Exposing Kayla Itsines

For the longest time, I had no idea who Kayla Itsines was – until I read an article declaring her Instagram’s hottest fitness influencer. It felt like I discovered her later than everyone else – and being me, I immediately worried that I had been missing out on something all these years.

When I was a freshman in college, girls I went to high school with would share GIFs and videos of Kayla Itsines’s infamous Bikini Body Guide (BBG) workouts. I saved them to my profile privately, claiming I was using them as a reference for my workouts at the gym.

Truthfully, I never worked out from a Kayla Itsines post. I would, however, watch them for hours, mesmerized by her fit, toned body and how easily she seemed to fly through the moves. After discovering her online, I became inspired to buy both of her books, and started her 8-week BBG workout program from a PDF I downloaded online.

Kayla and BBG weren’t where my journey with Instagram fitness culture began, but they were where it ended. Because not long after my foray into BBG, I discovered the dark side of what stars like Kayla were selling….

I learned about diet culture.

I learned about how millions, probably billions, of corporations and entrepreneurs were selling me Band-Aids for my insecurities. These “magic” workout guides and “transformational” nutrition plans would never rid me of the feeling that my stomach was too fat or my thighs too close together.

What I didn’t understand at the time was that, while influencers like Kayla might say otherwise in their Instagram posts, these workout programs weren’t designed to give me flat abs. They were designed to make money. And if what stars like Kayla Itsines were selling was actually attainable, then no one would buy it. America would lose a multi-billion-dollar industry that’s been a cornerstone of our economy.

In the interest of full disclosure, I’m not “exposing” Kayla Itsines as a person. I’ve never met her – though I have met other Instagram fitness celebrities IRL – and don’t have any “insider information.” But I do know diet culture, thanks to years and years of struggling with orthorexia. In fact, I still struggle every day to reconcile with the fact that I will never look like Kayla Itsines, thanks to years of striving for the unattainable. But that’s why I’m exposing her brand, BBG, for the commercial B.S. it truly is. Because Kayla’s cult of millions of women doesn’t deserve to feel like that, either.

The Good

Itsines offers a message that isn’t about abstention. It’s about feeling happy: A flat stomach boosts your confidence. That kale salad is full of vitamins. Lifting weights makes you strong.

Claire Suddath, “The Bikini Body Cult of Kayla Itsines,” Bloomberg News.

As someone who has used Kayla’s program, I can wholeheartedly express that what Suddath writes is true: at least on the outside, BBG doesn’t sell “weight loss.” It sells fitness. It sells confidence. It sells acceptance of yourself and others.

Kayla doesn’t log onto Instagram and preach about how we must lose weight. Her message is subtler than that: “Accept your body! Love yourself!” Of course, in order to do that, you must follow Kayla’s commercial workout and diet plan – but more on that later.

Still, I buy that Kayla doesn’t intend to make anyone feel bad about their body. I buy that what she thinks she’s selling is empowerment, rather than unattainable perfection. She even seems to have a limited understanding of body positivity, as evidenced by the quote below:

I love that there is no standard definition of a bikini body, nor should there be! We should never say one body type is better or more beautiful than another. To me, bikini body confidence is all about being comfortable in the skin you’re in. It’s not ONE body type. It’s feeling positive about yourself and not being at war with your body.

Kayla Itsines, “Kayla Itsines on What ‘Bikini Body’ Means to Her,” Teen Vogue.

All of Kayla’s diet plans are somewhat realistic; with the exception of excluding alcohol, BBG doesn’t declare entire categories of food “off-limits.” The plans include meat and dairy, and very few expensive superfoods. In fact, as a college student, that’s the number one thing that drew me to them: the recipes were healthy, affordable and fast, fitting easily into my busy schedule of sorority meetings and study sessions.

The Bad

Yet this isn’t the whole truth of Kayla Itsines and BBG. If it were, the world would be a simpler place – but messages like these never exist in a vacuum. And in the broader context of diet culture, Kayla’s BBG has become its own cult of worshipers at the altar of flat, bikini-ready abs.

Kayla is selling a fitness program, stating her underweight body as a goal.

Anonymous User, “Kayla Itsines Criticized for Posting Slim, Ab-Flaunting Photo at 8 Weeks Postpartum,” People Magazine.

Kayla claims she doesn’t sell calorie-counting, worrying that her teenage followers would take this to heart and develop unhealthy habits. Recognizing she did not have a nutrition degree, she sought the advice of two professionals when creating her BBG nutrition plans, breaking from the pack of unqualified fitness influencers selling faulty advice.

But Kayla contradicts this message constantly, starting with the fact that her nutrition plans advise young women to eat 1,200-1,600 calories daily – 400-800 calories fewer than the recommended 2,000! In fact, a highly active, 5’3″ woman weighing 128 lbs (giving a woman of the national average height an ideal BMI of 22.7) should be eating almost 2,700 calories, simply to maintain her weight.

Thus, for women strictly following the nutrition plan (though many of Kayla’s followers mainly subscribe to her workouts), there may be a calorie deficit of 1,100 or more calories per day. Safe weight loss should not exceed one to one-and-a-half pounds per week. According to simplistic estimates, then, a calorie deficit should not exceed 500-750 per day for healthy weight loss.

It’s not about losing massive amounts of weight in an unhealthy way. It’s more about fat loss and being lean.

Kayla Itsines, “Fitness and Diet Tips from Instagram Sensation, Kayla Itsines,” SELF Magazine.

If your goal is not to lose weight – just as it is not, Kayla claims, in her BBG program – there should be no calorie deficit at all; that is, the number of calories you take in should roughly equal the energy you’ve spent. Living by BBG, the same 5’3″ 128-pound woman from earlier would lose 3 lbs per week on a 1,200-calorie diet, doubling to tripling the medical guidelines for weight loss. At first, Kayla seems to say that she doesn’t endorse weight loss among her followers – but what Kayla refers to as “lean” is actually undernourished.

I’ve just wrote a post about this on my blog — how to torch 200 calories in 14 minutes.

Kayla Itsines, “Fitness and Diet Tips from Instagram Sensation, Kayla Itsines,” SELF Magazine.

The language Kayla uses to speak to her followers also contradicts her “body-positive” message. Kayla’s workout plan is a “bikini body guide.” She doesn’t just exercise – she “torches calories.” As conscious as Kayla thinks she is of her younger fans’ impressionability, her followers pick up on this language, whether consciously or not. (Though Kayla does admit that she regrets naming her program the “Bikini Body Guide” – which is probably why she and her followers refer to it by its acronym.)

Another question we ought to ask ourselves is, should fat loss really be a goal for women in the peak fertile years of their life? As Dr. William D. Lassek and Dr. Steven J.C. Gaulin, the authors of Why Women Need Fat, explain, human women need more body fat than other mammals because fatty acids like DHA comprise the building blocks of babies’ brains. (Human babies also happen to have the largest, heaviest brains of any mammal offspring.) Kayla, who just gave birth to her first child herself, should understand as well as any other fitness professional that fat is necessary for a healthy pregnancy – yet even her own followers are now accusing her of promoting unhealthy, unrealistic expectations of the ideal postpartum body.

The Ugly

But unconsciously endorsing unhealthy weight loss methods and unrealistic body goals isn’t the worst facet of Kayla Itsines’s so-called community: it’s that she’s doing it for profit.

The couple [Kayla and her fiancé Tobi Pearce] has a joint net worth of $486 million, making them the wealthiest self-made 20-somethings in Australia. 

Isabelle Truman, “You’ll Never Believe How Much Kayla Itsines Is Worth,” Marie Claire Australia

According to the same article, most of Kayla and Tobi’s revenue comes from her workout app, Sweat with Kayla, which earned them $17 million in 2018. A subscription to Sweat costs users $20 per month – or $120 when you purchase an annual subscription. Kayla also receives up to $150,000 per sponsored Instagram post, participates in endorsement deals with brands like Nike and has authored two books – in addition to her $50 Bikini Body Guides. Multiply that by her following of over eight million, and you completely understand how she’s become so well-off.

So, not only is Kayla Itsines’s Insta-fame a prime example of diet culture, but it’s also made her into a multimillionaire. Kayla has eight million followers at her beck-and-call, who already feel inadequate thanks to unrealistic BBG “progress pics.” Who knows how many of them would buy a product or service Kayla endorsed, hoping that product would bring them the body satisfaction that not even BBG could?

This subliminal advertising is a sneaky form of manipulation. It’s subtle, but it’s manipulation nonetheless. Whether or not it was her intention when she set out to create BBG, Kayla Itsines has since built a multimillion-dollar business off FOMO and body shame. Like it or not, she’s become a part of the diet culture she so often shuns before her audience and the media.

In Conclusion….

If I could share only ONE piece of advice with you… it would be to LOVE YOURSELF. You are unique and special and the ONLY you. Treat yourself and your body with the love and respect they deserve and PUT YOURSELF FIRST… Self love is NOT selfish, it’s necessary!!

Kayla Itsines (@kayla_itsines) on Instagram

I’ve learned an important lesson over the years that many of Kayla’s followers probably haven’t: you can’t buy body confidence. No workout guide, no sports bra, no custom Nikes will ever make you feel adequate if you can’t see your own self-worth, independently of your workout routine.

And despite all the negative comments I’ve made about Kayla’s role in perpetuating diet culture, I don’t hold it against her as a person. In fact, I think she would agree with me. Deep down, she probably believes the things she preaches to the world about body confidence and self-acceptance. What she doesn’t realize is that her business model is part of the reason why women today don’t feel confident in their bodies. Or maybe she does – maybe she’s purposefully breeding insecurity on her Instagram, hoping it will drive demand for her product. The world may never know!

Because I can’t call up Kayla and ask her myself what she thinks about this whole ordeal, this article will never truly represent every facet of Kayla Itsines and BBG. It’s merely my opinion….and that opinion, in case it wasn’t clear, is that BBG does both harm and good. That’s right: even though it perpetuates diet culture in some ways, I don’t view Kayla or BBG as an enemy of body confidence.

In fact, BBG is a powerful force for both good and bad. For example, BBG is incredible in the way it peels back the curtain for formerly orthorexic and anorexic women to see fitness in a different light. Just look at this post from Kayla’s Instagram, explaining how one fan learned to view fitness as a form of self-care, rather than self-punishment.

In any case, BBG has made Kayla Itsines into a 20-something-year-old millionaire. Maybe that means she’s doing something right; maybe something wrong. But that’s for you – and ONLY you – to decide for yourself.

Oh, and in case you’re wondering: BBG is a KILLER workout! (Even if the nutrition plan is complete B.S.)

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