Friday, June 14, 2024

‘I had abs. I was in the best shape. But I was miserable’: the fitness fanatic who quit the gym

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When you’re making any kind of change, it’s messy and uncertain; making mistakes with a large audience is trickier,” says Sophie Aris of her switch away from online bodybuilding and fitness. When the now 36-year-old joined the early cohort of fitness influencers posting about weightlifting and nutrition in 2015, she was working as a secondary school art teacher and had got into gym culture through an ex-boyfriend.

She posted morning and night. “I used to pull up at the school car park, in Oldham, at 7.30am with my gym selfie or picture of my Tupperware meals ready to post,” she says. Within a year, she had more than 100,000 followers on Instagram, weighed seven stone (44kg) and was a competitor in the bikini category of British and European bodybuilding competitions, winning gold.

“I was growing 8,000 followers a week, for months. I’d share my workout, my routine, my recipes, what I ate each day. I was a US size zero, I had abs, I was macro tracking, eating nuts, chicken and broccoli for meals and went to the gym twice a day, an hour at a time, seven days a week. I was supposedly in the best shape of my life.”

A post by Aris on her Instagram account. Photograph: Instagram/@sophie_aris

She signed ambassador deals with the clothing brand Gymshark and the nutrition outfit Myprotein, and launched an £8-a-month subscription blog. “I got £1,500 a month as a teacher; brands paid me near enough my salary again to post four times a month,” she says. She dropped teaching to two days a week and quit altogether once the students cottoned on to her Instagram account full of bikini pics.

“I started earning three times the amount teaching paid. I wanted to be a poster woman for this fitness lifestyle but my world was very small. I was so up in my own head,” Aris says. “On Instagram, all I was seeing was people showing their best angles and filters. Behind the scenes I was lonely and really miserable.”

By 2017, she had reached almost 700,000 followers plus another 50,000 on YouTube, but she’d hit her limit with fitness. She stopped competing and within a couple of years stopped going to the gym. “I had nothing left to achieve,” she says.

She left the supplement companies whose products she was paid to push and, after six years, walked away from her big Gymshark deal. “It was as much of a career decision as when I left teaching. By the end, I felt a bit like a fraud still being called an athlete. I’d go on photoshoots and feel uncomfortable next to people I used to look like.”

Instead, she shared her life, relationships and house moves online. She lost 70,000 followers but says: “In the end, your online life isn’t your actual life. I used to make the mistake of believing it was. You have to evolve as your real life and values do.”

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Now, having given birth to her first child, Lyla-Rae, in summer 2023, she lives in Cheshire and is sharing her motherhood journey with her 544,000 Instagram followers. “Virtually everyone I’ve spoken to who became a fitness influencer in that 2016-19 era has a similar story. We lacked confidence, didn’t really fit in and took fitness, dieting and training to the extreme because we were, essentially, seeking validation. I don’t feel any regret for that chapter of my life; I wouldn’t have cultivated the audience I have today and still be a creator eight years after leaving teaching.”

But, she says, as with any job, you have to be strategic. “I still have a large audience and if some drop off, that’s fine, because what’s left is the right audience for now. In fact, my engagement stats are better than they were at my peak.

“Even if people started following you for something completely different, you find your own transition is often similar to many of theirs. In the bikini days, I had a lot of male followers. It was mostly they who were weird when my content changed. But it’s not about Dave in Mexico who was there to like my boobs any more; the followers I’ve got are more aligned with me, now.”

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