advertising · body image · motivation

The Inspirational Dis-Value of “Fitspo”

skinny-vs-healthy-298x400Lately I’ve read some blog posts and articles questioning the inspirational value of “Fitspo.” The authors ask whether “Fitspo” is the new “Thinspo?” Thinspo or “thinspiration” themed websites are where people with eating disorders like anorexia can find inspiration to keep starving themselves. Most of the inspiration comes from photos of people whose bodies already match the sought-after ideal. There has been something of a crackdown lately, but the sites have not disappeared entirely.

In thinspo, the ideal is the skeletal thinness I usually associate with anorexia. In fitspo, it’s a bit different. You don’t just achieve the fitspo ideal by losing a lot of weight. Starving yourself will not do it.

No, to reach the fitspo ideal you have to work out hard. You have to bust your butt. Starvation isn’t healthy. The fitspo ideal provides us with the healthy alternative. But does it? As the header for the xoJane article says: “Heather, my love, there is a new unreasonable, idealized body standard in town.”

I’m not so sure that the promotion of any virtually unattainable body ideal counts as healthy. Much of the content on our blog has emphasized the extent to which looking fit isn’t the same as being fit. Both Samantha and I have talked about the importance of performance-oriented measures of our physical condition as opposed to aesthetic measures.

But if fitness is a worthy goal, and fitspo helps to promote it, then what’s the problem?

I’m no psychologist, but it seems obvious that the inspirational content of fitspo images comes largely from the beautiful (youthful, slim, ripped) bodies depicted in the photos. It’s demoralizing to work hard and not “see” visible results in the way the body looks. So inspiration and motivation can turn to demoralization and disillusionment over time.

It takes a lot of mental effort (for me, anyway) to retrain myself to feel good about improving performance-wise without being able to see any differences. It’s true that I am much stronger and even faster than I was nine months ago when I got back to regular resistance training after a long hiatus. If I depended on fitspo or “fitspiration” images to keep me going, I would by now have quit. The ripped, youthful body is not going to be mine again (and when I had it I didn’t appreciate it).

It’s absolutely essential to have goals that are not about the aesthetics of fitness. Fitspo does not promote those goals.

What would I like to see? As I said a few months ago in my post on inclusive fitness, I would like to see more images of older, healthy-looking, vibrant people engaged in all manner of sports. This includes weight training in gyms, running, swimming, yoga, cycling, skiing, whatever. I would also like to see more images of more body types engaged in different forms of demanding physical training.

If we wouldn’t feel equally motivated by images of people who did not exhibit that muscular, low-body-fat, health ideal, then we need to think harder about why the usual images are motivating. Once we admit that they advocate and promote an unreasonable ideal, their motivational power rests on dubious ground.

So as much as I admire and even envy the beauty of a lean, muscular, athletic body, I do not find the images to be especially helpful to me as motivation or as inspiration.

[photo credit: from the slide show in Briana Rognlin’s article, “Fitspo: the new health inspiration is just thinspo in sheep’s clothing“]

15 thoughts on “The Inspirational Dis-Value of “Fitspo”

  1. Let’s just recognize low body fat for what it is. I like Timothy Caulfield’s discussion of visible abs and why heroin addicts and rock stars look ripped. And as you note, almost all of these models are young, white, able bodied…it’s a very narrow ideal. Personally, I like the way athletes look much better and there’s a much bigger range. Fitness models are just models and I’ve never found models of any sort inspirational. Terrific post!

  2. I agree completely. Fitness models look great, and they are impressive in that way. And not all fitness models are white or even young, Sam. But for me to say they look great is not to say that I am trying to look like them by working out. I also see when I have ground floor seats what professional basketball players can do, and it is amazing. I can consider such athletes to be awesome without really caring that I could never do what they can do, with all the training in the world! I may look better now too after committing to a serious workout regime and losing weight, but I will never look like them and really couldn’t care less. Doesn’t mean I don’t think they look great though. I also see the models in some of wife’s fashion magazines. They are beautiful. I see the male models in Harry Rosen magazines, some young and a few my age. I don’t look like them, but am I therefore going to say they shouldn’t be the ones in those magazines because they are better looking than me? I definitely was pissed off when I worked out so hard and couldn’t lose weight for reasons connected with certain medical conditions, though, until I went to Dr. Bernstein, again for medical reasons mostly. So I do understand completely wanting to look like you work out if you do work out! I guess I just don’t understand taking it to the level of needing to look like a fitness model, just as I wouldn’t understand someone like me physically being angry that they can’t play professional basketball. I mean, really, come on! and who cares?

  3. I agree that these people look good. I think my main point is that when used in the “fitspiration” way that fitspo uses them, they are supposed to motivated not just because they look good, but because the target audience is at least meant to aspire to look like them. In that respect, the goals of the fitspo movement are at best misguided and at worst misleading and dishonest.

  4. I hear ya. In the same Weight Watchers preys on the vulnernable and ensures they’ll be back because of the idiotic points system taught (on which you can eat chocolate instead of vegetables and fruit as long as you stay within the points allowed!), these sites try to tell people that if you sign up with them, they’ll turn you into a fitness model! I agree that’s really quite disgusting, on a number of levels!

    1. But it’s all advertising and sales. Who expects people trying to sell you something to make you feel good? That’s not how it works. They make you feel bad and then sell you something to make you feel better. Nothing inspirational about it…my gloomy two cents!

  5. You have a point there. I do use the ‘fitspo’ and ‘healthy’ tag among others on tumblr and instagram to share some of my dishes. After all, these people are looking for ways to eat proper. But at the same time, I don’t browse the tag nor followback some users because of the disturbing amount of irreal bodies. We know this kind of images from ‘women’s magazines’ have direct and serious consequences on self-esteem, and I won’t be so pretentious to think I’m too smart to be affected. When trying to take care of myself, loving myself comes first.

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