I spend way too much time on Pinterest. It’s a great resource for inspiration about anything. How to decorate your bedroom. What to wear with your new yellow crop sweater. What new haircut you should try next. How to find motivation to stop spending so many hours sitting on the couch watching TV and start being more active.
The latter has a name. Fit inspiration, or Fitspo. Images involving beautiful, super fit women, often accompanied with motivating phrases like “the voice in your head that says you can’t do this is a liar”, and “never give”. They seem innocuous enough, and a great way to inspire people to get healthier.
And some of them are. But too often, rather than a healthy desire to lead a more active life, these images induce body shame and hate, undermine self-esteem, and perpetuate the message that a woman’s value is based only on her looks. Here’s how:
1. Fitspo promotes impossible to achieve ideals
Just like women’s magazines, Fitspo encourages us to compare ourselves to others, which is never healthy. It is even less so when the ideal you are encouraged to strive for is unachievable. Fitspo promotes only one body type, and the girls who appear in those photos are chosen because theirs conforms to this advertised ideal of beauty and already exercise a lot.
Even then, they are usually very young, undergo fitness and dieting regimes for a few days before the photoshoots, and have their images taken by professional photographers using short-term “peaking” techniques. But only after a makeup artist and stylist have used their skills to hide their flaws (that’s if they get to show their faces at all).
And what can’t be hidden, can be deleted with photoshop. That’s also how their waists are made smaller, their breasts bigger, and every inch of their body altered to make them look fitter and slimmer. But even if these images weren’t digitally altered, no one can achieve someone’s else body type. A short, pear-shaped girl will never become tall and with a tiny waist, no matter how much she exercises or how little she eats.
And that’s ok. Everyone has a different body type, and they are all beautiful. But Fitspo ignores that. Just like it ignores that our bodies have different limitations, and different fat storage systems. Most importantly, it ignores the fact that women are more than their bodies, and that we should be valued for our goodness, intelligence, and achievements, not the way we look.
2. Fitspo perpetuates fitness myths
Even when we realize we’ll never look like the models and athletes in those photos, we still believe the lie that losing weight is simply a matter of eating less and exercising more. And if that doesn’t work, it’s because we’re weak and lazy. If only we had more willpower, we would achieve our goals. That’s a lie. Weight loss is more complicated than that. Socio-economic factors, stress, bad habits, hormones, and genetics can all affect your weight, and all need to be tackled if you really need to lose some. Eating less and less and exercising more and more will just make you ill.
3. Fitspo encourages us to exercise for the wrong reasons
Working out is one of the best things you can do for yourself. It improves both your health and your mood. But that’s not what Fitspo usually focuses on. It tells you to work out to “make your supporters proud and your enemies jealous,” implying that a tight arse or a flat tummy, nor your brains or good heart, are desirable characteristics highly valued by your friends and who make your better and worthier than your enemies.
Worse, Fitspo often reduces women to sexy eye candy for leering men. Images rarely show the whole body. Heads and legs are usually cut off, implying that these body parts aren’t really that important. That women’s job is not to think or talk, but just to look sexy. Often, these women don’t even wear gym clothes, but just a bikini, underwear, or nothing. Even when they’re dressed, they are usually pictured in sexy poses that objectify women. The message is clear: we should exercise to be sexually attractive to men, not to be healthy.
4. Fitspo can trigger eating disorders
Charlotte Hilton Andersen, author of The Great Fitness Experiment, believes that “fitspo may be thinspo in a sports bra.” So do I. Thinspo, or thin inspiration, are pictures of very thin women used as willpower motivation for eating disorders like anorexia. Fitspo is supposed to be healthier. After all, it tells you to exercise and eat healthy, which are very good things. But in moderation. If you exercise too much, and keep going even when your body is too tired, you’re going to seriously injury yourself.
And demonizing food can lead to eating disorders. A diet based on hamburgers, french fries, and cupcakes will make you ill and overweight, but in moderation, they don’t do any harm. But Fitspo makes you think otherwise. It tells that, if you want to be fit, you can’t eat anything tasty and, if you’re still not losing weight, it is because you’re still eating too much. For some people, these messages can trigger eating disorders, such as anorexia and orthorexia.
Lesser known than other eating disorders, orthorexia (the term was coined in 1997) starts with a genuine desire to eat healthy, but sufferers soon become so obsessed with it to the point of worsening the quality of their lives and even putting their health at risk. They may start by becoming vegetarians or vegans (nothing wrong with that), but soon the amount of foods on their blacklists becomes so long that they can’t eat anything that’s not “pure” and that important nutrients are left out of their diets. And that’s never a good thing. Our bodies need all nutrients, including fats and carbs, to function properly.
5. Fitspo undermines your self-esteem to sell you stuff you don’t need
Have you ever wondered who creates a lot of these images, and why? Sports brands like Nike, gyms, work out DVDs, and anyone else in the fitness industry profits by these images. Images that depict beautiful toned women, often without heads, in alluring poses. At first glance, these shots, and the accompanying slogans, may seem empowering, but in reality they are designed to make you feel bad about yourself. To lower your self esteem and make you feel like you’re not good enough until you look a certain way.
And to achieve that, you’ll have to buy their DVDs, or sneakers, or whatever else they’re trying to sell you. That’s why women’s waists and thighs are getting smaller and smaller every year. The goals must be unachievable because, should you ever become comfortable in your own body and love the way you look, you’ll stop working out so hard and so often. And their profits will collapse.
Of course not all Fitspo is bad. Some photos can really inspire you to stop spending so much time on your sofa watching TV and start being more active so you can be healthier.
How do you know when fitness motivation is healthy?
When it focuses on health, fun, and a balanced lifestyle rather than looks, sex, and dangerous extremes.
When it makes you feel excited about working out rather than miserable for not looking hot enough.
When the goal is to be healthy, not skinny with muscles.
Only when you take good care of your body, rather than trying to change it, you can truly be healthy and happy.
What do you think of Fitspo?