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July 20, 2014 | by  | in Features Homepage | [ssba]

Fitspo is the Pits, Bro

We live in an age where it’s not unusual to be confronted with semi-naked photos of friends while scrolling through our news feeds. Individual meal plans, squat challenges, and progress pics are apparently now everyone’s business, whether we’re interested in protein pancakes and whether ‘she squats, bro’, or not. The scrawny munchkins of high school now look like Arnold Schwarzenegger, while kids who chain-smoked or imbibed on weekends are spending Saturday evenings drinking coconut water and preparing a week’s worth of chicken and rice.

Fitspiration, aka ‘fitspo’, has taken the world by storm, and social media’s played a prolific role in getting us on the bandwagon – or should I say treadmill? Fitspo images of impossibly toned bodies overlaid with ‘motivational’ messages tell us: “nothing tastes as good as skinny feels”. I beg to differ, as I sit here with my bag of Pineapple Lumps. Like, have you ever tried a pie?

Strong is the new skinny

Visual representations of the ideal human form are nothing new. Peter Paul Rubens painted sensual portraits of full-figured women in the early 1600s. Corsets and crinolines were used to control and accentuate the body from the outside from the 16th to early-19th centuries – perhaps symbolic of a strict and unrelenting society. Sex-bomb Marilyn Monroe was reputedly a UK size 16. It was not until the 1960s that there was a fundamental change in the way Western society viewed the human body – especially female. The body became something to control from the inside, through disciplined diet and exercise. A svelte figure was the ultimate embodiment of restraint. If you’d burned your bra, I guess you had to take back control somehow.

Thin is no longer in. Instead, we should apparently all aspire to be strong, fit and lean; in peak physical condition. Strength is a natural human aspiration. As Socrates said: “No man has the right to be an amateur in the matter of physical training. It is a shame for a man to grow old without seeing the beauty and strength of which his body is capable.” But the suggestion that strength is fashionable, and demonstrating what ‘strong’ is expected to look like with an image of a svelte figure with less than ten per cent body fat, is more than a little concerning. If strong really is the new skinny, why isn’t Valerie Adams our poster woman of strength?

What could have been (and was probably intended as) a means of empowerment towards body confidence has been capitalised on as another way to promote unrealistic bodies as the ideal; just as skin-and-bones supermodels once were. Strength and discipline are surely important. As our lives get busier and more stressful, it’s comforting to know that we still have control of our bodies, at least. But the ‘strong is the new skinny’ mantra focuses too heavily on an idealised outcome, at the risk of internal weakness, or illness, if those results are not achieved. Since we don’t usually attach stigma to exercising, there’s a danger that we’re too quick to pass off strict exercise regimes and obsessions with ‘clean eating’ as healthy behaviour.

Fitspiration messages prey on our innermost insecurities, and shame us into submission. “Suck it up, and one day you won’t have to suck it in” tells us not only to exercise more and lose weight, but also that if we don’t look like the people in these images, we should be ashamed and tuck in our bellies. Fitspo equates getting ‘healthy’ with getting ‘in shape’, using supposedly motivational images to demonstrate how ‘good health’ physically manifests itself. But ‘healthy’ doesn’t necessarily look like anything. Fitspo conflates freedom from disease and a basic level of fitness with chiselled abs and thigh gaps. More questionable is the way people are going about getting their dream body. I’m no scientist, but surely eating KFC and three bags of lollies for dinner while you’re bulking (and then shredding) for RnV can’t be ‘good’ for you. Since we’ve developed a problematic way of measuring good health, fitspiration is, potentially, equally as harmful as the more commonly recognised disorders and addictions. If strong is the new skinny, is fitspo the new anorexia?

Quitting is unacceptable

The dangerous implications of a fitspo lifestyle are poignantly articulated on, which swaps the six-pack of abs for a six-pack of beer and superimposes extreme fitness motivation over pictures of people drinking. Picture, if you will, “Crawling is acceptable. Puking is acceptable. Tears are acceptable. Pain is acceptable. QUITTING IS UNACCEPTABLE.” plastered across an image of an elderly woman holding a full bottle of spirits. The drunkspo series exposes fitspo as symptomatic and triggering of disordered or addictive behaviours. Exercise and clean eating can easily turn into obsessions as people are disappointed with their progress, misguided by the ‘inspiration’ which suggests that by running and drinking green juice, you will look like a fitness model who does chin-ups and barbell squats for a living.

What you eat in private, you wear in public

Fitspo boils down to judging bodies. While it’s one thing to judge our own bodies (hey there, good lookin’) and decide we want to change, fitspo extends judgment to the bodies of others, unconsciously if not consciously. If strong looks the way fitspo says it does, the implication is that any body that is not thin, toned and tanned is weak. By dictating what strong and healthy looks like, fitspo suggests we can only measure and live in our bodies in one of two extreme ways: fat or ‘fit’, ignoring everything in between and invalidating the idea of a fat, healthy body.

In New Zealand, we constantly refer to obesity as an ‘epidemic’, frequently linking it as a cause of heart disease and diabetes. It’s human nature to fear disease, or anything that threatens our livelihood. Disgust is a natural reflex, developed to help prolong our lives. It keeps us from associating with things that could expose us to disease. Because fat violates our expectations of the human form (and our expectations are created by images like fitspo), as other physical deformities might, it’s not unusual to respond to fat as though it is a disease and therefore be disgusted by it. While we don’t tend to judge others for catching a cold or flu, fitspiration turns fat into a moral failure, as it holds individuals accountable for their weight and suggests that determination is all it takes to be ‘fit’. If you don’t match the person in the image, you lack the discipline and strength they show. Fitspo ignores the fact that we’re all built differently. Even a moment’s consideration of successful sports bodies like Valerie Adams shows there’s no single way to be fit and healthy. Vices such as smoking and excessive drinking are also causative of disease, but we don’t call them ‘epidemics’. Why is fat treated differently? Why is there no soberspo?

This is not to say that exercise and clean eating is bad, and fit people are evil. But it’s easy to lose perspective and forget that our bodies are for more than just looking at. You can have your cake and eat it, too.


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