New Fitness Hashtag Distorts Body Image

Isabel Hulkower, Columnist

The internet is a cesspool of aspira­tional rigamarole. You can enjoy looking at your dream kitchen, the perfect trip to a tiny European village, or every piece of designer clothing you desire, all with­out leaving the safety of the blogosphere. However, the most pervasive brand of on­line drivel goes by the name of “fitspo.” The word is short for fitness inspiration, but whether you’re familiar with the term or not, it has undoubtedly wormed its way into your newsfeed at some point or another.

Fitspo is an umbrella term that gener­ally encompasses three types of content: nice photos of fresh, low-calorie food, iPhone gym selfies and stock photos of athletic women with inspirational phras­es Photoshopped on top. While all three together comprise the fitspo trend, the most notable and perhaps malignant cor­ner of this iron triangle are the stock pho­tos. These usually portray extremely slim, toned women wearing revealing athletic wear and often bear delightful phrases like “Working out is hard, being fat is hard, pick your hard,” “Sweat more, bitch less,” and “Don’t stop until you’re proud.”

Despite their terse, pithy nature, this trend says a whole lot. The images evoke a simple, straightforward ideal: a perfectly toned, sexy physique gained from hard work and dedication. On the surface that doesn’t seem particularly bad; tenacity should be lauded, and a reminder of one’s potential can be helpful at times. But it is hard not to see these images without being awash with shame — these are pic­tures of the most “desirable” and “perfect” bodies coupled with the sentiment that they are perfectly attainable, and that it is your own fault if you don’t have them. The images derive their power from reminding viewers that their bodies are extremely imperfect and that failure is due only to their own shortcomings and dearth of willpower.

These controversial images have be­come quite common, but their popular­ity has not appeared randomly from the ether. Before fitspo came down the pike, its ancestor “thinspo” was well known in many pockets of the internet. Thinspo is structurally similar, mostly portraying extremely thin bodies with messages like “Nothing tastes as good as skinny feels.” These images, however, have stayed out of the mainstream. For the most part, culture has little trouble identifying that these are destructive and unhealthy, so much so that #thinspo is banned from Tumblr.

While thinspo is rightly stigmatized, fitspo flourishes. Strong has replaced skinny as the operative word, representing the ultimate goal for mental and physical achievement. Since fitspo approaches this ideal through the construct of health and fitness, it is given a pass from the scrutiny applied to the media’s promotion of thin bodies. A simple glance at a fitspo image, of course, tells a different story. The bod­ies showcased are unquestionably slim, and though some may in fact be muscular and healthy, fundamentally the majority are the same unattainable, illusory figures we have been conditioned to covet by pop culture and society as a whole.

The fitspo mantra is “strong is the new skinny,” but the extreme centricity of bod­ies that just happen to be both shows what this trend is truly about. This portrayal of fitness skims over the reality of what be­ing in shape really entails. Proper fitness does not always include an aesthetic com­ponent; it’s possible to be fit and in good shape but not be super slender. For ex­ample, many super fit women and profes­sional female athletes have physiques that rarely show up in fitspo. Photoshopped fitspo images of models with catchy slo­gans can be toxic for many viewers, espe­cially those who did not seek them.

Despite this, the other side of fitspo — the gym-time mirror selfie — does not necessarily bring the same baggage. Friends and acquaintances posting about their actual exercise adds more reality to the equation. These photos, though often very annoying, at least portray a wider range of bodies, reaffirming that proper fitness is not only for mega hotties. Fit­spo in general is pretty noxious, but with a critical eye, it can be debunked and robbed of its shaming power.