In the age of Pinterest, Instagram, and Tumblr, we have access to millions of images at the click of a button. You can find 20 recipes for whole-wheat pizza dough or Halloween DIY craft ideas for every day of October within minutes. And if you find yourself on the couch without an ounce of motivation to work out, you can look at thousands of pictures that are often referred to as “FITSPO,” short for fitness inspiration. The majority of these pictures are of fit women and men exercising, healthy meal ideas, and inspirational quotes to get you going to the gym and continuing to go on days when you need that extra nudge. There are also before and after pictures, showing people’s weight loss and fitness success over time.
In light of the national statistics, which indicate that approximately 70% of American adults are overweight or obese1, this seems like a very positive movement, providing a forum for people to share their success stories and to encourage one another toward a healthy, active lifestyle.
So what’s the problem? In a society so geared towards fighting an epidemic of obesity, sometimes our culture’s emphasis on diet, exercise, weight loss can mask or seemingly legitimize what are actually patterns of disordered eating and compulsive exercise. This may be why some FITSPO images are less inspirational and more disturbing: images of women or men who have taken their commitment to weight loss far too far.
Should individuals who are clearly emaciated be considered sources of inspiration? While this answer may seem straightforward, unfortunately, there are some individuals who do post and view alarming pictures such as these on websites that are referred to as “Pro-ANA,” which is short for “pro-anorexia.” To the abhorrence of eating disorders professionals, these websites are meant to encourage others who are following strict diets with minimal caloric content to continue and include tips for how to do so.
What is the possible harm in viewing images like these? Researchers compared college females before and after viewing a pro-ANA website, a fashion website, or a home décor website. The results of this study showed that young women who had viewed the pro-ANA websites were more likely to 1) have a higher negative affect, 2) to exercise soon, and 3) to think about their weight soon compared to young women who had viewed the two control websites2, suggesting that this type of website had an influence on both the emotions and behaviors of the viewers.
So what can we do to try to promote fitness, diet, and weight loss without going too far? Perhaps it’s time that we give the definition of “healthy” a makeover. What if healthy not only referred to a BMI range that isn’t associated with physical health risks but also psychological health? How much does it matter if someone is a size 0 if they are also secretly battling depression? Even normal weight women and men who may appear healthy can be struggling with an eating disorder.
Health is not necessarily limited to one’s physical or medical condition but can be viewed more globally, including one’s mental and emotional well-being. How health is viewed, both conceptually and literally through pictures, may help to clarify the differences between positive and destructive sources of weight loss inspiration.
Dr. Nicole Avena is a research neuroscientist/psychologist and expert in the fields of nutrition, diet and addiction. She has published over 60 scholarly journal articles, as well as several book chapters on topics related to food, addiction, obesity and eating disorders. She recently edited the book, Animal Models of Eating Disorders (Springer/Humana Press, 2013), and she has a book Why Diets Fail (Ten Speed/Crown) available for preorder now and to be released in January, 2014. Her research achievements have been honored by awards from several groups including the New York Academy of Sciences, the American Psychological Association, the National Institute on Drug Abuse, and her research has been funded by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and National Eating Disorders Association.
Gratitude is extended to Ms. Susan Murray for her assistance with this post.