What are the hidden messages in #fitspiration Instagram posts?
Posted Nov 15, 2018
One of the most popular hashtags on Instagram is #fitspiration (a combo of the words fitness and inspiration). Search #fitspiration on Instagram, and you’ll come up with over 16.5 million posts of videos and images of bodies in motion, before and after weight loss pics, and millions of nearly naked toned bodies.
At first glance, #fitspiration appears as if it would be a positive phenomenon. Being fit, commonly defined as the body’s ability to respond to physical activity without being fatigued, is associated with positive health outcomes such as reduced stress, lower levels of disease and improved well-being.
Who wouldn’t want a little inspiration to reach this healthy goal?
But is the trend to inspire physical fitness via Instagram actually sending a healthy message? Researchers from Leeds Beckett University sought to find out. Using a research technique called a content analysis, they analyzed the text of hundreds of #fitspiration Instagram posts and found the following themes:
1. Fit is sexy. Exercise was positioned as a means to creating a sexually desirable body. In these posts, the goal of exercise wasn’t about feeling strong or having energy, but rather to be attractive to other people.
2. A “fit” physique requires commitment and self-regulation. Improving appearance was proclaimed to be under a person’s complete control and measurable by weight loss or muscle gain. In these posts, a "good body" was purported to be a result of commitment and failure to achieve a fit body, a choice.
3. Your choices define you. Poor choices (such as eating French fries) were extolled as lazy and a reason to feel shame, while not making poor choices (such as avoiding French fries) was a reason to feel pride and superiority.
4. Pleasure and perseverance through pain. In these posts, readers were told pain is an essential part of the process of gaining a fit body. Exercise without pain was positioned as worthless and there was little regard for the risk of injury or other negative results of pushing one’s body past its physical limits.
5. Battle of the selves: “You versus you”. These posts emphasized the idea that you can always become a better, upgraded version of yourself, some even disparaged former “unfit” selves.
6. Here’s to us! A celebration of community. In these posts, #fitspiration messages were used to create a revered and celebrated community. Readers were warned that hostility from people (aka haters) who do not adapt their lifestyle was inevitable.
So does #fitspiration send a healthy message?
Overall, this study indicates #fitspiration posts do not send a healthy message. Posts position sex appeal as the central goal of exercise rather than increased athletic ability, energy or strength. Pain was even glorified when it comes to the pursuit of a sexy physique.
There were some themes that have the potential to have a positive impact. A sense of a supportive community and an internal locus of control can help people reach their goals. However, the authors warn, if the primary goal of exercise is physical attractiveness, the pursuit of fitness may have detrimental consequences such as negative body image, disordered eating and depression.
There are millions of #fitspiration posts, some that may inspire in a healthy way, and others that could have a harmful impact. It’s important for readers to remember that social media content is not a substitute for professional recommendations and exercise should be about feeling good, not just looking good.
Deighton-Smith, N., & Bell, B. T. (2018). Objectifying fitness: A content and thematic analysis of #fitspiration images on social media. Psychology of Popular Media Culture, 7(4), 467-483