Body Image

Why the ‘fitspo’ movement is damaging to women

The 'fitspo' movement may be aiming to promote a healthier body image for women, but it's just another narrow set of ideals about what women should look like.

Strong is the new skinny.

Excuses don’t burn calories.

Unless you puke, faint, or die, keep going!

These are some of the many messages you may have encountered if you’ve ever come across the burgeoning social media trend known as “fitspiration”.

Often referred to as “fitspo”, fitspiration is a growing online phenomenon with the goal of motivating individuals to pursue a fit and healthy lifestyle. Typically, fitspo images depict toned and slender athletic bodies overlaid with motivational quotes; the aim being to inspire people to get off the couch and become active.

The trend has become increasingly popular in recent years – a quick search on Instagram of the hashtag #fitspo brings up well over 30 million images.

Yet despite the popularity of fitspo, little is known about its psychological impact. With growing public concern about the potential downside of these images, the question is whether fitspo is doing more harm than good.

Social media is rife with ‘fitspo’ images. Tumblr
Social media is rife with ‘fitspo’ images. Tumblr

In terms of more traditional forms of media, research suggests that exposure to fitness-related images can be detrimental, particularly for women. For instance, women report increased negative mood, depression, and anxiety after only 30 minutes of viewing fitness magazines promoting the athletic ideal.

An abundance of research points to the negative effects for women of exposure to the thin ideal.

But what is so problematic about the athletic ideal? Fitspiration originally began as a reaction to “thinspiration”, an online movement promoting weight loss, often via dangerous means such as disordered eating. The fitspo mantra was loud and clear: promoting strength and health over thinness and “thigh gaps”. The movement was designed to encourage a more positive body ideal.

As researchers have suggested, part of the problem with the athletic ideal is that media images of athletic women tend to be not just muscular, but also skinny.

Research has demonstrated that exposure to athletic women is just as bad as exposure to thin women, if the athletic women pictured are both muscular and slim. So while fitspo may promote the message that strong is the new skinny, in reality, what they mean by this is that “strong and skinny is the new skinny”.

While research on fitspo is scarce, findings from a new study support the notion that it promotes a very narrow body ideal. In an analysis of fitspo images, researchers from Flinders University found that fitspo tends to depict just one body type – both toned and thin.

One might argue that such a body type is certainly healthier than the waif-like shape depicted on thinspo. However, the effectiveness of such images in actually promoting exercise is questionable.

By limiting what a woman’s body is supposed to look like, fitspo images further exacerbate the discrepancy between how one would like their body to look, and how one’s body actually looks. And research has established that the greater this actual-ideal discrepancy in regards to body image, the more likely individuals are to adopt maladaptive eating and exercise patterns.

Other research suggests that while fitspo and thinspo purport to be different, they actually share a number of similarities. Another content analysis published earlier this year of both fitspo and thinspo images found that both types of images tend to contain quite damaging content.

In fact, messages surrounding fat stigmatisation, body guilt, and objectification were equally as prevalent with fitspo as they were with thinspo images.

Further, although thinspo images were more focused on weight loss, this was still a common theme in fitspo. 42% of fitspo images contained messages promoting losing fat and weight.

Fitspo claims to promote strong over skinny, but in truth it promotes strong and skinny.
Fitspo claims to promote strong over skinny, but in truth it promotes strong and skinny.

To date, only one paper has been published examining the effect of viewing fitspiration on body image. In this study, women were assigned to either look through a handful of fitspo images on an iPad, or look through a bunch of travel photos instead.

The researchers found that fitspo was indeed motivating – women who viewed the fitspo images subsequently reported a greater desire to improve their fitness and eat more healthily than women who viewed the travel images. However, viewing fitspo had a negative impact on women’s body image – it increased body dissatisfaction and made women feel worse about their appearance.

As the researchers showed, looking at fitspo was so detrimental because the participants were comparing themselves to the people in the images. And when you think that the vast majority of fitspo images depict a narrow and largely unattainable body type, this comparison is going to be negative for most people.

Just like the athletic bodies it depicts, the online trend of fitspiration isn’t calling it quits anytime soon. Yet while fitspo may indeed be inspirational for some, we must be attuned to its potential downside and the negative impact it has on how women feel about their bodies.

By portraying an extremely narrow ideal, and encouraging guilt and weight loss, the vast majority of fitspo images today are little more than thinspo with a six-pack.

Elise Holland, Postdoctoral Research Fellow, University of Melbourne

This article first appeared on The Conversation.

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Swara Bhasker: Sharp objects has to be on the radar of every woman who is tired of being “nice”

The actress weighs in on what she loves about the show.

This article has been written by award-winning actor Swara Bhasker.

All women growing up in India, South Asia, or anywhere in the world frankly; will remember in some form or the other that gentle girlhood admonishing, “Nice girls don’t do that.” I kept recalling that gently reasoned reproach as I watched Sharp Objects (you can catch it on Hotstar Premium). Adapted from the author of Gone Girl, Gillian Flynn’s debut novel Sharp Objects has been directed by Jean-Marc Vallée, who has my heart since he gave us Big Little Lies. It stars the multiple-Oscar nominee Amy Adams, who delivers a searing performance as Camille Preaker; and Patricia Clarkson, who is magnetic as the dominating and dark Adora Crellin. As an actress myself, it felt great to watch a show driven by its female performers.

The series is woven around a troubled, alcohol-dependent, self-harming, female journalist Camille (single and in her thirties incidentally) who returns to the small town of her birth and childhood, Wind Gap, Missouri, to report on two similarly gruesome murders of teenage girls. While the series is a murder mystery, it equally delves into the psychology, not just of the principal characters, but also of the town, and thus a culture as a whole.

There is a lot that impresses in Sharp Objects — the manner in which the storytelling gently unwraps a plot that is dark, disturbing and shocking, the stellar and crafty control that Jean-Marc Vallée exercises on his narrative, the cinematography that is fluid and still manages to suggest that something sinister lurks within Wind Gap, the editing which keeps this narrative languid yet sharp and consistently evokes a haunting sensation.

Sharp Objects is also liberating (apart from its positive performance on Bechdel parameters) as content — for female actors and for audiences in giving us female centric and female driven shows that do not bear the burden of providing either role-models or even uplifting messages. 

Instead, it presents a world where women are dangerous and dysfunctional but very real — a world where women are neither pure victims, nor pure aggressors. A world where they occupy the grey areas, complex and contradictory as agents in a power play, in which they control some reigns too.

But to me personally, and perhaps to many young women viewers across the world, what makes Sharp Objects particularly impactful, perhaps almost poignant, is the manner in which it unravels the whole idea, the culture, the entire psychology of that childhood admonishment “Nice girls don’t do that.” Sharp Objects explores the sinister and dark possibilities of what the corollary of that thinking could be.

“Nice girls don’t do that.”

“Who does?”

“Bad girls.”

“So I’m a bad girl.”

“You shouldn’t be a bad girl.”

“Why not?”

“Bad girls get in trouble.”

“What trouble? What happens to bad girls?”

“Bad things.”

“What bad things?”

“Very bad things.”

“How bad?”

“Terrible!!!”

“Like what?”

“Like….”

A point the show makes early on is that both the victims of the introductory brutal murders were not your typically nice girly-girls. Camille, the traumatised protagonist carrying a burden from her past was herself not a nice girl. Amma, her deceptive half-sister manipulates the nice girl act to defy her controlling mother. But perhaps the most incisive critique on the whole ‘Be a nice girl’ culture, in fact the whole ‘nice’ culture — nice folks, nice manners, nice homes, nice towns — comes in the form of Adora’s character and the manner in which beneath the whole veneer of nice, a whole town is complicit in damning secrets and not-so-nice acts. At one point early on in the show, Adora tells her firstborn Camille, with whom she has a strained relationship (to put it mildly), “I just want things to be nice with us but maybe I don’t know how..” Interestingly it is this very notion of ‘nice’ that becomes the most oppressive and deceptive experience of young Camille, and later Amma’s growing years.

This ‘Culture of Nice’ is in fact the pervasive ‘Culture of Silence’ that women all over the world, particularly in India, are all too familiar with. 

It takes different forms, but always towards the same goal — to silence the not-so-nice details of what the experiences; sometimes intimate experiences of women might be. This Culture of Silence is propagated from the child’s earliest experience of being parented by society in general. Amongst the values that girls receive in our early years — apart from those of being obedient, dutiful, respectful, homely — we also receive the twin headed Chimera in the form of shame and guilt.

“Have some shame!”

“Oh for shame!”

“Shameless!”

“Shameful!”

“Ashamed.”

“Do not bring shame upon…”

Different phrases in different languages, but always with the same implication. Shameful things happen to girls who are not nice and that brings ‘shame’ on the family or everyone associated with the girl. And nice folks do not talk about these things. Nice folks go on as if nothing has happened.

It is this culture of silence that women across the world today, are calling out in many different ways. Whether it is the #MeToo movement or a show like Sharp Objects; or on a lighter and happier note, even a film like Veere Di Wedding punctures this culture of silence, quite simply by refusing to be silenced and saying the not-nice things, or depicting the so called ‘unspeakable’ things that could happen to girls. By talking about the unspeakable, you rob it of the power to shame you; you disallow the ‘Culture of Nice’ to erase your experience. You stand up for yourself and you build your own identity.

And this to me is the most liberating aspect of being an actor, and even just a girl at a time when shows like Sharp Objects and Big Little Lies (another great show on Hotstar Premium), and films like Veere Di Wedding and Anaarkali Of Aarah are being made.

The next time I hear someone say, “Nice girls don’t do that!”, I know what I’m going to say — I don’t give a shit about nice. I’m just a girl! And that’s okay!

Swara is a an award winning actor of the Hindi film industry. Her last few films, including Veere Di Wedding, Anaarkali of Aaraah and Nil Battey Sannata have earned her both critical and commercial success. Swara is an occasional writer of articles and opinion pieces. The occasions are frequent :).

Watch the trailer of Sharp Objects here:

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This article was published by the Scroll marketing team with Swara Bhasker on behalf of Hotstar Premium and not by the Scroll editorial team.