Although the fitness industry’s mission has many merits there are also a multitude of ways that it has gone awry, damaging people’s physical and mental health. May is Mental Health Awareness month, so I want to talk a little bit about studies that prove “fitspiration” images pack as much harm as power, and how we can protect ourselves from becoming collateral damage from “well-intentioned” social media hashtags, trends, images, and messages.
Mental Health and Fitness
As a fitness professional, I have spent the better part of the past two decades witnessing the underlying anxiety and cultural pressure imposed on both men and women regarding body image and desirability. I watch people with impressive careers crumble when they talk about their weight and people with outgoing personalities shrivel into themselves when asked about their lifestyle and exercise habits. It happens again and again, at various ages and stages in the lifespan, with people of all shapes, sizes, races, ethnicities, and income levels. Each time I witness that familiar, typically-nonverbal burden weighing the person in front of me down I can’t help but ask myself: Is teaching this person safe and effective exercise really going to help them with the core of their crisis? Is getting to a “goal weight” really going to make them happier? Is pushing through a hard workout to attain a particular body type going to help them realize they were worthy all along?
The short answer: No. It doesn’t help. At least not for long.
So, what does help people feel their best in the pursuit of health?
Well, it’s a little different for everyone but a huge chunk of it revolves around unplugging from cultural expectations and messages, and centering on the essence of what makes that person feel alive, really alive. This is where joy comes from within.
In my personal training relationships we celebrate small victories and honor what setbacks teach a person about their personality, motivations, insecurities, and how they respond to things out of their control. We view the training experience as an opportunity to get to know the body on a more focused level, with as much practical wisdom about exercise physiology, anatomy, life-enhancing movement, biomechanics, and exercise programming poured from my brain into theirs in bite-size, consumable pieces. We make the mission not just about an “end goal” but about an educational process of learning how to care for the body through health, illness, injury, and preventative medicine.
The exercise journey can and should be healing, not harmful. It should be infused with compassionate support, uplifting messages, and both personalized and realistic aspirations. This sets a person on the path towards a version of health that looks and feels best for them.
The Picture-Perfect Problem
Sadly, we’re often met with boiler-plate, subpar training programs designed to be consumable by the masses, young “influencers” who pose as fitness professionals and dole out questionable advice, and a nonstop waterfall of images that objectify both men and women’s bodies. These images perpetuate the stigma that only certain body types are healthy while damaging the mental health of both the people viewing them and those creating them.
We all know that life isn’t picture-perfect and yet the multitude of unrealistic images flooding #fitpso and #fitspiration dishearten and intimidate most people, even those who claim such images “teach them healthy habits and are inspiring.” At present, there are over 73 million images in #fitspo on Instagram alone, tagged by celebrities, fitness and nutrition professionals, and members of the public alike. That’s a lot of images. Unfortunately, viewing these fitspiration images has been linked to greater body dissatisfaction.
Instagram noticed a similar dangerous trend with the now-banned #thinspo or #thinspiration. These tags and over a dozen similar terms were banned on Instagram due to the dangers they posed for followers who used them to spread pro-eating-disorder messaging and to build communities around supporting disordered eating and body dysmorphia. Unfortunately, since that ban there have been stronger and more niche hashtag communities formed around these dangerous topics. So, it would seem that an outright ban on #fitspo isn’t the answer, but keeping it around is nearly as dangerous as the years of #thinspo.
Here’s the Evidence of How Fitspo Images Harm People
A publication on Research Gate that looked at body image disturbances resulting from fitspiration images stated that “viewing fitspiration leads to sexualization, objectification, upward and downward social comparisons which can either lead to self enhancement or body dissatisfaction.”
Another study, published by the Journal of Medical Internet Research, found similar trends in objectification and sexualization of the people in fitspiration posts, noting that women were most often thin and younger than 25 years old. The images were often sexualized and didn’t include the women’s faces. Many of these images “emphasized the woman’s buttocks.” Men were most likely to be muscular or “hypermuscular” but were more likely to include their faces in the images.
Okay, let’s pause for a second…
Ladies – WHAT are we doing to ourselves?!?!
The issue of self-objectification is driven, in part, by the amount of time people spend on social media. Apparently after just 30 minutes spent on Instagram each day, a person is more likely to view their body as an object. Not only is this linked to greater body dissatisfaction but it also predicts both depression and disordered eating in young women. The damage doesn’t just start with the viewer’s experience; it begins with the person taking and posting the picture. Women posting to #fitspo tend to have a stronger “drive for thinness” and are more likely to compulsively exercise. They are at higher risk of a clinical eating disorder too.
In yet another study, participants expressed multiple negative effects from viewing fitspo images, including “frustration about the deceptive nature of posts, jealousy regarding unattainable body appearance or lifestyles, feeling that their usage had become out of control, guilt about not following the lifestyles advocated, and frustration in being encouraged toward inappropriate goal-setting.” These experiences were amplified for some participants who expressed negative opinions of their own bodies and answered questions in ways that suggested underlying disordered eating habits. However, this particular study’s most novel finding is that there is an element of guilt about social media usage getting out of control and becoming addictive while following tags such as #fitspiration and #fitspo.
It appears that even careful and critical viewing might not be fully effective at avoiding the negative psychological consequences of fitspiration.
How Do We Fix Things and Feel Better?
It seems fairly obvious that nobody wishes to experience chronic stress, depression, fear of exercise, and recurrent weight loss and regain cycles, and yet that’s what fitspiration is causing to happen. This begs the question:
How do heal from fitspiration or, at the very least, better control our consumption of it?
Here are a few ideas:
Engage in self-acceptance practices like mindfulness, meditation, prayer and reflection
Work with a mental health counselor to treat underlying eating disorders, anxiety and/or depression.
Practice intuitive eating instead of restrictive eating. In other words, eat when you’re hungry and recognize which foods help you feel uplifted, energized and healthy. Intuitive eating acknowledges that it’s okay to indulge here and there too, and to focus on the cultural foods and dishes that honor your lifestyle, ethnicity, religion, taste preferences, etc.
Get active with life-enhancing movement instead of rigorous and regimented exercise. Ask yourself what types of exercises, sports and movements you enjoy and focus on them. One person may find health and wellness through frequent nature walks while another may prefer weight lifting. Still other people prefer tennis and golf, or yoga and Pilates. Whatever works for you, works! Plain and simple.
Keep a journal where you can pour out your emotions, tell your story, focus on healing, or scribble down daily self-affirmations.
Acknowledge and remind yourself that health doesn’t come in one size only. Find people on social media (or even better, in real life) who go against the cultural norms of beauty or have unique stories about the ways in which they look different. Watch their bravery and find encouragement.
Limit time spent on social media apps. As previously mentioned, around the 30 minute/day mark is when social media apps can start to influence a person towards self-objectification and all the harm that comes with that.
Avoid, block or delete triggering accounts, hashtags, content and messages. Life is too short to waste on scrolling through content that makes you feel lesser-than.
Pause and consider your own content before you post it. Who are you posting your own “fitspo” or objectified image for? Are you doing it because it genuinely makes you happy? Are you trying to gain attention and affirmation? Are there other, healthier ways to do that? Are there other ways you could take a picture of yourself that are less intimidating, sexualized or harmful, but also make you feel excited to share the content?
The Future of Digital and Image-Based Fitness
There’s something very captivating about images and sharing them, so I don’t think the social media trends around these behaviors are going anywhere for a long time. If they’re going to stick around then we must consider the consequences of our digital behavior on ourselves and society at large. Young women in particular are suffering on an epidemic level from what they consume on social media, and they’re getting set up for lifelong battles with their bodies. That’s not the legacy I want to leave as a fitness professional, nor as a “person in the public” posting pictures just because that’s what we apparently do these days.
Let’s ALL try our best to subtly shift the way we’re photographing these images, liking them and encouraging them. Let’s focus on boosting young women’s self-esteem instead of setting them up for harmful, unrealistic and oftentimes elitist and racist body image expectations. Let’s shift the dialogue and keep it positive, healthy, and accessible.
Perhaps you can do this by limiting social media time or maybe showing a little ” behind the scenes” into your real life instead of the picture-perfect version you may wish the world to believe. Whatever little thing you do, it matters. The small and collective actions of the masses are what will carve a healthier path for people of all genders and ages now and to come.
Yours in health and wellness,