“Fitspiration” – Because If You’re Not Miserable, You’re Doing It Wrong

At this point, I figure I’ve got a photo of my quasi-beer-belly on the internet, so what have I got to lose by posting any more edgy stuff?

While this isn’t necessarily “edgy,” it’s controversial in some circles, and it certainly needs to be talked about.

FITSPIRATION.

Supposedly this new word represents “Fitness + Inspiration.”

In reality, it’s more “Disordered Behaviors Regarding Exercise & Food + Shame, Guilt, & Unhealthy Obsession.”

Fitspiration is supposedly an alternative to “thinspiration,” or images that blatantly encourage and glorify eating disorders (which is not as uncommon as one might think), instead inspiring fitness, strength, health, and overall wellness rather than unnaturally slender body types.

fitspo

Sure, these “fitspirational” memes featuring shame-mongering statements plastered across photoshopped images of athletes/models with unnatural levels of muscularity and leanness (not to mention spray-tanned and oiled-up) are inspiring, but they definitely don’t inspire fitness.

It inspires comparison…because you don’t look as chiseled and lean as those bodies.

It inspires guilt…because you could, if only you were “hardcore” enough.

It inspires shame…because you have not lived up to your duty as a human to be as physically fit as you can possibly be.

And none of that is conducive to creating the habits that breed health, physical fitness, and overall wellness.

Not only is fitspiration destructive, but the entire concept that fitness deserves, let alone requires, such extreme willpower is a discredit to all the other areas of life – integrity, creativity, service, compassion – that are so much more deserving of the kind of time, thought, and effort dictates we devote to achieving physical perfection.  But I’m hoping that much, at least, is already evident.  That aspect of fitness-obsession warrants its own blog post, but all that aside, fitspiration is still incredibly dangerous for one glaring reason:

It normalizes disordered thought patterns, dietary habits, and exercise obsessions.

 And here’s the thing: Fitspiration isn’t limited to Pinterest and Instagram and the countless fitness blogs that fill the internet. Many fitness professionals and enthusiasts from all corners of the industry – from Cross Fit coaches to personal trainers to group exercise instructors to powerlifters to the bros taking selfies in the locker room of a chain gym – share and promote that same sentiment:

that in order to achieve great fitness (and, typically, the physical appearance that is implied to come as a result), one’s exercise and diet must be ruled by extremes, maintained through incredible self-denial and willpower, and motivated by a desire to avoid the overwhelming shame of being less-than-[insert whatever level of fitness/strength/leanness/physical prowess being flaunted].  

Obsession is valued as the epitome of commitment, compulsion is seen as a mark of dedication to one’s goals, and reckless-but-zealous pursuit of fitness takes precedence over sensible precautions for safeguarding overall health.

I’m sorry, but that’s not fitness, it’s the manifestation of a psychological disorder.

Really, is it worth it to reach an extreme level of physical fitness if it requires sacrificing a your mental and/or emotional well-being to a significant degree?

I’m not exaggerating when it comes to the psychological dangers of “fitspiration” and the general mindset it reflects.  How many of the fitness-focused people you know engage in any of the following behaviors?

  • obsession with food, calories, fat/carbohydrate/protein grams, and nutrition
  • preoccupation with food
  • fixation on body image/size/shape or other specific aspects of appearance
  • compulsive and/or excessive exercising
  • fear of gaining weight
  • refusal to skip workouts
  • refusal to eat certain foods that are “unhealthy,” “unsafe,” or “bad”

Probably at least a handful of them could be characterized by one or more items from that list, and maybe even most of them.  If you’re thinking that sounds remotely normal or expected, think about this: The above list is a list of the psychological symptoms of eating disorders.

fitspo2

Fitspiration promotes many of the mental and behavioral patterns that are the hallmark of  psychological dysfunctions (eating disorders, along with other mental illnesses such as Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder) that are recognized by the DSM as mental illness, all under the guise being of socially acceptable, necessary, and even admirable.  People often think of “eating disorders” or “mental illness” and picture Mary Kate Olsen, Nicole Richie, and others (typically women) who exhibit skeletal frames and are visibly ill.  In reality, while these women and the myriad others who suffer from clinically-diagnosed eating disorders are indeed sick, their bodies are a reflection of a severely unhealthy mental state.  Obsession with fitness is just as unhealthy psychologically as an eating disorder, clinical depression, and the like.  The only difference is that these pretty “fitspirational” pictures of abnormal phsyiques are socially acceptable, whereas “mental illness” is still considered fairly taboo.

Clearly, physical fitness requires discipline.  Building muscle requires that muscle first be broken down, which inevitably creates discomfort that must be endured to accomplish the primary goal (muscle-building, and eventual increase in strength, etc.).  But that discipline, which is ultimately strengthening and productive, is not the same as the kind of “discipline” that prioritizes performance or “adherence” over health and progress.  Obviously, fitspiration – and the same destructive ideology that is preached by all too many fitness enthusiasts (and even professionals) – glorifies the latter.  While no one can deny that our nation, like most of Western civilization, is in the midst of some dire health problems, attempting to eradicate physical unfitness with glamorized mental illness is not the answer.

[If this topic has at all struck a nerve, I’d encourage you to do some further reading from people who’ve said it better than I have, starting with these two articles: “The 6 Most Shockingly Irresponsible ‘Fitspiration’ Photos” and “The Overrated Image of 6-Pack Abs.”  And please chime in below in the comments!”

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25 thoughts on ““Fitspiration” – Because If You’re Not Miserable, You’re Doing It Wrong

  1. I totally agree with this! I recently wrote a blog post about the phrase I see everywhere: “Strong is the new skinny” I honestly had no issue with fitspo until I read a similar post as this one somewhere online. Great post!

  2. I could not agree! more I’m actually doing an argument paper in school about how fitspiration photos are having a negative impact on self-esteem and body image, especially for young women. It’s not that every single “fitspo” message is bad, but the image that comes with it can be really degrading in the minds of impressionable girls. I know that for me personally, fitspo pictures have made me want to attain a physique that is not possible OR healthy for me. As I’ve learned more about health as not merely an aesthetic thing, but as a multi-faceted lifestyle, I’ve come to see how ridiculous fitspiration can be. Thanks for this post!

  3. I definitely agree with this post. I am an addict in recovery and when I took away the drugs and alcohol but didn’t concentrate on recovery, my addiction manifested itself in exercise and disordered eating.

    I tricked myself into thinking it was ok because I was doing something “good” for my health, but there is too much of a good thing. I would obsess about when and what I ate and would keep a separate running calendar that I could also obsess over. I became thinner but not in a way that was healthy for my body type.

    It wasn’t until I worked on accepting myself completely that I was able to stop comparing myself to other people. Today I exercise and eat the way I do because it makes me feel good, not like I am not doing enough to look like _____. Exercise should be something to enjoy, not dread.

    Thanks for the post!

  4. Yes! Thank you for an amazing and eye-opening post on this dangerous trend. I honestly can’t look at those fitspiration pictures anymore without thinking about the actually unhealthy and self-punishing lifestyle they promote. I totally agree with the desire to be fit – but not to the point of slaving yourself at the gym, denying certain cravings or letting fitness become your utmost priority in life. All we need is healthy inspiration not the kind taking it to extremes. It’s easy to cross the fine line from exercising to be healthy to disordered workout habits,

  5. Thank you so much for this post and how eloquently you make the case. I am really disturbed by all of the images floating around out there – it has become unavoidable and I believe being inundated with things constantly very subtly starts to impact your outlook. I have gotten where I will immediately click off/shield my eyes when I see such pictures. I absolutely disagree in this whole “no pain, no gain” movement. I have dramatically changed my life and never have I had a moment of pain, of feeling like I was going to throw up from working so hard, etc. You don’t have to suffer and sacrifice to be healthy.

    1. Thank you, Ashley! These “fitspo” photos really are so similar (at least in their underlying message) to the pro-anorexia photos that are out there. And I’m with you- I’ve never lost my lunch during a workout, and I hope I never do…that’s not the mark of a good workout (more like food poisoning haha)!

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  7. Love this post! I roll my eyes at fitspo because it absolutely shames people. I work hard and give 110% in the gym and love doing what I am doing; but I will never look like those girls in the pictures and I am absolutely okay with that!

    It is unfortunate that healthy habits lead to unhealthy mindsets!

  8. This has just prompted me to post this on twitter: “Fitspiration: I am 36, mother of 2, who hasn’t got a 6 pack and has to pee before I deadlift and yesterday I did a Strongwomen competition.”

    Great post.

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