Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Thinspo, Fitspo, and Judgment: What Do Others' Bodies Mean to You?

This xoJane post takes a look at the "fitspo" movement, which author Lesley posits isn't all that much better for us than its much-hated cousin, "thinspo."

Thinspo--short for thinspiriation (thin inspiration) is a category of images that are passed around to promote disordered eating, primarily anorexia. They are marked with extremely thin bodies that often show protruding bones. Many social media sites have started actively eliminating thinspo in the name of promoting safe habits.

Fitspo (fitspiration), on the other hand, features muscular bodies and ostensibly promotes healthy habits of athleticism and strength. A lot of athletic brand advertisements would fit into the category of fitspo, like this one from Nike:

Without a doubt, thinspo is a damaging, unhealthy obsession. But what about fitspo? Is it the same thing?

Lesley and others certainly think so. Other writers, like Charlotte, seem more perplexed. 

The case against fitspo, as Lesley points out in the xoJane piece, is that it still promotes an idealized vision of "beauty" and that it conflates health with thinness:
While I mightily dig the notion of individuals deciding what health means for them, and making whatever efforts they feel comfortable with to achieve that sensation, I do not think that fitspo images are actually advocating for broad individually-based standards of healthiness.

Quite the opposite: They advocate for a specific shape of health, and one that is possibly more damaging than thinspo ever was, because it is making “health” into an issue of appearance and not of how one feels or what one can do or what one’s laboratory findings say.
I completely agree with that.

And yet, I found myself nodding along with some of the commenters on that piece who said that they didn't feel the same way. They said that, for them, fitspo was genuinely inspiring. They didn't focus on the individual body parts of the women pictured, but on the images of athleticism and hard work captured in those photos.

And I think that working out takes inspiration. There are days when I do not want to get up from my desk and go to the gym--days when I could totally convince myself that it's not worth the effort. All it takes, though, is standing up and walking to the door. Once I'm that far, I'm going to the gym, I'm going to work out, and I'm going to feel good about myself afterwards. It's that simple. Am I ever going to be a size 4 with rock-hard abs? No. Does that mean that my workout doesn't make me healthier? Absolutely not.

But sometimes I need that push to get to the door, and other people's displays of power and strength can do the trick. I had never heard of "fitspo" before, but I will say that images of athletes training and working have inspired me in the past, even if I didn't have a clever abbreviation for them. In fact, I'd say that athleticism is an art form, and that those athlete's displays of their bodies can be likened to a writer's poem or an artist's painting. I am often inspired by such displays of artistry. Does that make me complicit in a system of exploitation and body policing? Is fitspo promoting an unhealthy self image that damages people from the inside out?

I truly didn't know the answer, so I took to Pinterest to find out. I searched for images labeled "fitspo" and what I found didn't really do much to clear up my confusion.

Generally, the pictures fell into some very different camps.

There were images of women and men actively working out and demonstrating physical strength, like this one from the Visualize Fitness tumblr:

But then there are also tons and tons of pictures of individual body parts, visually dissected legs and abs and asses, painfully thin torsos attached to alarmingly large breasts with no context of a whole person in which to make sense of them. Much like the visual synecdoche we use when we show "scary" pictures of headless fat bodies, these types of images are problematic in the way that they reduce people to their body parts and deny them full, real humanity. 

There's not much inspiring about that. So, yes, there are a lot of "fitspo" images that are probably just "thinspo in a sports bra" as Charlotte put it. 

But that got me thinking. Can other people's bodies ever be used for inspiration without dehumanization and exploitation? Certainly, there is a degree of distancing from their individuality that is necessary for us to project ourselves into their place for inspiration, but is that always damaging?

I'm thinking of images of firefighters that are used to inspire us to be courageous or a picture of a cancer patient inspiring us to be compassionate. We use images of couples showing affection to inspire us to believe in love. 

Kissing couple
From robleto

So can't images of people achieving fitness be used in the same way? Can't someone embody a commendable quality of athleticism the same way someone embodies the commendable quality of bravery? Or are all of these uses of images of other people problematic? Should we never derive our inspiration from someone else's story?

It reminded me of one of my favorite websites about fitness, A Black Girl's Guide to Weight Loss. Author Erika tracks her own fitness journey, and she also highlights fit celebrity "watches" where she showcases inspiring images of celebrities working to stay fit. But BGG2WL is not a simple be-thin, be -healthy equation. What I appreciate most about this blog is Erika's insight into the delicate relationship between fitness, body image, health, and media misrepresentation of people's bodies (see here, here, or here). So, if a blog that I respect and feel has such a nuanced view on weight, health, and body image uses pictures that could be categorized as "fitspo," what does that mean? 

Ultimately, I think that there's a discernible difference between exploiting people's bodies and seeing someone else's actions (and, yes, even the physical results of those actions, be it toned calves or looser clothes) that can inspire actions of our own. But I think that's the key: our inspiration has to be action-based at its core. If we cut out an image of a firmly toned butt to hang on our freezers and ward us away from the ice cream, we aren't thinking about the human being that worked to tone that butt (or, perhaps more often, the human being who photoshopped it into that perfect mold). When we look at that picture of the couple kissing, we aren't obsessing over how to get our lips to pucker just like hers, we're inspired to find a moment that real and loving in our own lives--and in our own ways. When we see that firefighter in front of the flames, we're not meant to go throw ourselves into a burning building; we're supposed to think about the areas in our own contexts that might benefit from a little more courage. So can't we do the same thing with fitness? Can't looking at a talented athlete's physique inspire us--not to yearn for her perfect abs--but to become our own version of fit? 

What do you think? Do images of fitness inspire you? And, if so, do you think it's for the right reasons? 


  1. I think they can be both damaging and inspiring. I'm not sure yet whether or not fitspo is designed to encourage physical fitness or just an aesthetic appeal. I think if we are inspired to get off the couch and move, it would best if it were in the name of our health and fitness level, not just looking hot for the opposite sex.

    1. Definitely! And doing something for yourself is almost always more likely to KEEP you motivated than doing it for someone else.

  2. Michelle! Have you ever tried pilates? I think you would enjoy it. I was reminded of that because I get inspired by looking at pictures of people doing more advanced pilates exercises. Its amazing what the body can do if its physically fit.

    1. I haven't tried pilates, but I completely agree with you about the inspiration from seeing people doing it. The body just looks so amazingly powerful and artful! Maybe I'll try it if I can get over my fear of group exercise.

  3. One issue I've had -- and voiced ad nauseum, so apologies if I'm repeating myself -- with fitspo is the lack of body diversity in it. If I do a general search on pretty much any site for fitspo, I will see all thin (muscled, toned, yes -- but in a way that still equates to a socially acceptable level of thinness) people pictured. Or, most recently, I got to see an action shot of a person running with the caption, "You can work out 1 hour a day or be fat 24 hours a day." There's currently no place in it for someone who, say, works out 1 hour a day and is still fat 24 hours a day. There are no "fitspo" bodies that look like mine.

    1. I completely agree with you on that one, and I think that's especially highlighted by the "fitspo" pictures that are really just close ups of ab muscles or whatever.

      But if "fitspo" just becomes whatever the people using it label it (as I think it's pretty clear that there are already different schools of thought managing the label on social media sites), then perhaps there's a space for the kind of body diversity you're talking about. What would happen if we uploaded the kind of pictures you're talking about and labeled them "fitspo"? (I'm honestly asking, here. Perhaps the backlash in the comments would be too negative. But I do think that the nature of social media at least opens up the possibility for this kind of negotiation).

    2. I am actually in the process of creating such a project now, though sans nifty little sayings on the pics. I'm comfortable doing it on my site (and have a few people who've contributed pics already) where I can both set the expectation for commenting and have the technical control to moderate comments.

      At the same time, I have a "Fathletes" board on Pintrest and end up deleting negative comments from those pictures -- not of me -- with each new pin, if not nearly daily. That's something I wouldn't feel comfortable asking people to submit themselves to.

    3. That sounds like a great project! I'll be keeping an eye out and look forward to seeing the results.

      It's a shame that the comments are so problematic that it essentially acts to silence so many people (and thus shut down diverse perspectives), but I think you're right that it's a lot to ask of people to subject themselves to that kind of pressure.

      In fact, as we're talking about this, I'm thinking about a picture I have of myself nearing the finish line of a 5k I ran. I am about 30 pounds over my "ideal" weight, and I'm sure that this image wouldn't be classified as "fitspo" by most of the people searching for the term. I don't know if I'd be willing to share it on any social media sites because I'd fear the responses I'd get would sting too much.

      At the same time, doesn't that point to a huge double standard in the "if only fat people would work out" and "it's for their own good" arguments. I agree with you (you can definitely be fat AND work out every day; size is not necessarily an indicator of health, and plenty of thin people can be unhealthy). But if we (and I mean the collective, societal "we" here) actually wanted to promote fitness and health (even weight loss) then shouldn't images of larger people being active and healthy be the very definition of "fitspo"?

  4. Angie unduplicatedJune 18, 2012 at 10:30 AM

    They're almost too thin, and all of them are young. We have a responsibility to provide our own images of fitness. As an overweight, but not obese older woman, I found a few images which resembled my younger, healthier self, as well as inspirational slogans which will benefit my exercise program. It's obvious, though, that the ad campaign to starve away female secondary sexual characteristics-a PR fest sponsored by cheapskate employers and, probably, heroin and cocaine sellers, has to be extirpated.