What is Fitspo?
It’s a popular buzzword, short for Fitness Inspiration, and it’s used to inspire and motivate people to get fit and healthy. It usually involves photos of super fit, lean women, often accompanied by motivating words or phrases like “never give up” or “strong is the new skinny.” Sometimes Fitspo includes photos of fresh healthy food, green juices, or women doing awesome yoga poses in beautiful places. There are tons of blogs devoted to finding, making, and sharing fitspiration. It’s kind of like Thinspiration‘s healthier and happier big sister. (For those of you who aren’t familiar with thinspiration, it’s typically glamorized photos of dangerously thin girls, often passed around as willpower motivation for anorexics. It is a whole new level of horror for those of us in the body-acceptance business.)
So what’s my problem? Fitspo sounds like a great way to motivate the unhealthy masses to get off the couch and start exercising and eating healthier! At it’s very worst it sounds kind of annoying.
Here are 5 reasons why I think Fitspo is making the world shittier place.
1) On a personal level: It Works, but for the wrong reasons
My main personal motivation to work out comes from the feel-good chemical cocktail of adrenaline, dopamine, and seratonin… and also from the fact that it’s my career, my lab, and my playground. Additionally, I work out because I want to look my best. I like to have a nice round derierre (as any readers of my blog will know) and I love when my arms and abs look defined.
Now occasionally, if I’m feeling tired or under-motivated to start my workout, I’ll google some fitspo to get going. It always works. But… if aesthetics aren’t my goal, why would looking at photos of fitness models lunging in impossibly small booty shorts manage to provide me with any extra motivation? There are 2 reasons that I can come up with:
Reason #1: I see photos of beautiful people doing beautiful things and I think “I WANT TO DO THOSE THINGS! I want to be sweating and running and boxing and jumping too! Let’s goooo!!!”
Reason #2: Since I don’t set aesthetic goals for myself, I generally walk around feeling like I’m good enough. When I’m considering skipping a workout however, seeing photos of uber-lean athletes reminds me that I am, in fact, NOT good enough. I should work harder, harness more willpower, dedicate myself more, and be a gosh darn role-model like these incredible-looking women.
Obviously it’s Reason #2 that’s the problem.
Quick note: Reason #1 is fascinating! Seeing another person move makes us want to move! There is a neurological response in our bodies when we observe familiar actions called corticospinal excitability, which means our nervous system can become stimulated simply by watching the actions of others. Aka we see someone else move and our bodies wanna move.
I think Reason #2 embodies one of the most popular, and most unfortunate uses of fitspo. Women use it to remind themselves that they are not good enough. I mean, I’ve never seen a fitspo photo of someone with 30lbs to lose. That wouldn’t be nearly as motivating, even if she looked active, healthy, and happy. All you have to do is type #fitspo into your Twitter search, and you see hundreds of often young women discussing how their motivation to become less disgusting is reinforced by these incredibly lean, fit photos. Many of the photos use women who aren’t even in motion. The focus of the photo is often the tiny waist, the thigh gap, or the perky butt cheeks, and these are the ones most often accompanied by tags and comment like #thinspo #ihatemybody #imdisgusting, “I wish I looked like her,” “Can’t wait til I look like this!” etc.
The message is pretty clear… I’m not as good as these fitness models and athletes, and I need to work harder to get there. It’s a sad, dark message disguised as happy and inspirational artwork. The same is true of other social media forum, particularly those with a visual spin, like Pinterest and Instagram.
2) On a professional level: It Propogates Everything I’m Fighting Against
Aside from being used to punish self-esteem, photos like this also cause misinformation to stand uncorrected. The majority of the people being inspired by fitspo are extremely young and extremely uninformed about fitness. If there is a photo of a really toned and lean body running, or even holding 10lbs dumbbells, there are now many thousands of girls who believe if they run enough, or do enough light dumbbell training, they can look like that. But most of the models and atheletes in the photos lift serious weight, and they certainly don’t look like that because they run and drink green juice. They probably deadlift heavy, do real chinups and can barbell squat more than their bodyweight.
This kind of misguided inspiration leads to women believing they did something wrong; after all they ran and ran, but they still don’t look like they think they should! It causes a belief that they must harness MORE willpower to override their obvious weakness. They feel they must try harder this time, run further, eat cleaner, or continue with similarly obsessive goal-setting. These are the clients I get all the time who say things like “working out doesn’t work for me,” and “I must have a slow metabolism.” It’s a part of a bigger problem for sure (idiotic health/fitness misinformation in the mainstream media), but it’s definitely one more reason to hate it.
3) It encourages us to compare ourselves to impossible standards.
Like Disney princesses, Barbies, the fashion industry before it, Fitspo encourages us ladies to compare ourselves to others, which we all know by now (right??) is extremely unhealthy and counterproductive. It makes fitness about comparison… “if I do this, I can look like that.” It puts the focus on acheiving some kind of universal ideal. But the girl in the photo has her body and her own ideal, and you should have yours. Our bodies are uniquely built with our own proportions, fat storage systems, and limitations. Fitspo ignores that fact. It also ignores the fact that we should be judging ourselves and others based on our values, our kindness, our intelligence, achievements, passion, or work ethic. But not our bodies. We are NOT the sum of our body parts, and this is just one more way that women are encouraged to believe otherwise.
4) A lot of Fitspo is actually just Thinspo in disguise.
Many of these photos can be tagged as EITHER #fitspo or #thinspo, because we’re sharing a trend that became popular by people suffering from eating disorders. Also, each photo only highlights something worth highlighting, and many of them are highlighting things that lean more towards thin than fit. Some popular examples are closeups on thigh gaps, super small waists, and shots of clothes being too loose. Nobody slaps an inspiring quote on an unflattering photo of someone’s least appealing body part and passes it around! Not to mention, many of these photos were taken with a professional photographer, using short-term “peaking” techniques. It’s pretty common for models to diet down for fitness photoshoots, using a diet protocol that includes water loading and cutting, carb depletion, and even salt manipulation. Not to mention spray tans, makeup artists, lighting experts, and my favorite: photo shop.
5)Ummm… So wait, you just want to look healthy?
Well, healthy doesn’t really “look” like anything. I see fake-positive phrases like “Strong is the new skinny” thrown around in fitspo all the time, as through everyone just wants to healthy and strong now. As thought we’re finally done with our decades-long unrealistic and unhealthy obsession with being thin! Yay!
…But these phrases are stamped over a picture of a girl with 11% body fat. So… which is it? Healthy, happy and strong? Awesome.
I had a client who lost something like 80lbs and still had some to go, and she was one of my strongest and most motivated clients. Her bloodwork improved, her heart and lunges improved, and she could rip a loaded barbell off the floor with glee and perfect form.
But I feel confident than if you saw a photo of her doing so, you wouldn’t think “Damn that girl is so healthy and strong, just like how I want to be!” (Mind you, if you MET her, you might have thought that. But I’m talking about visuals.) This is the problem. I think the real message being passed around is that LEAN is the new skinny. And “lean” just means skinny with muscle, or muscular with a very low body fat percentage. So… not as much of an improvement as we’d previously hoped. Better, yes. But still an exclusive, often unachievable, and easily self-esteem damaging goal.