Elise Holland: Fitness fad pressures women

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Fitspo claims to be healthy, but its images are unrealistic. Photo / Getty Images
Fitspo claims to be healthy, but its images are unrealistic. Photo / Getty Images

"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 have come across "fitspiration".

Often referred to as "fitspo", fitspiration is a growing online phenomenon. Typically, images depict toned and slender athletic bodies overlaid with motivational quotes, aiming to inspire people to get off the couch and become active.

The trend is increasingly popular - a quick search on Instagram brings up over 30 million images. Yet despite the popularity of fitspo, little is known about its psychological impact. Is it doing more harm than good?

In more traditional media, research suggests exposure to fitness-related images can be detrimental, particularly for women. Women report increased negative mood, depression, and anxiety after 30 minutes of viewing fitness magazines promoting the athletic ideal.

Fitspiration began as a reaction to the online weight-loss movement "thinspiration", often via dangerous means such as disordered eating.

The fitspo mantra was loud and clear: strength and health over thinness and "thigh gaps". But media images of athletic women tend to be not just muscular, but also skinny.

Research has demonstrated exposure to athletic women is as bad as exposure to thin women, if they are muscular and slim. Fitspo may promote the message that strong is the new skinny but what they mean is that "strong and skinny is the new skinny".

Research on fitspo is scarce, but a new study supports the notion it promotes a very narrow body ideal. Researchers from Australia's Flinders University found fitspo tends to depict just one body type - toned and thin.

Research has established the greater the discrepancy between this ideal body and how people actually look, the more likely people are to adopt inadequate eating and exercise patterns.

Other research suggests although fitspo and thinspo purport to be different, they share a number of similarities. Another content analysis earlier this year of fitspo and thinspo images found both tend to contain quite damaging content.

Messages promoting fat stigmatisation, body guilt and objectification were prevalent in both regimes and although thinspo images were more focused on weight loss, this was still a common theme in fitspo, too.

To date, only one paper has been published examining the effect of fitspiration on body image. Women were assigned to look through a handful of fitspo images on an iPad, or at travel photos instead.

The researchers found fitspo was indeed motivating - women who viewed the fitspo images reported a greater desire to improve their fitness and eat more healthily.

But it also increased body dissatisfaction and made women feel worse about their appearance.

Just like the athletic bodies it depicts, the online trend of fitspiration isn't calling it quits any time soon.

Although it may be inspirational for some, we must be attuned to its potential downside and the negative impact on how women feel about their bodies.

By portraying an extremely narrow ideal and encouraging guilt and weight loss, the vast majority of fitspo images are little more than thinspo with a six-pack.

Elise Holland is a Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the University of Melbourne

- The Conversation

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