I can’t quite believe that I have yet to write a post here about fitspiration, given the ire that it provokes in me. And there you have it, right off the bat, my bias: I find fitspiration to be incredibly problematic – this will be controversial, but I often wonder if it could be more dangerous than thinspiration, in its subtleness. Fitspiration posts closely resemble what we are asked to do with our bodies every single day: eat “clean,” work out in a gym, put mind over matter, be productive, and succeed. Unlike thinspiration, these messages target a wide demographic of people with and without eating disorders; they carry neoliberal undertones (ok, probably overtones).
I’m not the only one interested in unpacking the issues with fitspiration. Indeed, I’m far from the first to call out these problematic messages (I especially like this article!). Researchers, too, have become interested in the fitspiration movement. In a recent article, Tiggemann & Zaccardo (2015) explore women’s reactions to fitspiration imagery from Instagram. They looked at the impact of these images on women’s mood, body satisfaction, and self esteem. While I am also interested in how these images themselves replicate dominant social narratives of bodily control, this study offers us a glimpse into at least how these images are received by their audience. Lucky for me, the results give me a little data-driven fuel to my ire.
I suppose I have taken for granted that you know what I mean when I say “fitspiraton,” but perhaps I shouldn’t. As Tiggeman & Zaccardo describe, the term fitspiration is a blend of “fitness” and “inspiration.” It refers to images that are intended to motivate people to exercise and “be fit,” often through clean eating and particular types of exercise; I’ve often seen fitspiration posts focus on running and cross fit, though they surely exist for other types of activities as well. These images are more or less explicit in their fitspiration-ness. Sometimes they include captions that refer to how you should not let pain get in the way of your bodily achievements, that there are no excuses for “laziness,” or other messages on that theme. I’m avoiding replicating the exact quotes here because I do not wish to add any fuel to their fire, even in my critique.
Socially, these messages have been relatively well received; they appear to have cropped up primarily as a response to the widespread critique of thinspiration. Thinspiration images, as the authors note, are images that are more explicitly tied to eating disorders: they often refer to specifically eating disordered behaviours including calorie restriction and tend to be present on pro-anorexia/pro-bulimia websites (see also Borzekowski et al., 2010 and Ghaznavi & Taylor, 2015).
Unlike thinspiration, the bodies in fitspiration images tend to be thin, yes, but also muscular and toned. Tiggeman & Zaccardo highlight a number of problems with the prevalence of a particular type of body in these images, including:
- The perpetuation of the idea that there is a single type of “healthy body”
- The emphasis placed on appearance as the main (often only) motivator for engaging in exercise and/or “healthy eating”
- How bodies are (often explicitly) objectified in these images
To these, I might add that bodies in fitspiration images are not terribly diverse in terms of race, ethnicity, and abilities. Further, even if the images contain bodies that are not as toned, the message that all that stands in the way of your perfect life is your lack of willpower is pervasive; further, the lack of consideration for barriers to “healthy lifestyles” (including socio-economic and cultural constraints) is notable.
Tiggeman & Zaccardo gathered a sample of 130 women in university in Australia (average age 19.91, range 17-30). They showed half of the women a set of 16 fitspiration images featuring women and 2 images of travel destination and showed a comparison group a set of 18 images of travel destinations. All participants rated each image on a scale of image quality as they viewed the images. Before seeing the images, they completed a questionnaire about:
- Their use of social networking sites including Instagram and Facebook
- Their mood an body dissatisfaction
- How inspired they felt to improve fitness, eat healthily, go travelling
After viewing the images, participants completed a questionnaire about:
- Their state self-esteem (“state” meaning the researchers were seeking a measure of participants’ self-esteem in general, rather than situation-specific self-esteem)
- How inspired they felt to improve fitness, eat healthily, go travelling
- How much they compared their appearance to the people in the images
- Their general tendency to compare their appearance to others
Going into the study, there were no significant differences between the groups in mood, body dissatisfaction or tendency to compare.
After seeing the images, both experimental and comparison groups reported increases in inspiration; the authors note that type of inspiration expectedly varied based on the images the groups saw (i.e., those who saw travel images said they felt more inspired to travel and those who saw fitspiration images felt more inspired to exercise and eat healthily).
Before you think “oh good, so these images are having their intended effect!” let’s dig a little deeper. Those who saw the fitspiration images (the experimental group) reported:
- More negative mood
- More body dissatisfaction
- Lower appearance self-esteem
Those who reported higher comparisons also noted lower mood, more body dissatisfaction and lower self esteem. Note, however, that it seems that appearance comparisons were mostly tied to negative mood than to body dissatisfaction or self esteem. In other words, there seemed to be more of a direct link between viewing the images and reporting body dissatisfaction and lower self-esteem, whereas viewing the images might lead to negative mood by way of making more appearance comparisons.
As the authors note, they found fairly large effects — larger than other studies reporting on the impact of thin-ideal images on body dissatisfaction, self-esteem, and mood. This is alarming because of the pervasiveness of the images. It suggests that either:
- Fitspiration may “fly under the radar” as a noxious source of body ideals
- Instagram may be a “potent form of transmission” (p. 65) for images, making them more salient for people
The authors also highlight that there are some positive aspects to fitspiration; primarily, the increased inspiration participants reported around healthy eating and exercise. I would argue, however, that in the absence of any real guidelines about what healthy eating and exercise actually look like, this is a very dangerous game to play. I’m sure I’ve already bemoaned the lack of definition of what people mean when they say “healthy eating” on this blog: often, it seems like a code for “socially sanctioned dieting.”
As much as I dislike fitspiration, I’m also not of the mindset that banning such things is the way to go; there will always be another place where similar messages will crop up. Another notable caveat is that body dissatisfaction may be linked to eating disorders, but is not a sole cause for eating disorders; we could never establish a straightforward trajectory form seeing such images and falling into a spiral of disordered eating.
Nonetheless, these kinds of images almost inarguably contribute to a problematic social story around what kind of bodies are acceptable. As the authors note, they may make distressing behaviours around food and exercise appear to be normal. From my read of fitspiration images, I’ve seen messages endorsing exercising to the point of tears or collapse, demonizing of certain kinds of foods labeled “junk,” and blatant mockery of those who choose not to or cannot exercise in the “expected” way.
So, where do we go from here? As I mentioned, I am cautious to recommend banning content. I think these kinds of results might be leveraged to make us question why and how we are so bent on molding people into a particular type of body. Being someone who looks at the sociopolitical landscape of things, I can’t help but wonder if the reason these messages are so tenacious is because of how we expect bodies to be proof of productivity and performance — living up to societal standards. Our response, in my opinion, needs to be multi-level: not only focused on eliminating problematic representations of bodies but also considering why these images exist in the first place.
Not that I’d be sad to never see a fitspo post again.
Tiggemann, M., & Zaccardo, M. (2015). “Exercise to be fit, not skinny”: The effect of fitspiration imagery on women’s body image Body Image, 15, 61-67 DOI: 10.1016/j.bodyim.2015.06.003