Scrolling through Ilse Henderson’s Instagram account, @Ilsifit, it's easy to posit her as just another blonde fitness influencer; films of her toned figure lifting weights are interspersed with delicious looking brunches and pasta salads. However, once you dive a little deeper and read her honest and moving captions you’ll soon see she is anything but typical.
I spoke to Ilse over zoom a few weeks ago where she sat smiling through her screen. Earlier that day I had scrolled down to Ilse’s first ever Instagram post, back in 2018. After asking her about it she said that ‘at the beginning the account was private and I had about fifteen to twenty friends following it. I started going to the gym when I was at uni because I felt like I was a lot bigger than other people. I had put on a lot of weight after a bad relationship and I found comfort in food. I was finally in a place where I thought I could do something about it and go to the gym, try to be healthy, then I found having an Instagram account would hold me accountable. It was only for friends because I didn't think anyone would be actually interested, that's why the first photos are very low res, just me trying to post!’
Eighteen months later, and a couple of thousand followers on, @Ilsifit took a different direction. Her professional looking page was dominated by ‘before and after’ photos, documenting her weight loss transformation. Ilse spoke about how much more ‘confident’ she felt in her body as well discussing the mental health benefits of going to the gym and exercising in general.
We all know exercise is good for us - The NHS advices adults should:
- do strengthening activities that work all the major muscles (legs, hips, back, abdomen, chest, shoulders and arms) on at least 2 days a week
- do at least 150 minutes of moderate intensity activity a week or 75 minutes of vigorous intensity activity a week
- reduce time spent sitting or lying down and break up long periods of not moving with some activity.
Countless research has also been done to show how exercising releases endorphins, triggering a positive feeling in the body, thus boosting our mental health. The NHS states those who do regular physical activity have a 30% lower risk of depression and dementia.
However, less is said about over exercising. Pushing our bodies to its limits to try and attain the ‘perfect’ physiques we see splashed across our Instagrams and on TV shows such as Love Island. Interestingly, even on the NHS website it states ‘the more you do the better.’
Ilse spoke about how she fell victim to this as she found herself being sucked into the social pressure of posting. She admitted that films of her exercising and ‘gym-selfies’ made her get ‘so into [her] head about what [she] looked like’. She said ‘I was recently single so I cared a lot more about what other people thought, especially what guys would think about me which was so annoying...It made me obsessed with exercise – I’d be exercising all the time, 2 – 3 hours a day, not eating very much, getting into bad eating habits. When lockdown happened things got so much worse because it’s the only thing I could think about. I didn’t have to work because I had just finished uni. So the only thing I could do was exercise and the only other thing I could do was eat and then feel bad about eating’.
Listening to Ilse talk me through her rollercoaster journey goes to show how deceptive social media can be. I felt particularly moved by what she said, as many of those same thoughts had passed through my head. To try and cope with lockdown one, and a redundancy, I pushed my body to the limits doing daily HIIT classes. I thought this would ease my stress and perhaps if I had been kinder on my body and done three or four classes a week I would have felt good. However, with nothing else to focus on I became obsessed with having as thin and as toned a figure as possible. After doing nine consecutive classes in a row, I woke up one morning and couldn't sit down. I was later diagnosed with a bulging disc in my L5 S1 which was pushing down on my nerves and caused sciatica all down my right leg. One year and a half later I am still dealing with chronic back pain - more is not always better.
We both agreed lockdown allowed for our exercise and eating habits to spiral out of control. Interestingly, Megan Agnew wrote a piece on this for The Sunday Times. She stated ‘holed up alone it can be all too easy for some routines to become obsessions…The UK eating disorder charity Beat reported a 173 per cent increase in demand for support between February 2020 and January this year’. However, Megan goes on to write that regardless of the pandemic ‘as a woman it’s so complicated to have an uncomplicated relationship with food’.
I asked Ilse how she finally turned a corner;
‘I decided it’s either going to get so much worse or I can turn this around for myself and for the people around me. I had been the worst sister, daughter, friend – I’d pushed people away because of what was going on in my head. It sucked because my brother was in placement in Copenhagen so I hadn't really seen him much. All he saw of me [last year] was during the summer and Christmas when I was literally the worst person ever, so I kind of wanted to do it for him. On the 1st January I thought ‘if I don’t sort it out now I’ll never do it – new years new me’. And I have...I’m really happy to say that I have been able to switch it up and just do it and be happy finally’. Since working on her own well-being Ilse says she has ‘reconnected with people, family, friends, and strengthened those bonds’.
What I find most inspiring about Ilse is her courage to document all this openly on her Instagram. It has been amazing to follow her shift from focusing on weight loss and wanting to ‘slim down’ to captions that now read ‘‘gone are the days I strive to be as teeny tiny as I can!! I’m happy gaining strength, confidence, and ma sexiness back”. She is remarkably open which, to her followers must be incredibly refreshing, particularly in comparison to most fitness influencers. Her feed has certainly helped me re-align my values and rethink healthy weight gain. Exercise is still a big part of her life but she now only goes to the gym when she is in the mood and wants an endorphins kick, rather than to push herself. She writes ‘taking a break from exercise can sometimes be the best thing at the time (it’s what made me kickstart my own journey)’.
Here are some of Ilse’s most inspiring quotes that any girl struggling with her body image (AKA most women) should take note of:
- ‘No one actually cares what you look like besides yourself’
- ‘You are ALREADY the ‘right’ size’
- ‘You don’t have to be okay all day every day - everyone has down days and that’s just part of life. Accept the moments and move on’
- ‘It’s time to stop comparing yourselves to the “insta-perfect models” - because tbh they don’t even look like that most of the time!!’
- ‘Go buy those new clothes that fit you in alllll the right places, go eat that food you enjoy, go hang with those people you love, go smash those PBs in the gym!!’
- ‘The idea that the constantly posed, toned, non-bloated bodies are somehow BETTER than the relaxed, happy, rolled, stretched, bloated bodies - is ridiculous and needs to stahp’
Finally we get onto the topic of pajamas. A self confessed pj lover, Ilse is very excited for her Stola hemp pyjamas to arrive. She concludes ‘when you have coordinated pjs, that is when your life is together! … I really need to get my life together’.
At 22 years old Ilse has grown her Instagram to 42.2K followers whilst also working as a creative director at Genei…with or without her coordinated Stola set, she certainly has her life together.