Bodybuilding’s two tribes: how social media changed fitness

Arnold Schwarzenegger won his first Mr Universe title 50 years ago at London’s Victoria Palace Theatre. Bodybuilding then was a niche affair – two years later, when Schwarzenegger won his third consecutive Mr Universe title, the Pathé newsreel covering the event called him simply ‘an Austrian’.

Half a century on, thousands attend bodybuilding and fitness events like Fitcon, which took place last weekend at London’s Olympia Exhibition Centre.

Bodybuilding has gone mainstream in the age of social media, and the stars of the sport can make thousands from just one Instagram post. But the new fitness devotees are not all like the supermen of 1967.

Nathalie Harasyn, 24, a former rower who became bikini fitness competitor after a back injury forced her off the river, said: “I think there are two groups of people here.

“There are people driven by the competition, then there’s the social media side, the attention seekers. They’re just showing off their bodies for social media.

“It’s a shame, because bodybuilding is such a dedicated sport.”

There certainly was a clear divide between the attendees at Fitcon, billed as ‘the UK’s ultimate fitness expo’.

Most seemed to fit into the social media camp, swarming around the main exhibition floor where stands offered samples of nutritional supplements from sugar-free protein sweets to enormous bags of muscle-boosting protein powder.


Some of the supplements on offer (Photo: Chris McKeon)

As Nathalie said, there was a heavy element of showing off. The men dressed in tank-tops or tight t-shirts to display their bulging biceps. The women opted for crop-tops that revealed abs toned over hours in the gym.

One supplement company was running a bench press competition, attendees grunting while they tried to outdo each other shifting 60kg up and down in front of a small crowd.

And everywhere there were cameras, a ubiquitous sign of social media’s vital role in turning fitness into a mainstream money-spinner.


Flexing at Fitcon (Photo: Chris McKeon)

Attendees photographed and videoed themselves flexing their muscles with their heroes, people like Simeon Panda and Michelle Lewin, who have found global fame thanks to platforms like Instagram.

Londoner Panda started lifting weights at 16 in an effort to expand his then-skinny frame. He has succeeded beyond all measure. Just over 10 years later, in 2013, he won the Musclemania European bodybuilding championship.

Now his name is a registered trademark, he owns two athletic clothing and equipment brands and appears regularly in fitness magazines around the world.

All this is thanks to both his physique and, more importantly, his 3.1m Instagram followers. Social media and appearing at events like Fitcon help him boost his profile. In fact, he says he has never really been that interested in competitive bodybuilding.


Simeon Panda (far left) and partner Chanel Brown pose with fans at Fitcon 2017 (Photo: Chris McKeon)

But even Panda’s success pales in comparison with Michelle Lewin. She grew up in Maracay, 50 miles west of Venezuela’s capital Caracas, and has described herself in interviews as having been almost anorexic when she was younger.

Fitness took her from Maracay to Miami, and from near-anorexia to being a champion bikini bodybuilder with 10.5m Instagram followers.

It is that social media following that has allowed her to partner with numerous brands and, according to Forbes, earn $10,000 per Instagram post.

The traditional bodybuilders are certainly still there, though, and easy enough to spot thanks to the colour of their skin – fake tanned a deep red the better to show up their muscles.

However, while 50 years ago they were the main event, they now seem relegated to the margins. In the case of Fitcon, this was almost literal. The stage was upstairs, in a corner and separated from the rest of the event by a lot of empty space.

There, they can flex and strain their muscles in what feels like a grudging acknowledgement of the fitness industry’s roots.

There’s also a fundamental difference in attitude between the two sides of the event. Downstairs, many of the visitors to Fitcon seem to be focused on the social media fame that fitness can bring. One, Matthew, 19, said: “I came here for inspiration. I want to get into being sponsored.

“It seems like a cool life. I’m already dedicated to the gym, so why not get famous for it?”

Upstairs, another competitor, Joana Todor, 31, from London, was more focused on what goes in to making such a muscle-bound body than the fame that could come with it.

“It’s about the process, being consistent. You’re never good enough in your own eyes. You always wake up in the morning saying you need to work on something.”


Joana Todor (Photo: Chris McKeon)

The process certainly is more demanding for the competitors than the would-be social media stars. On top of spending hours a day in the gym, they must observe a strict diet in the months before a competition, often foregoing carbohydrates and sugars entirely and sticking to lean meat, fish and asparagus.

Then, for 24 hours before they take the stage, they dehydrate themselves to make their muscles swell. By the time they finish, they are physically exhausted and reward themselves with doughnuts and beer – a moment they will have been dreaming about for weeks.

It is a far cry from the calorie-counting, protein shake-swilling culture of those downstairs. But for people like Joana, who has been living this lifestyle for three years, it is also part of the reason they do it.

“I love the prep, I love the process. I get a lot of self-satisfaction from it,” she said.

Arnold Schwarzenegger would never have become a global superstar as a bodybuilder. He had to play Conan the Barbarian and the Terminator to achieve that.

But then, bodybuilding was never really about fame. As one would-be bodybuilder said while watching the titans flex and strain on stage: “For us, it’s the journey more than the end product.”

People like Simeon Panda and Michelle Lewin show how bodybuilding has changed thanks to social media, but also how those focused on the journey appear increasingly outnumbered by those focused on the end product.


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