10 Truth Bombs About "Perfect" Fitness Selfies
The buff bods filling your social feed might seem like healthy motivation, but you may be shocked by how staged they can be. Turn the page to find out how online “inspiration” can totally drag you down.
Marren Miranti, a 17-year-old senior who lives near Houston, Texas, began working out after she started going to the gym with her mom. “I love lifting weights,” says Marren. “It’s really satisfying to set a goal, work hard, and see your progress.” As Marren got more into fitness, she started following bodybuilders and personal trainers on Instagram, something that seemed harmless—at first. “I like getting ideas for workouts or ways to eat healthy. But when I look at people who are super fit, it just makes me feel bad sometimes,” admits Marren, who says scrolling through her feed can leave her with a slightly sick feeling. “If I’m already not feeling very confident in that moment, seeing those photos can have the power to ruin my day, or at least part of it.”
Welcome to the world of “fitness inspiration,” also called “fitspiration” or “fitspo.” Search #fitspo on Instagram and you’ll find more than 46 million posts. Most of them claim to be motivational. Think personal trainers, athletes, models, or even just regular gym-goers, all excited to tell you what they eat and how much they work out, while posing in bikinis or workout wear designed to flaunt their ripped abs or sculpted calves.
So what’s the harm? “The problem is that most of these posts aren’t actually motivating us to be healthier,” explains Lexie Kite, co-director of Beauty Redefined, a nonprofit devoted to promoting positive body image online. “They are motivating us to lose weight and get ‘fit’ to match up to certain beauty ideals—often at the expense of our health.” Most of the people in fitspo posts are thin and extremely toned, without what Kite calls “normal signs of living” like enlarged pores or acne. And common fitspo slogans like “Fit Girls Look Good Naked” and “Unless You Puke, Faint, or Die, Keep Going” aren’t empowering. They’re really reinforcing the idea that how our bodies look is the most important thing about us. #Nottrue.
HOW FITSPO HURTS
Perhaps the most insidious thing about fitspo is that it bills itself as the backlash to another dangerous social media trend: thinspo, which encouraged a totally unhealthy obsession with weight. Instagram banned that hashtag in 2012. Many fans of fitspo argue that it’s the antithinspo. But fitspo is still about achieving a certain body type—just now, in addition to being super thin, you’re expected to be super toned as well.
And while the thinspo trend primarily targeted girls and women, fitspo is more equal opportunity, with nearly as many guys posting photos of their chiseled physiques as girls. “Boys are sold the lie that they need to take up more space in the world by having bigger muscles, just like girls are told to take up less space by being thin,” explains Kite. “Both are harmful ideals that can lead to unhealthy behaviors like purging, over-exercising, or the use of diet pills and steroids.” Ian Kirby, Marren's friend and a fellow fitness buff, says, “These people are on another level. It's easy to see this stuff and be like, man, what will it take for me to get there?” He steers clear of steroids and other extreme tactics, but he often sees them promoted online. “Sometimes you can just tell a guy is obviously ’roided up,” he says. “But if you didn’t realize that, it might give you unrealistic expectations.”
Of course, this doesn’t mean that simply wanting to be fit is dangerous. “If you want to run faster or get stronger, you have to push yourself—and that’s normal and healthy,” says David LaPorte, a psychology professor at Indiana University of Pennsylvania who studies eating disorders. “But when you start experimenting with lots of products designed to promote weight loss or muscle building, or if you’re regularly saying, ‘I can’t hang out with my friends or do other fun things because I have to get my workout in’—those can be signs that you’re developing a disordered relationship with food or exercise.” And while people develop eating disorders for many complicated reasons, LaPorte’s research shows that being exposed to fitspo-style images can play a role. In one study, 84 percent of college students who spent just 90 minutes looking at “thinspiration” online and kept food journals for a week cut their caloric intake by an average of 2,470 calories. “They basically stopped eating for the equivalent of a whole day as a result of that one short exposure,” LaPorte says.
WHAT YOU DON’T SEE
Marren says she never follows a fitspo account if she can tell the people on it are “obviously super fake—like they’ve been really Photoshopped or had a lot of surgery to look this way, instead of really working for it.” But while some of that fakeness is easy to spot, the staging and editing of fitspo photos can be very subtle. Some Instagrammers make a point of posting shots that show how different they look when they don’t suck in their stomachs, twist their hips, or even bend their arms in certain ways. But others don’t bother to show reality—only a carefully posed, lit, and filtered version of what they want you to think they look like. And even though we all know these images aren’t totally honest, they still have an impact on us: One survey of 2,000 women ages 18 to 24 found that even though only 15 percent of participants thought photos of models accurately depicted what those women look like in real life, 33 percent said they felt bad about their own bodies anyway. “I don’t think it’s possible to become smarter than these images or filter them out of our minds when we see them all day,” says Kite. “They become our reality, and we hold ourselves to those unrealistic ideals.”
They also sell stuff. “Most fitspo on social media is sponsored content,” notes Kite. Instagram stars post these images because they’re getting paid to promote a certain brand of workout clothes, protein powder, or energy supplement. And though they’re supposed to disclose when a post is an ad, it’s not always clear, especially once followers start to repost an “inspirational” image. Health information in these kinds of promotions is unreliable and can foster misinformation: One of Ian’s friends drank protein shakes because he thought they would give him bigger muscles. Marren also worries about friends looking for a quick fix. “They might feel like they should buy something they don’t really need,” she says.
A BETTER WAY
The first step to break the fitspo cycle: “Know that when you find yourself feeling inadequate or defining yourself by how your body looks, you’re not alone,” says Peggy Orenstein, author of Girls and Sex. “Our whole culture is experiencing this pressure. And the best way to combat it is to focus on who you are more than how you look.” Orenstein encourages girls and guys to stop body shaming both online and off. “When you hear a friend saying ‘I’m so fat,’ say, ‘I love you but I’m not going to do fat talk with you,’” she says. “Just stop. It sounds hard, but it makes a huge difference.”
If your social feeds have become inundated with unhealthy messages, Kite suggests a “media cleanse”: Pick a month, a week, or a long weekend, and avoid media—Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, blogs, even Netflix—as much as possible. “See how you feel about your life and your body when you aren’t absorbing that stream of biased, filtered, selfpromoting messages,” Kite says. When you go back online, you can start curating your feeds; only follow people who truly uplift and inspire you. “I like seeing a message like ‘Keep working hard!’” says Marren. “But I’m not interested in unrealistic goals. I’m proud of my body, and me.”