There’s something that has been bothering me lately. Around the time that Tumblr announced they would be actively screening and banning accounts & posts which promoted self-harm and eating disorders, I noticed a new trend.
Fitness Inspiration. Or, ‘fitspo’ for short. A little background: the type of stuff Tumblr was taking aim at (although how effectively they’ve implemented this policy is arguable) was content that actively promotes or encourages eating disordered behavior. Images of emaciated people, usually women, emphasizing characteristics of being extremely underweight that are circulated by “support” communities for eating disorders, but all they support is the continuation and reinforcement of life-threatening disorders.
The average person sees this crap and they are appropriately upset by it. However, it was quickly replaced by ‘fitspo’. This, it seems, is perfectly okay with the average person. Images of female athletes doing physically demanding activities, extreme yoga poses, or close-ups of some stomach muscles accompanied by some “motivational” captions.
On the surface, it may seem harmless enough, encouraging people to exercise and to eat well. Exercise is good, right? Food is good, right? As a runner, I can’t disagree with either of those sentiments. I enjoy exercising, I sleep better when I’m active, and I make sure to eat in a way that supports all the activity I do because I want to make sure I’m giving my body what it needs.
There are two things I don’t really ever look at, though: the mirror and the scale. Here’s why.
Sometimes weight loss can be a legitimate part of improving one’s health (I dislike the phrase ‘getting healthy’ because it unavoidably implies that one is lacking in health). But, I vehemently reject the notion that weight loss is an intrinsic part of improving health. I’m far more interested in knowing how fast I can run a mile in or how far I can run, so the time on the stopwatch is way more relevant than the number on the scale.
And then we have the mirror, which is where the problem with this ‘fitness inspiration’ stuff really comes into play. I’m less concerned about how my body looks than what it’s capable of doing. Unfortunately, that puts me in the minority, and this health/fitness trend has created a whole new brand of body shaming & dissatisfaction. Those “motivational” phrases I mentioned? There’s one that seems to get a lot of circulation that says, “Skinny girls look good in clothes. Fit girls look good naked.”
Sorry, but screw that. This is nothing but weightism under the guise of what has been deemed a socially acceptable means of critiquing bodies. I wrote about this before, but when I ran the half marathon in November 2011, there were some people who were much more experienced runners who were also much larger individuals than me. I doubt that anyone would think to put their picture on some ‘fitspo’ because they don’t look like a seasoned Nike triathlete, but they were in excellent health, and they finished their 13.2 mile run at least thirty minutes before I did. And when they crossed that finish line, I bet you they felt pretty damned good about themselves (just like I did!).
There is so much more to our HEALTH than what we see in the mirror and what that the scale says. You cannot assess your health by looking at either. That doesn’t stop people from trying, though. A friend recently linked me to an online company that asks you to send in a photo of yourself in your underpants and their “experts” will provide you with a fitness assessment and exercise plan. Aside from the fact that this service, which is pretty much exclusively marketed to women, is a little on the creepy side for asking for those kinds of pictures, it reinforces the notion that your health can even be assessed by just a few pictures.
That’s just it, though. This was never about health – it’s all about body image, and assumption that you are (or should be) dissatisfied with the way you look. The only way to have any kind of standard, though, is to compare your body to other bodies, because if we all looked identical, it wouldn’t be an issue, right? Comparing yourself to others, though, is a surefire way to never, ever be satisfied with what you have or how you look.
Lexie Kite, co-founder of a group called Beauty Redefined, did a really great write-up on why this stuff is so problematic. From her article:
If these images and texts motivate you to respect your body as something that can do so much good, make and reach fitness goals, and maintain health that will keep you happy and able, then they are appropriate for you. If they motivate you to worry about being looked at or to improve parts of your body to meet a beauty ideal you see in media, you must be aware of this. Virginia at VirginaSoleSmith.com so concisely says, “Pay attention to how it makes you feel to be ‘inspired’ by lots of photos of a largely unattainable beauty ideal. Because that’s what rock hard abs are, after all. Yes, sure, core strength is important for your health. But pictures of bikini-clad, chiseled muscles beaded with sweat? That’s about pretty, not about health.
You can read the full article here.
I think it’s important to call out body shaming and weightism whenever we see it. ‘Fitspo’ provides a socially acceptable means of both increasing dissatisfaction with our own bodies as well as for critiquing others, and it’s these less obvious ones that I think do the most damage.
Matt Wetsel is an eating disorder survivor turned activist. He maintains “…Until Eating Disorders Are No More” at http://arenomore.wordpress.com, where this post was originally published.