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This YouTube star preached body positivity. Practicing it was more complicated.

When she set numerical weight loss and body fat goals, some fans turned on her in an instant.

By Jenni Gritters

When you arrive at the Blogilates YouTube channel, you’ll find a video of fitness star Cassey Ho, looking radiant and almost impossibly peppy in a scoop-necked white T-shirt, telling her 4.75 million subscribers how to train their brains to crave working out.

“You know how there are some people who wake up before the sun rises to work out?” she muses, timing her comments to the cadence of a high-energy, musical backdrop. “Where do they get that motivation? Are they blessed with some special discipline gene?… Well, guys, I’m here to tell you that you can train… your brain… to crave fitness!”

Ho details hacks to help viewers work out without suffering: “Do something you actually like! If you like walking your dog, that counts!” Her Blogilates channel playlist is full of similar workout suggestions, ranging from straightforward tutorials to meditations on weightier topics. There’s a “donkey kicks” instructional video that’s part of a “#100glutechallenge” (cue Ho’s declaration, “30 days of booty!”). But there’s also a video that looks critically at what Ho calls Instagram’s “beauty standards.” Another long video talks about “body positivity” and Ho’s complicated history with the movement. 

Ho usually posts a new video each week on her channel. Her mix of education and aspiration adds up to a contradiction that’s common in online fitness circles: Her personal brand is about helping people get perfect bodies and helping them love themselves just as they are. That message puts her at the intersection of two vibrant, overlapping YouTube subcultures: consumers of workout videos and advocates of body positivity. Both topics draw audiences willing to subscribe to her videos and buy her branded gear — with enough fervor that Ho was able to quit her day job to focus on her online businesses.

But when Ho embarked on her own fitness journey last summer, complete with numerical weight loss and body fat goals, many of her fans felt betrayed — even if they were coming to her channel for those same reasons. Unknowingly, she had stumbled into the dark side of YouTube, a place where image is valued more than complexity and fans can turn on you in an instant.


Ho, 32, is one of hundreds of fitness gurus who occupy a vibrant corner of YouTube; they make their living off the platform through sales of both ads and their own branded “athleisure” clothing and equipment lines. (Ho’s is called Popflex Active, which sells everything from sports bras to branded yoga mats.) Similar demi-celebrities include Danielle and Kelli of FitnessBlender, a channel with 5.3 million subscribers; Anna Renderer, who runs POPSUGAR’s highly popular fitness account; Kali Muscle, an ex-convict and trainer from Compton; fitness instructor Heidi Somers, also known as “Buffbunny”; and Kayla Itsines of Bikini Body Guides, or BBG. 

YouTube has a vast, loyal user base. The site has 1.9 billion monthly users worldwide, or one of every four human beings on Earth; 96 percent of Americans ages 18 to 24 view it every single day. That makes it the perfect platform for personalities such as Ho to reap the financial spoils of the fitness sector, which brought in $94 billion overall in 2018. (That’s not even counting workout clothing, which is estimated to bring in $245 billion by 2025.) 

“The competition to be successful on YouTube, like Instagram, is pressure-filled and not as glamorous or simple as it appears.”

As Ho describes it, her rise to YouTube prominence was accidental. In 2009, she was a Pilates instructor, about to move from the West Coast to the East Coast. She wanted to make sure her students at a 24 Hour Fitness location in Whittier, California, could still access her “Pop Pilates” classes, which offered tough but short workouts set to upbeat music. So she uploaded a video of a 10-minute class to YouTube and went back to packing her bags. Two weeks later, Ho logged onto the platform and found that it wasn’t just her 40 students who had watched the video; thousands of strangers also had taken the class. And better yet, they wanted more.

Ten years and several other unfulfilling jobs later, her YouTube channel has become lucrative enough to be a full-time career. She says she loves working with her current audience — mostly women between the ages of 18 and 34 who match the demographics of what Omnicore defines as YouTube’s “average” users. 

“We have this sister-like relationship,” she says. “They have grown up with me. They’re typically college-age girls and some young professionals.”  

Ho says fans react to the vulnerability in her videos — and, in the comments section, they often share their own stories. “We’re spending an hour together a day working out, so they get to know me,” she says. “We get to suffer together, and I think that really bonds people.”

Ho’s commenters can be effusive, too. “I’ve been following Cassey Ho for so long that I don’t remember life without her!” one wrote beneath a recent video. “She’s an inspiration and one of the best positive body image models out there.”

Other followers comment about her smile (“like an angel!”) and her attitude (“it’s like, I’m gonna crush you to pieces!”). They love her workouts, which include pop music and promise to “chisel,” “strengthen,” “tone,” “lift,” and “burn” your body. 

And sometimes, they look to her as a symbol. That’s where things get complicated.

It started with a 2015 video that took Ho to another level of YouTube fame. Titled “The ‘Perfect’ Body,” the video outlined the comments she’d gotten from trolls, who called her too fat to be a fitness instructor. On screen, she pinched at her thin form, wondered why she didn’t have six-pack abs, and used a photoshopping tool to create the appearance of shrinking her body down. 

The video went viral — it now has almost 14 million views — and was mentioned on CNN, “Today,” and “Good Morning America.” It made Ho a major player in the online world of “body positivity,” a movement based on the idea that all people should be able to embrace a positive image of their bodies, no matter how they look. And it gained her even more fitness fans, many of whom loved her balanced approach to workout classes that weren’t tied to weight. 

Then, this past summer, Ho posted another video that drew attention — but not the kind she had likely intended. In the video, she explained that she was planning to embark on a fitness journey for 90 days to get into “the best shape of my life.” She announced numerical goals for her desired weight and body fat. And just like that, many of her once-supportive fans came after her for seeming to send mixed messages: How could she be an icon of body positivity if she wanted to change her body? Should she talk about weight loss at all? Many of Ho’s followers seemed confused about her loyalties. 

“Having weight loss as an advertised goal definitely goes against why I love Blogilates,” one commenter wrote beneath the summer video.

“I love Cassey, but I have an issue with the way she markets many of her videos as a way to fit into a physical ideal,” wrote another, calling Ho out for using terms like “flat belly.” “It’s hypocritical to talk constantly about how exercise should be used to challenge yourself, and to become strong regardless of weight or physical appearance, and then promote those videos.”


Perhaps, in Ho’s situation, she can’t win. Her audience expects workout videos that keep them in shape. Workout stars gain credibility by looking physically fit. And yet Ho seems trapped by this depiction of herself as a body-positive fitness representative — something she says never signed up for in the first place. In a video she released last October, titled “Body Positivity: A Documentary,” Ho said she didn’t think her first video would go viral, and she wasn’t trying to be a role model. 

“I was just trying to be me, teaching Pilates without a six-pack,” Ho explained. 

So when the firestorm began over her weight-loss video, “It was like the entire world burst into flames,” she wrote on her blog. “All of a sudden, I was called anti-body positive, too skinny to lose weight, a promoter of eating disorders, an embarrassment to women, a disappointment to my fans, a traitor to my own brand, psychologically unstable.” Some commenters asserted that she was mentally ill and needed professional help.

In a recent interview with Experience, Ho said she sometimes deals with the online backlash by moderating the comments to control the conversation. “If there is someone being a bully, or someone who is being hateful in the comments, I will delete that,” she said. She also relies on her fans to argue back against trolls on her behalf, and sometimes sees them scaring the “bad guys” away.

But research shows that it’s hard to control anonymous online comments and ensure that commenters always work with you, not against you.

“The competition to be successful on YouTube, like Instagram, is pressure-filled and not as glamorous or simple as it appears,” says Danielle Wagstaff, a psychology professor at Federation University of Australia who studies the impact of new technologies on the brain. She says a huge number of YouTube influencers have experienced burnout and other mental health issues. 

Wagstaff and others’ research suggests that pressures to perform and keep people happy online are even stronger in beauty and fitness spaces. In other words, if Ho wants her haters to embrace the complexity of her public persona, she may be facing a losing battle.

That said, Ho’s summer drama had little effect on her business or YouTube subscriber count — in fact, she had about a quarter million more subscribers this December than in August. Still, Ho said, the “obsessive follow-unfollow, subscribe-unsubscribe business” of YouTube has sometimes made her question her career as an influencer.

“The online culture right now is a cancel culture,” she said. “I feel like fans really want to jump on bandwagons. I mean, it always has been crazy, but it’s a dramatic mess these days. It’s like reality TV has moved onto social media.”

So while she’s determined to keep building her business, she wants to be ready to pivot, just in case the internet gives up on her. So she’s focused on merchandise as much as selling ads. Her advice for other fitness gurus making a living online? Diversify.

“You should still be you and be your brand, but don’t put all your eggs in one basket,” Ho said. “Overnight, huge Facebook accounts have been destroyed. So have your own website and mailing list. Sell something. These platforms are here, but they’re not really here for us. You have to be prepared.”

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Jenni Gritters is a writer based in Seattle.

 

Illustration by Mar Hernández

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