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“]

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