In the late 1990s, as the Internet took off, so did a group of websites known as “Pro-Ana.” These sites promoted the anorexic lifestyle (though many issued disclaimers that they were intended only for people who already had an eating disorder, and that those who were not already anorexic should not seek to become so) through pictures, exercise tips, dieting and fasting advice, and building community. Doctors and parents became concerned about the impact pro-ana sites were having, particularly on young women. Pro-ana pictures became known as “thinspiration,” or inspiration to be thinner. As social media channels evolved into more than just blogs, “thinspo” spread to pinterest, instagram, and other visual platforms, and concern continued to mount. In fact, as I discovered while writing this blog post, #thinspo is a banned hashtag. A search reveals “no results found”.
Specific trends have emerged under the thinspo umbrella–you may remember the hype from 2014 about “thigh gaps,” last summer’s “bikini bridge,” or the more recent “A4 waist.” Concern about thinspo and the messages sent by people’s emphasis on particular physical traits is well-meaning and necessary, but there’s another triggering hashtag that gets much less attention but may be no less harmful.
On my social media feeds I see so many of my connections posting “fitspo.” A search of the hashtag brings up almost 30,000,000 posts on Instagram. “Fitspo” posts typically feature slim, toned young women clad in athletic gear, looking like they’ve just left the gym and the dry bar simultaneously. “Fitspo” posts can also include “motivational” sayings like “I am getting lighter with every step” superimposed over a runner, or “When you’re struggling, imagine your dream body” superimposed over a thin, fit woman wearing a sports bra and underwear. Neither of these, I’d argue, advance health as the goal, but instead a certain weight or look.
Many of this posts are made by fitness professionals who are trying to sell their services or build their brand. They depict an ideal that is unattainable for most women and men, particularly not without strict eating controls and hours in the gym (and perhaps some professional imaging services). As someone who has long struggled with body image, I choose not to follow these instagram and facebook accounts, but unless I unfollow my friends, I’m often subjected to them through shares.
Many health and fitness bloggers have denounced fitspo, and one called it “thinspo in a sports bra.” Under the guise of health and exercising, we’re still selling the same idealized bodies through these posts. Unhealthy relationships with food and body image are not just limited to the anorexia and bulimia we learned about through after-school specials. Fitspo may inspire some to be healthier and more active, but I suspect it has a far more damaging effect on most.
To counter fitspo, Sport England launched This Girl Can in January 2015. This Girl Can is “a celebration of active women up and down the [UK] who are doing their thing no matter how well they do it, how they look or even how red their face gets. This Girl Can images show women of all races, ages, body types, and abilities engaging in active activities. Data shows that after the launch of the campaign, 148,700 more women aged 16 and over did something active for at least half an hour each week between April and September. Putting aside the campaign’s categorization of women as girls, I love this campaign for promoting health through exercise, celebrating all kinds of women, and not pretending that we should look a certain way when being active.
Do you follow fitness accounts on Instagram or Facebook? Are they motivating to you (particularly in the long term), or do they ultimately degrade your self-image? Should Instagram ban #fitspo like it banned #thinspo? Is fitspo really about health, or has it become something else?
*Because I believe many fitspo images to be triggering, I have not included any in this post. You can view them here or search the hashtag on Instagram.