(Why I Work Out)

Fitness Influencer Cassey Ho On Her Love/Hate Relationship With Social Media

“I was about to quit.”

Fitness Influencer Cassey Ho squatting in an orange sports bra an shorts set and white sneakers

California-born Pilates pro Cassey Ho has been a fitness influencer for 12 and a half years, an eternity in an industry in which trends become passé almost as soon as they catch on. Speaking via Zoom one day in early December, the YouTuber and entrepreneur proffered an explanation for the enduring nature of her appeal. By consciously de-emphasizing the aesthetic benefits of working out — toned arms, a flat belly, a shapely butt, among others — her content sidesteps the preoccupation with outer beauty that defines many of its counterparts. Or so she hypothesizes to me from the depths of a swivel chair in her Los Angeles home office, her eye makeup impeccable and her black hair as sleek and shiny as that of an ambassador for a shampoo brand.

“How are you growing? How are you feeling? How are you stronger, more flexible?” she says, punctuating each clause with a flutter of her hands. Her left wrist, I notice, sports a pink-strapped Apple Watch. “When we focus on those things, the energy goes into the right place.”

In Ho’s mind, feeling happy should be your primary metric of success, not hemorrhaging pounds. “You have to listen to your body,” she says. “If you are not finding the joy [in your regimen], if it is not making you smile, then this is not something that you should continue."

Hers is as plausible a theory as any, especially coming from someone who obviously knows a thing or two about becoming and staying famous. Now 35, Ho, who is of Chinese and Vietnamese descent, first rose to prominence when some of today’s biggest stars were still memorizing the alphabet. Owing to her impressive staying power, Ho possesses a rare degree of insight into the cultural developments that have revamped our conception of health and beauty in the decade-plus since she founded her YouTube channel, Blogilates.

“It’s evolved so much,” she says, an understatement if ever there was one.

Back in 2009, whiteness and thinness were prerequisites for being considered attractive, even more so than they are today. Few ever came right out and said it, but they didn’t need to; it was implicit on every magazine cover and celebrity profile, every fashion show and commercial pageant. Back in 2009, my own chief desires in life were blond hair, blue eyes, and a body that looked good in the lace-trimmed camisoles and low-rise jeans mannequins modeled in store windows. Without all three, I believed, I could never be anything but plain.

Ho was aware that she did not resemble the Kate Mosses and Britney Spearses of the world from an early age. For one, she was Asian; for another, she was “chubby.” (And, she wrote in a 2020 blog post, tongue in cheek, “My last name was Ho.”) She remembers a classmate pointing at her as she was eating lunch in her elementary-school cafeteria one afternoon and saying, “Why are you so fat?” Listening, it struck me as one of those small, painful experiences — a romantic rejection, an offhand remark about appetite or clothing size — that sticks to the surface of your ego like a burr to a dog’s coat. More than a quarter of a century later, after all, Ho clearly still feels its sting.

“It was at that moment that I was like, ‘Oh, wait, there’s something wrong with me,’” she recalls.

Learning to pick apart your appearance no matter how closely it hews to the ideal is practically a rite of passage for modern women. I remember staring at my own mixed-race face in the mirror after school as a preteen, mentally listing all of the changes I would make to it if I had the time, the money, or the parental permission: lighter hair, bigger eyes, higher cheekbones, a smaller nose, fuller lips, smoother skin. Ho was no exception to that rule. She was 16, a tennis player, and still perceived her body as “[not] good enough” when she discovered Pilates by chance in the form of an infomercial. Something about the way the figures onscreen moved captured her imagination. It was so elegant, so “graceful,” so visually compelling. Plus, it was devoid of the combative interpersonal dynamic she’d come to expect of playing for and against teams.

“Pilates showed me a different side of physical fitness,” Ho says. “It showed me that I could work out for myself and that the only person I had to compete with was who I was yesterday.”

Hooked, Ho begged her parents to buy her the advertised DVD. When it arrived, she started practicing on her own every night in her bedroom. Her core strength and flexibility increased along with her confidence. “Focusing on one skill and working hard at it, seeing myself progress — it’s so rewarding,” she says. By the time she was 20, she was teaching classes herself. Her first Blogilates video, a charmingly grainy 10-minute clip she intended for her students at 24 Hour Fitness, was met with clamors for more of the same. Since then, she has accrued 5.7 million subscribers on YouTube, 1.2 million followers on Facebook, 2.2 million followers on Instagram, and 2.7 million followers on TikTok as of this writing.

The cultural landscape has changed so radically in that time that she has been branded both a hero and a villain over the course of her career. Tilting her head to one side, Ho reflects on the resulting whiplash.

“So when I first started in ’09, [fitness] was very much about the physicality of it, very much about weight loss and how you look. On YouTube, the thumbnails were showing really big boobs in a sports bra with an eight pack — those were getting super clicked,” she says. “So in the beginning, because that aesthetic of six-pack [abs] was super in, I was [considered] too fat, right? And then, [people] started labeling me as body-positive because I wasn’t that.”

Enter the body-positive movement, which forced the media to reconsider its relationship to weight, around 2012. Fat-shaming becomes a social taboo; plus-size models such Ashley Graham and Tess Holliday break into the mainstream; cracks about throwing up after eating and subsisting on 12 calories a day begin to inspire horror rather than amusement.

Given her line of work, Ho was likely more able to fully appreciate the significance of the body-positive movement than most. She has been the target of cruel and arguably sexist criticism in the past — comments asking invasive questions like, “Why don’t you have abs?” and “Why is your butt so flat?” That said, she’s not wholly complimentary. While she characterizes the movement’s overall impact as “amazing,” she believes that it eventually overcorrected. Comparing the tide of public opinion to a pendulum, she describes how it eventually swung too far in the other direction.

“Now it hits over here. Body positivity is in, and so now when I’m doing, oh, a 20-day bridal boot camp, now I’m not body-positive because I’m forcing brides to lose weight before their wedding,” she says, crooking her fingers in air quotes. “I’m still doing the same thing, but now I’m labeled anti-body-positive. And then, when I go on my 90-day journey to rediscover myself, I’m labeled as a traitor and a hypocrite and a hater of women’s bodies.”

The aforementioned 90-day journey began in August 2019, a particularly trying period of Ho’s life. Business was flagging, her self-image was in the toilet, and she was tired of fielding hate online. The trifecta of setbacks sent her into a tailspin. “I was about to quit Blogilates … because I could not handle it anymore,” she says. In an effort to turn things around, she challenged herself to overhaul her lifestyle — diet, workout regimen, blogging habits — and document the resulting effects on her mind and body every day for around three months. Her objectives included losing weight, decreasing her body fat percentage, and developing a thicker skin. By the end of the allotted time, she’d achieved all three, managing to “get into the best shape of my life mentally, physically, and emotionally” in the process. It was an admirable feat of willpower.

“I not only felt more confident, but I knew my body so well that if I ever needed to do that again, I knew exactly what I needed to eat [and] what I needed to drink … to get to this particular place,” she says.

With its nod to cyberbullying, the anecdote hints at Ho’s ambivalence toward the impact of social networking on the fitness ecosystem. While YouTube and its ilk democratized working out by making tutorials accessible to people who couldn’t afford to shell out $500 for a gym membership or a session with a personal trainer, they also encouraged competition and, by extension, contention. Modern fitness influencing, Ho says, is dominated by warring factions that take a rigid one-size-fits-all approach to fitness, even though “what works for you will not work for someone else, and vice versa.” Compounding the problem is the fact that algorithms tend to amplify the sensational. They prioritize popularity rather than, and often at the expense of, accuracy, enabling fads to take precedence over tried-and-true methods in the feed.

“I saw the rise of the detox teas and the waist trainers and weird trends on TikTok, like, ‘Oh, lie on a rolled towel and you’ll have abs in 30 days.’ It’s like, ‘What are you talking about?’” Ho says. “But those are the videos that get millions and millions of views, not the ones that are like, ‘Hey, do this every day for 20 minutes.’”

The phenomenon frustrates her. She wishes that consumers wouldn’t accept wild claims at face value, especially ones that have the potential to do harm. But she knows that independent research is “a lot to ask of people.”

“So I’m just trying to educate as much as I can,” she says.

In the background, I can see a box full of coiled yoga mats, objects Ho explains away as product samples. In addition to being an accomplished athlete and an Internet sensation, Ho is a successful businesswoman who has managed to marry two seemingly disparate aspects of her identity: her innate drive to create and her passion for building strength and flexibility. She is the CEO and head designer of Popflex, a line of activewear and fitness equipment that encompasses everything from leggings and sports bras to water bottles and booty bands. (Its tagline is “Work out, but make it cute.”)

Popflex’s latest collection dropped at Target at the end of December, nearly eight years after Ho called out the retailer for running an ad that had clearly been subject to photo manipulation on its website. She has always had an interest in fashion, but her father originally discouraged her from pursuing it, advising her to enter medicine instead.

“I don’t know if you’ve had the same experience, but growing up Asian-American, you’re either a doctor, a lawyer, or a failure,” she says.

I think of the rows of degrees that cover the rear wall of my father’s study.

“My parents are both doctors and my brother’s going to med school next year,” I say.

“Exactly,” Ho says, breaking into a wide smile. She herself is wearing one of the many sweatshirts featured on the Popflex website, I notice for the first time, a beige-colored knit that retails for $68.

Ho’s fondness for clothing design ties into the central ethos she mentioned at the start of our conversation: deriving happiness from working out. Dainty prints and pastel tones abound in the Popflex product catalog, as do stereotypically feminine accents such as cutouts and sheer panels. If you’re designing a dumbbell, her thinking goes, why not make it gold? If you’re designing a bag, why not slap a bow on it?

“Those are the things that bring me joy and motivate me more — booty bands with flowers on them or little moons and stars. Maybe it's not necessary for some, but for someone like me, this resonates so hard,” she says. “Again, it goes back to that model of helping you find the joy in fitness, and for some people, it is about the color and the prints and building your home gym space so that it really fits your personality.”

To Ho, “finding the joy in fitness” is more than a catchphrase or a marketing tactic; it’s a necessity. Transforming your body is a matter of making exercise a part of your daily routine; making exercise a part of your daily routine is a matter of learning to love it, plain and simple. “That’s how you’re going to make it sustainable,” she says. Regardless of your opinion of Ho, Blogilates, Popflex, and exercise in general, you can’t deny that she’s onto something. Twelve and a half years after she first entered the limelight, after all, she’s still here — still filming videos, still selling merch, and still making headlines.