, which is impossible. These programs confuse people about what they need to do to lose fat. When the sensationalized headlines dilute proper information, not everyone’s going to find the facts.

For the sake of counterargument in good faith, though, let’s offer the fitness industry the benefit of the doubt for a moment. Let’s say that you found the impossible college athlete. They’ve got a perfect diet and have never missed out on a workout routine. By some miracle, they’re able to live a healthy life while being completely dehydrated. They’ve even somehow got camera and makeup crews following them around into a bathroom after a workout to take perfect pictures of them to post on Instagram. However, even then, they will never look like icons such as Arnold Schwarzenegger or The Rock.

You’d wonder why, and the answer can be summed up succinctly: steroids. Both former California Gov. Schwarzenegger and The Rock have admitted to using steroids in the past. Although there is an argument to be made about negating the negative effects of steroids with health care and constant blood tests, this fails to acknowledge that most people do not have the money or means to access personal doctors and constantly monitor blood levels. Where our models are able to catch potential issues quickly, most of us will have to let the issue fester for a while before it’s caught. 

The result of these steroids is usually incredible muscle mass or incredibly lean physiques, and sometimes even both. Now, here you are, back with our average college student standing in front of the mirror, comparing themselves to drug-enhanced athletes, with their flawless diets, personal trainers and perfectly-edited photos, and now we’ve got an impossible-to-win comparison on our hands.

Unfortunately, it doesn’t seem like the fitness industry is going to change direction anytime soon — its constant growth would seem to indicate that. As long as people are paying, there’s no reason to change. Since change isn’t coming from the industry, it’s up to us to see the signs. What we can do is recognize that what we’re seeing isn’t real. The models you aspire to be like have every single thing going for them in their photos, but they don’t look that good in real life. Set realistic goals, and with time, if you’re persistent, you can look and feel better than you ever thought you could. As the old saying goes, stop comparing your behind-the-scenes with everyone’s highlight reel.

Mohammed Hasan is an Opinion Columnist and can be reached at