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'Fitspiration' and #fitspo: The good, the bad and the ugly

‘Be attuned to the potential downside that fitspiration can have on how we feel about ourselves and our bodies,’ writes Sarah Cremen.

Image: Shutterstock/Alliance

Updated – 08.13

I HAD ORIGINALLY intended on writing a follow up to last week’s article this week, specifically in relation to a comment that made reference to the low barrier of entry to be a ‘qualified’ health and fitness professional that exists nowadays.

The comment was not wrong, the industry is churning out thousands of new trainers every year. The market is saturated and for many, getting paid, real life experience as a coach is just not a reality. Everybody has to eat though, thus the steady rise in ill-equipped and unexperienced online trainers, trading on good social media skills and a rocking six pack.

Anyway, I digress, I started researching some of the most used health and fitness related hashtags and #fitspiration was one that cropped up time and time again. A quick search this morning saw upwards of 47,500,000 posts that hashtagged “fitspiration’… and so, I decided to delve a little deeper.

So, what is this burgeoning social media trend? ‘Fitspiration’ or ‘fitspo’ refers to posts/blogs/images etc. that are intended to motivate people to exercise and be fit and healthy. Generally speaking, we’re talking images depicting slim, muscular, athletic bodies, often accompanied by quotes along the lines of “strong is the new skinny”, “excuses don’t burn calories” or “unless you puke, faint or die…keep going”, encouraging you to not let pain get in the way or suggesting that excuses are for the lazy.

This online phenomenon seemed to be socially acceptable and generally well received. Its emergence came in the wake of widespread criticism of the ‘thinspiration’ trend, which was more obviously and explicitly associated with disordered eating and extreme exercising. Fitspiration’s mantra was loud and clear — encourage a more positive body ideal; health and strength over thinness and thigh gaps.

It seems fair to argue that promoting images of men and women that look fit, strong and lean is healthier than the waif-like images associated with ‘thinspo’, but at what point does fitspiration cross the line from inspiration to aspiration? In a direct backlash against ‘thinspo’, we’ve touted “strong is the new skinny” over and over again, but how healthy is that?

shutterstock_484783264 Source: Shutterstock/Denis Kornilov

At the end of the day, it’s still promoting the idea that there is only one body type that is desirable. With the best of intentions, fitspiration may not necessarily improve body image issues, but compound them.

The danger with fitspiration is in its subtlety. Millions of posts telling us what we need to do with our bodies every day to achieve health and happiness; eat clean, workout hard, put mind over matter, be productive and succeed. But unlike thinspiration, it appeals to a wider demographic of people.

My main issue with it is the perpetuation of the idea that there is a single type of healthy body. When aesthetics are the main/only motivating factor for engaging in exercise, you’re ultimately setting yourself up for failure. By limiting what one’s body is supposed to look like, fitspiration images further exacerbate the discrepancy between how one would like their body to look and how it actually does look.

Can these images be motivating? Sure. But for most of us, the bodies displayed are largely unattainable and this actual-ideal discrepancy can be damaging. The dissatisfaction and sense of unworthiness associated with comparing yourself to these images is going to have a negative effect on body and mind and can still be a trigger for disordered eating and exercise patterns, stigmatisation and body guilt.

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I’m certainly not saying that everyone who falls into the “go hard or go home” category has deep underlying issues, many are genuinely trying to spread awareness about health and fitness. But there is a thin line between being into health and fitness as a lifestyle or hobby and being obsessed. Trust me, I’ve been there.

At the end of the day, body obsession is bad news and fitspiration may fly under the radar as a noxious source of body ideals, arguably contributing to a problematic social story around what kind of bodies are acceptable and what are not. Its also worth remembering to be somewhat media literate – a lot of what you see online is there to promote products, that are more often than not, a complete waste of time and money.

shutterstock_160379219 Source: Shutterstock/Sebastian Duda

In saying all that, there is loads of health and fitness content online that actually focus on the benefits of a healthy lifestyle. Posts that are informative and of substance, forums that focus on community and support, blogs that promote treating your body a certain way in the pursuit of long term health, not just short term aesthetics.

I suppose it depends on your goals; what are you trying to inspire yourself to be? How do you define the ‘fit’ part of ‘fitspiration’? If your goals are purely aesthetic and you find scrolling through Instagram leaves you feeling motivated and good about yourself, by all means, crack on! Personally, I feel that, in the grand scheme of things, the idea of ‘good enough’ shouldn’t be equated with fitting into a visual mould. The pain culture associated with exercise and the demonisation of foods can be too much.

I love training. I love being fit and healthy. I wholeheartedly believe in strength training and graft, dedication and some sacrifice in the pursuit of your goals. I’ve also come to realise that a certain aesthetic is not necessarily proof of performance and productivity and that while there are plenty of reasons to work hard and be relentless, there are also plenty of reasons to just sit still and be content.

As I said, there is plenty of genuinely informative and inspirational content out there, but we need to be attuned to the potential downside and negative impact that fitspiration can have on how we feel about ourselves and our bodies.

Sarah Cremen is a personal trainer and physiotherapist based in David Lloyd Riverview in Dublin. For more health and fitness advice and tips, you can follow her on Facebook and Instagram, and you can find her website here.

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