Strong is the new skinny.
Excuses don’t burn calories.
Unless you puke, faint, or die, keep going!
These are some of the many messages you may have encountered if you’ve ever come across the burgeoning social media trend known as “fitspiration”.
Often referred to as “fitspo”, fitspiration is a growing online phenomenon with the goal of motivating individuals to pursue a fit and healthy lifestyle. Typically, fitspo images depict toned and slender athletic bodies overlaid with motivational quotes; the aim being to inspire people to get off the couch and become active.
The trend has become increasingly popular in recent years – a quick search on Instagram of the hashtag #fitspo brings up well over 30 million images.
Yet despite the popularity of fitspo, little is known about its psychological impact. With growing public concern about the potential downside of these images, the question is whether fitspo is doing more harm than good.
Watch: Mamamia staff share their mortifying gym moments. (Post continues after video)
In terms of more traditional forms of media, research suggests that exposure to fitness-related images can be detrimental, particularly for women. For instance, women report increased negative mood, depression, and anxiety after only 30 minutes of viewing fitness magazines promoting the athletic ideal.
An abundance of research points to the negative effects for women of exposure to the thin ideal. But what is so problematic about the athletic ideal?
Fitspiration originally began as a reaction to “thinspiration”, an online movement promoting weight loss, often via dangerous means such as disordered eating. The fitspo mantra was loud and clear: promoting strength and health over thinness and “thigh gaps”. The movement was designed to encourage a more positive body ideal.
As researchers have suggested, part of the problem with the athletic ideal is that media images of athletic women tend to be not just muscular, but also skinny.
The athletic "ideal" is problematic for a few reasons. (Image: iStock)
Research has demonstrated that exposure to athletic women is just as bad as exposure to thin women, if the athletic women pictured are both muscular and slim. So while fitspo may promote the message that strong is the new skinny, in reality, what they mean by this is that “strong and skinny is the new skinny”.
While research on fitspo is scarce, findings from a new study support the notion that it promotes a very narrow body ideal. In an analysis of fitspo images, researchers from Flinders University found that fitspo tends to depict just one body type – both toned and thin.
One might argue that such a body type is certainly healthier than the waif-like shape depicted on thinspo. However, the effectiveness of such images in actually promoting exercise is questionable.