Fitness + Well-being

Are 'Fitspo' Images Exercise Motivation or a Dangerous Obsession?


Women have suffered from self-esteem issues since the dawn of time. Now thanks to social media, self-loathing is just a few clicks away.

Thinspo — short for thinspiration — is a term used to describe images and ideas posted on social media sites that are supposed to inspire women to lose weight, but all too often fuel eating disordered-behavior and the pursuit of skeletal thinness.

To their credit, large social sites like Tumblr and Pinterest have recently banned thinspo-tagged content or any content that idealizes the skin-and-bones body type.


But what of fitspo, thinspo's toned and chiseled counterpart?

This meme depicts women pumping iron, sprinting up staircases, and boot-camping their way to ripped shoulder muscles, shredded quads, and six pack abs. Many consider images of fitspo models and the push-yourself sayings that usually accompany them, an improvement over depictions of starvation and emaciation — and a real motivation to get fit.

Are they really an improvement? Deb Serani, a clinical psychologist and adjunct professor at Adelphi University in Garden City, N.Y., doesn't think so.

She says that while fitspo may motivate some people to pick up the weights or run that extra mile, it is fraught with mixed messages.

"Fitspo photos and shared beliefs do in fact negatively impede girls and women when it comes to self-esteem, body image and perceptions of health," she says. "With every line that's drawn, there will always be another to see how far a new one can be pushed."

Serani points out that the desire for a seriously fit-looking body is just a variation on the desire for thinness. It may be disguised as the "new healthy," but it's always dangerous to value a single body type above all others, especially when that body type is virtually impossible for most women to achieve.

"It's just another way to body shame girls and women who don't fit this unrealistic mold," Serani says.

Serani suspects that some fitspo enthusiasts may be suffering from a new kind of eating disorder known as orthorexia nervosa. This is when a woman is so determined to drive her body towards athletic perfection, she becomes preoccupied with workouts and healthy foods and her body image becomes so distorted, she is never satisfied with the way she looks.

For a woman like that, fitspo is not a harmless motivational tool — it can fuel a dangerous obsession.

Even for women who don't have an eating disorder, body shaming of any kind can be demeaning, defeating and deflating. Isn't it time we stop beating ourselves up for being unable to achieve the impossible and start celebrating our successes?

Good health should be the goal, no matter what shape and size the package it comes in.