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Feminspire | April 20, 2014

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The “Fitspo” Debate: Motivation, Objectification, or Worse?

The “Fitspo” Debate: Motivation, Objectification, or Worse?

As I scroll down the page, I view countless pictures of women’s half-naked bodies. I see chiseled abs and defined legs close up, body shots featuring shapely butts and defined arms. In some of these photographs, the subjects partially or completely conceal their faces. In others, the photographer captures a female’s supple chest and prominent collarbones but cuts the picture of the women off at the neck.

No, I am not surfing around a pornography website; I’m looking at the search results for “fitspo” on Pinterest.com, a popular picture-sharing network.

(Trigger warning for an image of fitspo, discussion of disordered eating and body image.)

Fitspo, an abbreviation of the term “fit inspiration,” includes both the pictures of the previously described style and slogans like “seven days without exercise makes one weak.” Pinterest users and bloggers around the internet purportedly post fitspo pictures to encourage both themselves and others to embrace active and healthy lifestyles. However, fitspo sometimes can promulgate female objectification, dehumanization, and negative thoughts.

Feminspire writer Sully Moreno once wrote an article about her experience with the images, praising their usefulness in her life, while still acknowledging their inextricable link to “thinspo,” which is focused on weight rather than muscle. Thinspo is almost universally regarded as unhealthy and problematic.

Many people consider fitspo a positive influence in their lives. Fitspo enables some to visualize eventual health and fitness success; without this, they might never discover the motivation necessary to begin a gym regimen or adopt healthier eating habits. Female athletes participating in stereotypically masculine endeavors like weightlifting likewise might find camaraderie and support in fitspo communities.

In addition, naturally muscular or athletic women might gain greater confidence after they view images of bodies that more closely resemble their own. Fitspo images, in contrast to most runway model pictures displayed inside fashion magazines, oftentimes show beautiful women with high percentages of muscle mass. From these photos, athletic women might realize they are as gorgeous as the females they see in fitspo pictures. This can reinforce the message that there is nothing wrong about their body type.

Despite the fact that fitspo motivates a number of people to lead healthier lifestyles and helps connect people in the virtual world, others still might consider fitspo a hurtful form of female objectification. Some fitspo images focusing on specific body parts, such as those highlighting butts and hips salaciously thrust outward or backs seductively arched, evoke thoughts of one activity: sex. These pictures suggest that the female athlete’s body, like a household object, retains a singular purpose. Just as these pictures’ creators imply the female athlete’s body chiefly provides great sex, those who advertise videogames indicate these items are fantastic for entertainment; it’s basic objectification. Close-up fitspo pictures fail to remind viewers the female-bodied athlete retain hands that could be used to paint the next Starry Night or a brain with which she might conjure the next theory of relativity.

Fitspo dehumanizes people. In many pictures that include the women’s heads, the subjects refuse to look straight toward the camera, and they sometimes conceal their faces. Without being able to see these subjects’ facial features, viewers cannot easily distinguish between nearly uniform body types, especially when the photos are edited so that all imperfections are removed. In addition, fitspo models are almost always white, cisgender, able-bodied women. There is an implicit message here: If all these bodies are the same, such bodies lack any unique qualities to render them irreplaceable or intrinsically valuable. Therefore, the athletic bodies in those pictures become equivalent to a stack of the same cut of packaged meat displayed at your local supermarket.

When users internalize beliefs that female objectification and dehumanization are acceptable practices, they and the people with whom they interact suffer the negative consequences. People who are valued — or perceive themselves to be valued — only when their bodies look like those of fitspo subjects endure immense pressure. They feel the need to attain or maintain an appearance that fails to come easily or naturally to a significant portion of the population. This means that people who don’t or can’t look like that might absorb the message that they are somehow less than or inferior. Many start to consider themselves unhealthy, lazy, worthless, or a host of other denigrating adjectives. Some risk turning toward dangerous practices such as disordered eating or overexercising, which can lead to injury or serious illnesses like anorexia, bulimia, or EDNOS (Eating Disorder Not Otherwise Specified). Others might sink into depression due to their impossible physical goals. Furthermore, people who exhibit fitspo imagery online without including trigger warnings, might increase the chances someone that previously dealt with an eating disorder or other mental illness might relapse.

People must realize the existence of fitspo, like most things in life, has both pros and cons. While people can view fitspo images that motivate them to improve their lives, we must be careful to notice the line between motivation to exercise and fuel for self-hatred and body image issues. We must be wary of internalizing more negative implicit messages. Ultimately, our individual interpretations of these pictures, along with our reactions and the significance we assign to these interpretations, will determine whether fitspo will make a positive or negative impact on society and ourselves. But one thing is for sure: not everyone looks like a fitspo model — and that’s perfectly okay.

Written by Amanda Travers