Originally published in FitLife magazine
There are currently more than 58 million posts on Instagram with the hashtag ‘fitspo’ – that’s more than #throwbackthursday and #beyonce combined – and the most popular ‘fit-fluencers’ have followers who number in the millions. But just how healthy is it for us to be bombarded with these aspirational bodies daily?
GOOD IDEA GONE BAD?
On the surface, fitspiration is a pretty nifty concept – a constant supply of stimulus that, ostensibly, encourages us to be more active. Given that a sedentary lifestyle is one of the leading causes of preventable death in the world today, anything that gets you thinking, ‘You know what? I will go for that run’ has got to be good, right?
Well, yes. And there are social-media accounts and websites out there that offer genuinely well-intentioned fitspo: ideas for diversifying your workout, advice on rest and recovery, and healthy recipes over and above green juice and smoothie bowls. There’s also a lot to be said for the support and sense of community fostered by social media. However, if the fitspo accounts you follow provide no more substance than a parade of sculpted bodies in expensive activewear, read on.
THE DARK SIDE OF FITSPO
Research into the effects of Instagram use on body dissatisfaction is still in its infancy, but early findings point to a correlation between increased fitspo consumption and a decrease in self-esteem. After all, positioning someone else’s body as #goals automatically categorises your own as not good enough.
One study, by Macquarie University in Australia, assessed the Instagram usage and fitspo consumption of 276 Australian and American women. The researchers concluded that ’spending more time on Instagram was associated with greater self-objectification’, which they define as ‘the extent to which people value their appearance over other aspects of themselves’. And that’s the problem: a lot of fitspiration puts the focus on a very constructed image of health, rather than the practice of healthy living.
Assimilate or die(t)
Even more problematic is the fact that this idealised image is a limited one, and doesn’t allow for a definition of fitness outside of (mostly white) washboard stomachs, thigh gaps and bubble butts. How can we celebrate the fact that foundation now comes in 40 shades, yet be satisfied with cookie-cutter representations of what we’re supposed to consider an aspirational body? Subsequently, you may be the healthiest, fittest version of yourself that you can be, but still feel ‘less than’ because you don’t see yourself represented anywhere.
Or perhaps you do…
Fit-fluencers use before-and-after pictures to prove that their workout guides / eating plans / supplements work. It’s not a new concept – shoutout to every ’90s weight-loss advert featuring a woman standing in one leg of her old jeans – but what is new is that today’s ‘before’ images are often slim, healthy-looking humans. Apparently, they’re just not good enough to transition to the ‘after’ side until they’re rocking 15% body fat. If you identify more closely with the ‘before’, even at your personal fittest, what chance do you have of ever accepting yourself?
Strong really is the new skinny – and not in a good way
Another serious concern about fitspiration is that a lot of it is just thinspiration in a cute sports bra. And because the underlying message of fitspo is supposedly one of vitality and health, rather than disordered eating, these images are normalised enough to exist in the mainstream in a way thinspo never could. Search for #Ana (the ED community’s abbreviation for anorexia) on Instagram, and a mental-health warning pops up before you can continue. #Fitspo and #fitspiration trigger no such message.
‘As someone who fell victim to the pro-anorexia madness of the 2000s, I find a lot of images tagged “fitspo” troubling,’ says Koketso*. ‘A feminine little six-pack doesn’t disguise the fact that your hip bones and ribs are visible. These pictures don’t make me want to run a five kay or be my best self – they make me want to go back to weighing every carrot and “forgetting” to eat. I had to unfollow all of it to minimise my risk of a relapse.’
The shame game
A picture may be worth a thousand words, but a fitspo caption is often even more telling. ‘Suck it up now so you don’t have to suck it in later’ and ‘You won’t get the butt you want by sitting on it’ are excellent examples of how ‘inspiration’ can quickly turn to punitive body-shaming. By whose definition is there anything wrong with the butt you’re sitting on in the first place? And while some captions appear to promote self-love and body positivity, it’s pure lip service when paired with a close-crop of an influencer’s abs. The message is contradictory: accept yourself no matter what … as long as you look like this.
Last, fitspo may have the exact opposite of its intended effect. In her book, The Truth About Exercise Addiction, Dr Heather Hausenblas says, ‘Research shows that fitspiration can actually make people less likely to get to the gym, as it tends to promote unhealthy and unappealing approaches to fitness.’ That would be a real tragedy, because moving more and exploring the strength and power of your body is a privilege everyone should enjoy – regardless of how you look in a crop top.
HOW TO BE A MORE MINDFUL FITSPO CONSUMER
Check in with your feelings.
You’re in charge of your social-media experience. If an account or hashtag makes you feel bad about yourself, unfollow it.
Remember that social media is curated.
Fit Body Guide creator Anna Victoria has lately taken to contrasting her posed selfies with relaxed candids, tummy rolls and all. Her goal is to show her followers that not everyone looks like an Instagram star 24/7 – not even an Instagram star.
Consult a professional.
Just because someone is Insta-famous, doesn’t mean they’re a qualified trainer or dietitian. Chat to your GP or a real-life PT before you embark on any new fitness or eating plans.
Diversify your feed.
Follow a mix of accounts featuring healthy fitspo, travel, fashion or cute baby hedgehogs – whatever feeds your soul rather than your insecurities.
Makeover your mindset.
Consider this: if your workout didn’t burn calories or sculpt your arms, would you still do it? Would you exercise for the pure joy of using your body? For better sleep? For increased energy? To be able to tie your shoelaces in your twilight years? See if you can find movement that inspires you in and of itself, and forget about #gains and #goals for now.
*Last name has been withheld for privacy.