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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