Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today

Does "Fitspiration" Empower Exercisers?

Research demonstrates alarming links between "fitspiration" and "thinspiration."

As the COVID-19 pandemic continues, online exercise offerings are soaring. To choose between them, many of us turn to our social media networks and to things like #fitspiration, one of the most popular Instagram hashtags. But what type of exercise messages does the growing fitspiration community share? Several researchers now track how social media encourage women to exercise. They have found many of the images inspiring thinness rather than fitness.

Fitspiration was established to offer motivational messages to promote health and wellbeing through healthy eating, exercise, and self-care. It is a site that is meant to emphasize strength and empowerment instead of thinness (Tiggeman& Zaccardo, 2018). Talbot and her colleagues (2017) anticipate that exercise is valued as it can improve psychological health: enhanced autonomy, self-efficacy, and personal agency. The images of fit bodies, they continue, can most effectively inspire us to exercise.

Nevertheless, when Talbot and her colleagues (2017) analyzed the fitspiration images they found that more than 80 percent displayed thin bodies. Visible musculature appeared in less than 50 percent of the images that most commonly displayed abdominals. Boepple and Thompson (2016) added that fitspiration texts often focused on eating restrictions and guilt to stigmatize large bodies. Researchers of both studies emphasized that such imagery is far from healthy. In their study, Tiggemann and Zaccardo (2018) further compared the body shapes between fitspirational women and men in 600 images posted on Instagram.

Lin. Sun/Pexels
Source: Lin. Sun/Pexels

The majority of these images pictured women but featured a very limited body type: 75 percent of the pictured women were thin without visible muscle tone whereas most of the men were of average build and visibly muscular. In addition, most images focused on a specific body part, particularly the abdominals. More women (26 percent) than men (11 percent) also posed in sexy positions. As a result, fitspiration appeared to emphasize appearance, not health and fitness. Exercise motivated by appearance, the researchers asserted, “is associated with negative body image” (p. 1009).

As YouTube videos are easy to access, they offer a common inspiration for women exercisers. Ratwatte and Mattacole (2019) looked at YouTube fitspiration videos that had the highest number of views. They found that most images depicted women (85 percent), the majority of whom were thin without visible muscularity. Similar to the Instagram images, YouTubers suggested that exercise should be about changing one’s appearance. Fitness, then, equaled improved physical appearance and many commentators, indeed, were unhappy with the way their bodies looked. Looking good included toning muscles, often the abdominals. YouTubers defined being "big" and "bulky" as unattractive for women, but desirable for men. Fat, nevertheless, was "demonised" by all, and fat loss was celebrated as a personal success with numerous shared personal stories. These successful YouTubers were considered role models whose guidance was openly appreciated.

Interested in these types of online fitness communities, Riley and Evans (2018) followed Fitblr microblogs through Tumblr for one month. Like the other researchers, they discovered that very slender and toned women in bikinis or fitness outfits that revealed their toned abs, bottoms, and thighs dominated the site. This body required hard work: Any reason to skip exercise was only “an excuse” used by “weak people.” As one blogger summarized: “Would you rather be covered in sweat at the gym or covered in clothes at the beach? It’s up to you” (p. 218). Similar to YouTubers, the bloggers motivated readers by posting before and after images.

Andrea Piacquadio/Pexels
Source: Andrea Piacquadio/Pexels

Although self-transformation was difficult, Riley and Evans noted that it was possible with support from the Fitblr virtual community that was there to offer constant support. A blogger explained: “I have to say that I am so happy to have the Fitblr community back in my life. There is so much love and support here. Everyone seems like they genuinely care about your progress, and there is no bullsh*t here” (p. 215). Keeping up with the community, however, required strong will. As another blogger put it: “Crawling is acceptable. Falling is acceptable. Puking is acceptable. Crying is acceptable. Blood is acceptable. Pain is acceptable. Quitting is not” (pp. 219-220). The process of bodily transformation may take time, but the readers were to be patient and try again and again to gain results.

Evidently, various fitspiration sites celebrate the thin body as the main fitness goal. As a result, several researchers have compared the fitspiration content to thinspiration, a social media platform that openly promotes extreme thinness, extreme weight loss, food restriction, and over-exercising (Ratwatte & Mattacola, 2019). Thinspiration messages have also received considerable public attention due to their association with the pro-eating disorder community (pro-ED or Pro-ana) that advocates eating disorders as a lifestyle choice. As messaging promoting eating disorders have been deemed dangerous, fitspiration has clearly aimed to distinguish itself from pure thinness (Talbot, Gavin, van Steen & Morey Perloff, 2017).

The research reveals, however, that fitspiration, like thinspiration, is dominated by a display of thin bodies. When Talbot and her colleagues (2017) compared the two sites, they found, unsurprisingly, that 95 percent of thinspiration bodies were thin, but so were 82 percent of fitspiration bodies. As indicated by other researchers, the fitspiration images displayed muscles more visibly, particularly the abdominals, but in less than 50 percent of the images. Boepple and Thompson (2016) added that both thinspiration and fitspiration content promoted eating restrictions, guilt, stigmatization of large bodies, and objectification. Therefore, fitspiration messages, similar to thinspiration, include unrealistic beauty ideals and encourage aesthetic body transformation. The researchers emphasized that such imagery is not healthy.

While wanting a leaner and more toned body in itself is not harmful, several researchers have pointed out that unrealistically thin images increase body dissatisfaction, lower mood, and promote poorer self-esteem (e.g., Ratwatte & Mattacola, 2019; Tiggemann & Zaccardo, 2018). Ratwatte and Mattacola (2019) added that “females who post fitspiration content are more likely to have a high internalised drive for thinness, presence of eating disorder symptomology, or diagnosis of an eating disorder” (p. 9). Riley and Evans (2018) observed that both platforms emphasize community building and belonging, not through physical presence, but through shared beliefs of body transformation. The community then fosters close host-user relationships that are based on trust. In this context, Ratwatte and Mattacola (2018) added, the members believe that the shared information is legitimate and correct.

Eduardo Romero/Pexels
Source: Eduardo Romero/Pexels

Unlike thinspiration, fitspiration messages are associated with the expectation that the advice is healthy. However, using covert messages of thinness can be dangerous as they focus on appearance in the name of health to promote an impossible beauty ideal. Riley and Evans (2018) added that some Fitblr bloggers openly positioned themselves against thinspiration and body dissatisfaction. The researchers, nevertheless, indicated that such fitspiration slogans as "strong is the new skinny" can be counterparts to pro-ana slogans such as "nothing tastes as good as skinny feels:" Both promote thinness but one through exercise and another through restricted eating. These researchers concluded that both focus on appearance with images of a thin, toned female body that requires hard work, commitment, and constant self-regulation. Both promote exercise and dietary regimes for weight loss and imply guilt on extra weight.

Social media can definitely inspire us to exercise: Sharing diet and exercise experiences creates a sense of community that can motivate us to become fitter. Such a community is particularly important during the current COVID pandemic when we often cannot have the social contacts that are important to our mental health. However, all too often the social media exercise sites prioritize unrealistic thinness. Some social media contributors call for more empowering exercise messaging, but they tend to be a minority among the many available postings. What should we look for, then, with respect to healthy exercise advice?

While weight loss can be a reasonable goal, we can also exercise for such reasons as:

  • Improved posture: this requires advice on how to strengthen muscles that are weakened due to such everyday activities as sitting;
  • Decrease tension: this requires advice on stretching and releasing muscles that become tense due to repetitive daily activities;
  • Focus on deep muscles: this requires strengthening muscles that are located underneath the superficial muscles that we can see in the mirror. The deep muscles often stabilize the joints and strengthening them appropriately can reduce pain from improper posture;
  • Mindfulness: this requires advice on how to focus on what one is doing during the exercise and calming one’s mind;
  • Learning new movement skills: this requires exercise instruction on how to do each exercise safely and effectively with proper modifications to progress one’s skill level.
 Tim Samuel/Pexels
Source: Tim Samuel/Pexels

Such advice can be provided by a fitness professional with a specialized education. While social media platforms can provide a community to share exercise experiences, it is important that workout advice is based on solid information on healthy, safe, and effective exercise. Unlike messages centred on unrealistic thinness, exercise can be empowering and increase wellbeing, enjoyment, and exercise self-efficacy.

References

Boepple, L, & Thompson, J. K. (2016) A content analytic comparison of fitspiration and thinspiration websites. International Journal of Eating Disorders, 49, 98–101.

Ratwatte, P., & Mattacola, E. (2019). An exploration of ‘fitspiration’ content on YouTube and its impacts on consumers. Journal of Health Psychology, 1-12, DttOpsI://1d0o.i.1o1rg7/71/01.13157971/1035391095835149186548.

Riley, S., & Evans, A. (2018). Lean light fit and tight: Fitblr blogs and the postfeminist transformation imperative. In K. Toffoletti, H. Thorpe, & J. Francombe-Webb (Eds.), New sporting femininities: Embodied politics in postfeminist times (pp. 207-230). London: Palgrave.

Talbot, C.V., Gavin, J., van Steen, T., Morey Perloff, Y. (2017). A content analysis of thinspiration, fitspiration, and bonespiration imagery on social media. Journal of Eating Disorders, 5(40), 1-8.

Tiggemann, M., & Zaccardo, M. (2018). ‘Strong is the new skinny’: A content analysis of #fitspiration images on Instagram. Journal of Health Psychology, 23(8), 1003-1011.

advertisement