Down with #Fitspo

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.

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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.

13 comments

  1. Personally, I do not follow any sort of fitness or “fitspo” accounts. Those sorts of account are not motivating in any way to me because I don’t see them as providing realistic goals. I roll my eyes whenever I see people comment “goals” on a picture of someone who is clearly just naturally skinny unhealthily thin. But at the same time I feel bad for those who are pressured into thinking that that is what they should look like. Looking fit is not the same as being healthy, and for this reason I much prefer the route that Sport England is taking with its This Girl Can. #fitspo should be replaced by something more focused on health, such as #healthspo. However, I don’t think that “fitspo” can be banned like “thinspo” was because the term “fit” is vague and can be displayed in so many different ways. I wonder what it would take to have social media transition from using #fitspo to #healthspo or the like.

  2. I believe that there are different types of “fitspo” accounts and that they have different impacts on viewers. While some of the photos you described (such as the runner with the caption “I am getting lighter with every step”) may actually have a negative impact on viewers I do follow some users who I think are very motivational. For example, Paige wrote a blog post about Kayla Itsine and while Kayla does post photos of her in a sports bra she also has many videos of her working out, which I think shows that she does work hard for her body. She also posts a lot of progress photos from clients that show that no matter where you are in your fitness journey your progress should be celebrated. I’m also part of a club called CHAARG and members are encouraged to have a CHAARG Instagram account where they share many fitness related posts (Ie. a healthy meal they ate, a picture from a run they went on). These accounts are all about positivity and cheering each other on with their fitness goals. I think that “fitspo” accounts can be motivational but only if they celebrate every aspect of the fitness process, not just losing weight or having an exceptionally thin body.

  3. Great post. This is an issue in the fitness industry that I’ve been paying attention to for a long time. I agree with Nicole’s comment that sometimes these posts can be inspirational. However, I find that for many people, they serve to create unrealistic ideals and goals. Many people who see these posts don’t understand the amount of work that can go into building the body of a fitness model, and that can lead to some dangerous misconceptions. I think This This Girl Can is on the right track. If we empower bodies of all shapes and lifestyles to share their stories online, they could have a huge impact on the success and confidence of others.

  4. I too have the same reservations about fitspo and this trend of fitness profiles. While I do believe that most are here to spread healthy ideas and genuine inspiration, I think they should offer some sort of disclaimer. For most of these fitness models and bloggers, fitness is their job, which means that they can dedicate 110% of their time on their bodies, unlike most of their followers. I think that if models and bloggers can make that fact transparent, some of the pressure to fit the fitspo ideal can be lessened.

  5. I think you raised some great awareness here. I had no idea these hashtags existed, although I do recall seeing the spike in “bikini bridges” and such on my news feed. Fitspo seems to have relatively good intentions; I agree with @rashannaione. However, it absolutely treads the line of thinspo. Interestingly, one girl I know from my hometown just recently entered a bikini competition and she kept her social feeds updated weekly. I didn’t look for her posts, but they appeared, and all of her friends and family were very proud and happy at the end of her 12-week eating and fitness regiment. To me, that kind of fitspo sticks around and should be used as its original pair of words relays: inspiration for getting fit. If you promote health and fitness well and fairly, I think fitspo could have some widespread lone-term effects. Cheers!

  6. Nice post. It’s been interesting to follow the #thinspo community and its evolution since the dawn of social media since I’ve been following in 2006. I wish I could say much had changed since I started following back then, but it hasn’t much. I do think the counter voices have become a bit more pronounced and willing to call it out when it happens, but we’ve seen these trends for a while now.

  7. Very interesting post. I myself am very into physical fitness and am pretty immersed in the fitness community, a ton of my friends (both male and female) are fitness competitors and I’m good friends with some professional bodybuilders. I think the fitness community can have its positives and negatives but ultimately at the end of the day, whatever you decide to do with these “posts” is up to you. If you think about them in a positive way, they can help you. If you look at them in a negative way, they’re going t hurt you. I enjoy it because it motivates me. I’ve come a long way on my fitness journey and its taught me a lot about myself and created some lessons learned for how to succeed in other goals in my life. The part I don’t like about the fitness community is that people are starting to bash “fit” people for creating this “unrealistic image”, instead of “Fat shaming” you now have “fit shaming” or “muscle shaming” which I think is pretty unfair. A lot of times it is attainable if you make it a priority, just like everything else in life. But if people do something that makes them happy, I think that’s where it should be left.

    1. That’s a good point, Sahil, about the fit shaming. There’s just too much shaming in general going on online. People are willing to say so many things they’d never say to someone’s face in a comment on their page or profile or photo.

  8. I think you address some very important issues with the “fitspo” social media community. While I agree that these accounts can sometimes have a negative impact, I agree with Nicole’s statement that “fitspo” accounts can be motivational if they celebrate every aspect of the fitness process, not just losing weight or having an exceptionally thin body. I wrote a post about Kayla Itsines and her personal fitspo community, and if you look through her hashtags you will see the thousands of girls who claim that they feel healthier, happier, and better overall because of her fitness inspiration. While I don’t necessarily agree on your point about #fitspo having the same effect that thinspo does, I do agree that the thinspo community and the trends that somehow become popular can have horribly damaging effects. Also, I recently read an article on Cosmo about the new latest terrible trend… check it out here (http://www.cosmopolitan.com/style-beauty/beauty/a56263/iphone-6-challenge-for-womens-knees/)

  9. what a can of words. I can see both sides now. I follow a few fitness accounts on Instagram from inspiration, but never knew how large and complex the culture is. I am glad it is trendy to be “healthy” .. this is like the first time in the past centuries where increased health is considered a luxury. A little worried for the future tho ..

  10. Nice post. I agree with many of these posts that I get what Fitspo is trying to do and while some people may use their images to help motivate themselves and better their lives, there are others who may view Fitspo as damaging to their self esteem, create more body image issues, and self hate. In the end it’s left up to the individual’s interpretation on whether trend of Fitspo is positive or negative, but I don’t think it would hurt to throw in some realistic image standards.

  11. Great post! I agree with your views on fitspo/thinspo accounts. I used to follow a good amount of fitness accounts because I thought they’d motivate me to workout more. However, they had the opposite effect and made me feel guilty for not having time to run or feel bad for not “eating clean” (whatever that means). I do follow Kayla Itsines because I find the transformation photos incredible. Also, I know that pro-ana accounts are a huge issue on tumblr. I had a classmate do a whole presentation on pro-ana social media community and it was very eye-opening because I had no idea the community even existed.

  12. I remember the pro-ana movement from a long time ago but I hadn’t heard about it in a while. I agree that that movement probably caused some people to engage in some harmful behavior. I also do think that #thinspo and #fitsspo and basically the same thing. I think that images posted with both of those hashtags probably did motivate a lot of people to become more active and healthier but at the same time some people probably goal of becoming more fit to dangerous extremes. “This girl can” seems like it might be a better alternative to #fitspo because it does not promote insistence a obtaining a very thin body but at the same a number of those “this girl can” images show very out of shape people and seeing someone who is exercising who is out of shape might not be that inspiring because it does not give the viewer much to strive for.

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