Why 'Fitspiration' Isn't So Inspirational

By , Molly Galbraith
Warning: The images and words in this post could be triggering to anyone who has had an eating disorder.

"Strong is the new skinny."
 "When I exercise, I wear all black because it's like a funeral for my fat."
"Skinny is not sexy. Healthy is."

You've probably heard or read the quotes listed above at some point. They're known as "fitspiration" or "fitspo" for short. Fitspo pictures and posters are typically images of extremely fit, lean, and muscular women, with motivational quotes on them like the ones displayed above. 

Fitspo is supposed to be a healthy alternative "thinspo" (short for thinspiration). Thinspiration images typically display extremely thin women with motivational quotes regarding getting and staying thin.  In general, these were first created by online users who wanted to inspire and support women with eating disorders to continue with their disorders and stay as thin as possible.

Yikes.

Good thing fitspo became popular, huh?  At least now we have lots of healthy images floating around the web inspiring women to be healthy and strong instead of skinny, right?

Maybe not.  

You see, it's pretty obvious to the general public that thinspo isn't healthy.  We all know that aspiring to achieve a below-normal weight or developing an eating disorder to become extremely skinny is an unhealthy thing.  Not only do people who work to become unhealthily thin lose muscle mass and bone mass, but their body goes into survival mode and starts shutting down less important bodily processes like digestion and reproduction.

Fitspo on the other hand, is generally regarded as healthy.  The men and women pictured are fit, lean, and muscular.  So they must be super healthy and in-shape, right?
 
Not always. 

As I discussed in my previous blog, for some people, being very lean is extremely difficult to achieve and hard on the body.  Not all of us are designed to walk around with veins popping and our abs showing.  Sometimes, we can accomplish it for a short period of time, but what are we sacrificing in the long-term?  Our health? Our performance? Our sanity? Maybe all three.

This is what makes fitspo even scarier than thinspo in some ways.  Your average Jane Doe will recognize that the bodies shown in the thinspo images are not only very hard to attain, but definitely not healthy.  On the other hand, Jane usually doesn't recognize that the bodies shown in the fitspo pictures aren't always healthy or realistic for everyone, or that they're usually incredibly difficult to attain and maintain (despite what the creator of the fitspo images wants you to think).

But let's set health aside for a second.  Let's assume that the fitspo body is a healthy body.  Even then, what message are the fitspo posters sending?  That we should all be fit, lean, and muscular (not to mention tan, glistening, and busty too, right?) 

So how should you feel about yourself if you're not those things?   What if you're fair-skinned or flat-chested or can't get a six-pack to save your life, or have cellulite on your legs or extra skin from giving birth to a baby—despite doing your best to exercise and eat right consistently?

Should you feel like you aren't good enough? Aren't fit enough? Don't work hard enough? That maybe it's all your fault and you're just making too many excuses?

If this is what we look at and compare ourselves to, this is what becomes the standard by which we measure ourselves.  If we don't measure up, we feel like we are "lesser than."

I get it.  Fitspo is supposed to be a positive thing.  The images are intended to be motivating and inspiring images of strong, healthy women.  And I have no doubt that a lot of women who look at them do find some motivation to start exercising or not let excuses get the best of them.

But you know what's funny? 

The women who are inspired by those images tend to already be really fit!  Those who aren't already fit, and those who do need motivation to work out and take care of themselves feel intimidated by them and feel like they can't measure up. 

So the goal of fitspo and the feelings most women have after viewing fitspo, are in fact, completely opposite.  Instead of feeling motivated, many women feel like they aren't good enough.

Not to mention, some of these "uplifting" sayings actually put other groups of people down
 
There are dozens of "motivational" fitspo posters floating around with phrases like, "Real women have curves," or, "Real women have muscles." These posters are designed to encourage women who do look like that to feel good about their bodies.  And that's great.  But if you look more closely, they are doing it at the expense of other women.

Saying, "Real women have muscles," is extremely insulting to women who aren't muscular.  Telling a woman that she is not a "real woman" because she isn't curvy is an absolutely nasty and demeaning thing to say, too. 

It boils down to this: spreading the message that women "should be" skinny, curvy, muscular, voluptuous, fit, lean, toned, etc. is complete crap.  And that's what thinspo and fitspo both have in common.

Society doesn't get to dictate how our bodies should look, and putting other women and their bodies down in order to feel better about our own is NEVER a good thing.  The more that we spread negativity and hate, the more the negativity and hate will come back to us.
 
So what's the solution?

The solution is actually my life's mission:

To help women have grace and compassion when it comes to their bodies.

You see, when we have grace and compassion for our own bodies, then we afford that same grace and compassion to others.  We don't need to insult anyone's body to feel better about our own.   

Now I'm not saying that this is an easy task, but here's a tip to help. Next time you're tempted to turn to a fitspo poster for inspiration, why don't you sit down and think about your unique body, what you love about it, and what it allows you to do.

Can you run far? Jump high? Lift heavy? Move around without getting winded?

Can you change the water cooler at work without anyone's help or hoist 50-pound bags of dog food over your shoulder?

Does your body allow you to nurture and take care of yourself and your family?

Does your butt look absolutely killer in a nice pair of jeans?

Figure out what you love the most and are most proud of about your body, and don't forget it.  Then, share the wealth.  Give a friend a genuine compliment.  Tell her what you think is awesome about her body.  Not in relation to yours, or anyone else's.  Make it about her.  She will feel good, you will feel good, and the "good" will keep spreading.  

And that is more inspiring than a fitspo poster any day of the week.
 
What do you think? Do you find "fitspiration" images to be inspiring or insulting?


About the Author
Molly Galbraith is a strength coach and co-owner of J&M Strength and Conditioning, a rapidly expanding, private gym in Lexington, Kentucky, for professional athletes and the general public alike. She is also co-founder of the wildly popular Girls Gone Strong group, a movement dedicated to changing the way women train. Her mission is to, ''Help women give themselves grace and compassion when it comes to their bodies, and to help them discover and accept what their best body looks like, with minimal time and effort.'' She has also been an expert contributor to magazines like Oxygen andExperience Life. No stranger to the gym herself, she has competed in both figure and powerlifting and her best lifts include a 275-lb. squat, a 165-lb. bench press, and a 341-lb. deadlift. You can find out more about Molly by visiting her website, and you can keep up with her latest adventures on Facebook and Twitter

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Comments

KHALIA2 5/26/2018
Thanks for this great info! Report
EVILCECIL 3/17/2018
Thanks - great article. Report
GETTINLEANIN18 2/26/2018
I think this is a great article. And for those people accusing people of being "sensitive ninnies" and those who find offense over the "only real women..." obviously never had anyone ruin their self-esteem nor had anyone tell them they are not a real woman. I don't have kids and for years I was told I was "not a real woman" for not having them. So before name calling and putting people down, try to have some compassion about where that comes from. It took me a long time for me to have the self-esteem I now have and I'm still very hard on myself. Women and girls are constantly being bombarded by images of how we're "supposed" to look. I know I will never look like those images however I do know I can work hard to get the best body I can. It won't look like the images I see, but I will be better and healthier for it. Report
BEBAUGH1 2/26/2018
Excellent article. Thank you for these words of wisdom! Report
LSIG14 2/26/2018
I guess I'm a little "insensitive" because I think the Fitbo ads are fine. I certainly see nothing offensive about them. Perhaps if I had a major self-esteem problem, I would be bothered, but I am aware that I am not physically fit and will have to work to get there. I will never be thin or muscle-bound but I will make the effort to get stronger and healthier as the ads indicate we all should. Report
FITGIGI0102 2/18/2018
I begin to wonder if it's possible to be too PC. ANY statement can be offensive to someone looking for offense. But I AM grateful for this article and the comments submitted because I honestly find "fitspiration" very motivational and empowering; it never occurred to me that others could find it negative.
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ARTJAC 1/22/2018
THANKS Report
SHOAPIE 1/22/2018
Thank you. Report
MBPP50 1/22/2018
Great article! Thanks. Report
ETHELMERZ 1/21/2018
These kinds of so called “motivational “ cutesy posters and sayings are on the daily community feed on here, as a matter of fact...apparently no one from SP monitors them. People pushing semi starvation, or drinking nonsense mixtures, elixirs made from recipes known to be toxic, cleanses, etc. Report
GABY1948 7/15/2017
GREAT article! Thanks! Report
LADY_OF_MYSTERY
Great Article
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MBLACKWEL9
I looked online and found pictures of women that look like a realistic goal, for me and my body type, to use as inspiration. At 46 I know I won't look like a supper muscular/fit 20yr old once the weight is gone, but I do know I can reach a fit/strong and healthy 160lbs. I enjoyed the article and even liked the web page articles on her site. Report
FALLSTREKKIES
My husband and I work every night delivering. We have a good friend whom has been really helping inspire me. He's young, he's very positive and he is very fit physically. He started working out and is helping with my challenge. I started at 300 lbs. I had lost 126 lbs 8 yrs ago, was feeling so good and fit but I did not have a body that I wanted. I would feel good then be reminded by a trainer that I needed a lot to work on to have a fit body. I started really hating how I looked again. I gained slowly for 5 years and here I am.

So ty SP, I have lost near 30 lbs in 7 weeks but moreso, I feel hopeful and I want to exercise again. I start to love me as me. But my friend, a very sweet young man, said to me I was doing awesome and to keep pushing to make my body firm and fit again. He said, I dont want to be rude, but women with those firm, toned bodies are 'hot'. The more he said, the more my really happy feeling went down. But I won't be that again and I found it disturbing that this is what it comes down to for inspiring weight loss. It's discouraging.

The previous comments simply implying people aren't strong enough and are ninnies for choosing to take them seriously aren't understanding real eating disorders. They are much deeper then simply a diet. Many women here have depression, abusive relationships and have been put down all their lives. Self esteem doesn't come from being born and saying I will be stronger then that. You may be stronger from where you come from but this world has many people whom deserve a little more understanding.

I am strong but not always and I'm worse for those years when I wasn't. My health isn't so good now and I think I gave up some years for letting those people with the mindset of 'perfection' and 'fit' rule me but that's not something I asked for. It's not something anyone asks for. Aren't we supposed to be teaching our daughters to love themselves for who they are and not live a in a world where they're always judged by what media tells us? Yes at 45 I can look back and say sure, you can choose. But at 20, lets be real, it's all about peers, boyfriends and what young friends like ours said.

My 16 yr old daughter fights challenges she got from being my daughter. She goes through days of horrible teen pressure and self esteem that we try to build up but these ads; they don't help anything.
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In a similar vein, I find the photo attached to Day 4 of SP's 30-Day Jumpstart Your Workout Challenge to be very disturbing. From the back, dressed in a tiny sports bra that looks loose, is a woman with a knobby shoulder bone poking up, and loose skin wrinkling on her skinny body--perhaps because she has no fat on her body at all or has lost lost an excess of weight: she does not look healthy! Yet I'm supposed to be inspired by her or want to look like that? Oh, heck no! Please feature real people with real bodies more, Spark People! Report
Loved your article. I recently shared on my Spark teams that I thought it was sad that a great article about 17 yoga poses that can help you alleviate pain mainly featured pictures of young, tiny, extremely flexible yoga teachers. I fear that most of the overweight, inflexible, older people who saw that article would take one look at the first couple pictures, think "I can't do that!" and be turned off to the possibility that they might ever develop a yoga practice or derive any benefit from it. I wish Spark would do a better job of using "real people" photos for their articles, and modifications for the less fit, less flexible and older members. Report
Why would a comment like "real women have a six-pack" demean me? I have the choice to buy into that or not, and I'm not the kind of ninny who would take offense at that. Are women really so fragile and easily offended that words like that actually hurt them? If so, it doesn't say much for my sex. If someone says real women have whatever, it is NOT at my expense. It takes absolutely nothing from me, nor does it invalidate anything about me. I can't imagine how any woman with anything between her ears would think it did. What the hell has happened to feminism that sought to empower women? This just encourages the crybabies among us. Report
What profanity? I liked this article. Report
First of all, I really don't like the profanity that you used in the article. I think you can do better! I don't use profanity when I write, or when I talk to others. Show some respect for yourself and your audience by leaving it out.

I think there might be some good fitspiration memes. People should feel encouragement to pursue fitness as a lifestyle, and not just a means to an end, like with the thinspiration memes. But people should definitely not be putting down others. And super thin people aren't all that inspiring, because they may be working out too much. If the saying on the meme is mean to others or gross, or if the model looks anorexic, pass it up! Don't post those.

"Real women have muscles" is a parody of "Real women have curves." It was written in response to something that left people out, as a way of muscular women to feel good about themselves. I'm not so sure we should demonize anyone for that. It's a classic literary device, songs are parodied, TV shows, movies, books, short stories. Going after anyone for writing a parody, going after women for doing it, is like saying we should all be airheads. I actually take offense that you don't think it's okay to parody anything. As Americans, we have free speech, and that includes writing something that is inclusive of a group of people that take care of their bodies and are proud of being muscular. Report
Awesome critical analysis! Report
I have been reasonably fit most of my life, but also reasonably overweight, obese in my non active times (Back injury). I admire these pictures in a very non loving to myself way. They are actually destructive emotionally as I struggle with body dismorphia. But secretly, I would LOVE to look like that! Report
ANNE-IN-GTX
We live in an age where it seems too many people are "offended" at every little thing.

"Real women have muscles" is offensive now?!?!?
ALL women have muscles...some are just more defined than others...so unless the picture shows a hugely muscular woman (body builder?) or suggesting that if YOU don't look like that, you're somehow not a real women...what is the problem?!?!?

Too much political correctness going on in every avenue of our lives...it's ridiculous in the true meaning of the word: worthy of ridicule. Report
Guess I'm lucky. Even when I was fat (OK, Obese) I thought I looked fine. As I lost weight I was happy with the way I look. Now I am thrilled with the way I look AND feel. Don't care about how others look. Report
Great blog! Enjoyed reading it. Whether you agree or not the bottom line is that inspiration comes in all forms. If seeing fit women in posters does it for you that's great. I came to know long ago that those posters, just like magazine pics, are never representational of the greater majority of women. They are usually designed to sell us something as well, even if it's just another poster. Molly's take on this may be a bit over the top, she actually sounds angry at one point, but I get that too. I'm really, REALLY, tired of marketing companies (yes, they create these posters) telling us what we "should" look like. It does do damage to many women. The final part about paying a sincere compliment to a friend is the best part, if we stick together and support each other, we can inspire ourselves so we don't need marketing or clothing designers to tell us what we should look like. Thanks, Molly, this generated a great conversation. Report
Why do we think we have to walk like we're walking on eggshells all the time? Sheesh, Molly, you've gone overboard. There is no need to shame people, really, unless that's what it takes to wake them from their 350 pound stupor. But sometimes, that's what it takes. And I have to say, that if you are a 5'4" 24y.o. woman who is seriously pleased with her 350 pound body then you've really got problems. Just like there is no need to shame people, it is not right to tell them that it's ok to be 350 pounds. Sure, it would be nice to see some photos of real people and real achievements from those real people, like someone who went from 350 to 150, got healthy, in a healthy way, and looks really good, but those are getting further and fewer between. Why? Because lately we as society are telling people to "love your body no matter the size". Yes, we should love our body, and "love it enough to get it fit" instead of to be a couch potato sitting there eating potato chips. Report
SCOTTSWIFEY
Best article ever! Seriously, part of the beginning of my war with food was buying into the "women should" look this or that way. I agree with the author, that is crap. Report
This is a great blog. Thank you.

What is most important is we recognize and can pick the images that actually motivate us. This is personal. So if Ms. Muscles gets you out the door to the gym, use it. If not, don't. With so much available we can afford to pick. Report
I currently weigh 254 lbs (started off at 270) and have just recently started my weight loss journey. I will never look like the women in these photos...I know that, and Im ok with that. That being said, I have not been offended or made to feel bad about any of these. I love them! I have a lot of them saved to my photos so I can pull them up and urge myself on when needed. It doesnt make me feel that I have to look like that to get strong and healthy. Actually they inspire me to get as close to it as MY body and MY bone structure will allow. Im sorry for those that are being made to feel bad about themselves but I dont think that was the intention. Report
Wow this is my favorite story because I feel exactly the same way as you do Molly. I needed some motivational quotes so I have taken the time to make up two boards one I hung on my bedroom door the other is to inspire me when I wake up and its beside my bed. When I decided I wanted quotes I had no idea what fitpro etc. was all I wanted was inspiration and motivation so I made a file on my computer and copy and pasted the ones I liked. what bugged me were the pictures so because I'm fairly good at editing I went through every quote and edited out the pictures of all the women because I knew my body would never look like hers because well lets face it that's her body not mine. I don't want another woman's body I want mine in great shape and healthy. I don't care what other women look like I'm not trying to be them I'm trying to be the best I can be. There are some good and motivating quotes if you take the pictures out of them so I started righting them down on a fancy label or paper that I liked and make my motivational boards look and motivating how I want them and if they aren't positive they don't belong there. One quote that has always bugged me in particular is if you want to stay motivated eat naked in front of the mirror well that's a put down. How are you suppose to accept your body when you read that. Anyway I wish everyone the best that reads this message and please accept you because you are one of a kind and no one will ever be your beautiful only you. Yes that makes sense if you think about it. Take care all and stay positive. Report
"But you know what's funny?

The women who are inspired by those images tend to already be really fit! Those who aren't already fit, and those who do need motivation to work out and take care of themselves feel intimidated by them and feel like they can't measure up."
When I read this part of the story is when I had to tune out. Motivation comes in many different ways and when I started my journey to get fit, happy and healthy. Some of the sayings hit me just right and went right on my motivation board. I put them in my status here on sparkpeople and on facebook. I was not fit when I started - FAR FROM IT!
I see society working way too hard to be PC, to not hurt anyones feelings. This is an impossible task and the real damage is being created by teaching people not to speak their mind, not to speak up, not to find their voice. This country was created on the foundation of freedom. We spend way too much time worrying about how others might perceive how we say, look or do something.
I believe the author of this blog has the best intentions, but misguided in thinking that a simple little motivational quote can cause such a negative outcome for anyone. It is a simple quote, not a directive on how we must all look, act, or feel.
If anyone believes that a simple quote can really can derail your drive to be happy and healthy, you are missing the bigger picture in their life.
Getting happy and healthy is all about balance, getting your head and heart in the same direction to achieve your goals. If you are not ready 100% in every aspect of your life, you will not succeed. You can't blame a simple motivational quote for that. You simple are not in a place in life where you are ready. Its about taking ownership for your life, loving the person you are and valuing who you are inside and out.
I hope you all find that balance and soar to your happy and healthy place! Report
Isn't it time to admit that people can think for themselves? I am 60 pounds over weight and seeing a fit man or woman on the internet is not going to make me go off and starve myself or suddenly commit to 4 hours a day of training. No one forces anyone to look at these images. For the people they motivate, great and for the others they can leave it alone. Report
I get a magazine in the mail, I think it's Men's Fitness. Anyway, there is always a very buff and tanned guy on the cover, with his shirt off, of course. I really can't relate to these guys. Reading through the magazine, there are a lot more of them. They are a little intimidating, and I know I won't be re-upping my subscription. Just wanted to point out, it happens to men too. Glenn Report
I'm sorry, but this is a little ridiculous. Different people find different things inspiring. I LOVE the Fitspo (new to that term) pictures. They're inspiring to me and I know it's unlikely I'll ever be that cut or muscled, and I'm NOWHERE near that right now anyway. I think if you'd said "hey, this doesn't work for everyone" that would have been one thing, but saying "hey, this is bad" is another. Report
This article left me feeling flabby Report
I totally agree with this column, but as others noted, SparkPeople is guilty of the "fitspo" tactic of only showing young, thin women to accompany its inspirational quotes. Kettle, meet pot. Report
I know I won't look like any of these photos--I am 58 and have given birth to 3 healthy kids! But I can see some muscles on my frame so I have been working. But I do think Spark could show some OLDER folks, some men, some heavier folks--because we are the demographic they are trying to reach.

That said--many of the videos are done by those shown--have we got any men making realistic videos? Any older or larger women? So--make a fitness video and put it out there--Spark may put it up instead of some of the others. Report
Back in the day I had a trainer. I hated her. She made me hurt so bad on most days. After a few months I began noticing that I had muscle definition in my pudgy flabby tummy. It was the weirdest thing I had ever seen. Oh how I wish I had stuck with it. Report
yes! this article is awesome. Report
I don't mind those images. They let me see how muscles look like on a woman. I'm obese, so nothing like them. As I work out and do my strength training, working on those muscles these women display, I do start to see contours of them in myself (however deep under the skin) - and that's very motivational!

I think there's a difference between whether or not you're the kind of person who have a distance to such images or not. I don't consider them an ideal which I should achieve, or I've failed. I also don't expect or want to ever look like Charlize Theron. There are reasons why these women are in pics and movies, and 99,9% of us aren't. My talents lie elsewhere.

However, when it comes to images used by a site like SP, I think it's a whole different question. This is a site largely used by people who struggle with overweight, and are trying to lose this weight, live healthy and work out.

I think it would be a good change of pace, and probably very inspirational, to show women and men "of volume" doing the exercises, sweating and smiling - showing that, in fact, you don't have to look like Rambolina to get it done!

Report
SOCALDEBBIE
I find the images disheartening and no better than the "thinspo" images, setting the same unrealistic ideal. Who says those models are healthy? Moreover, who says they actually look like that? How many of those images are Photoshopped? I'm not bothered by people aspiring to be fit and lean. I'm bothered by the assumption that if I work out enough, I'll look like that, and if I don't look like that, it's my own fault. Not true.

CLAYMACT, I've thought the same thing. SP's photos are of slender and almost always young women. Hardly reflective of the majority of us on this site, or of the goal to be healthy rather than (necessarily) thin.. Report
GABABS
Thanks for the interesting blog, Molly. I never thought about it like this but I can see how people would feel the things you've discussed.

I don't think I'll probably ever have the body that these folks have but the idea that I could be stronger and healthier and at least have the flat stomach and nice arms and shoulders that I used to have helps to keep me motivated. Report
As a person with depression, I find fitspo to be intimidating and even dispiriting. When I look at these gorgeous, strong, thin girls it makes me feel as if I can never achieve those looks- instead of being motivated. Report
I find this blog correct in every way, but an ironic indictment against SparkPeople. I have alternated between bemused and mildly disgusted at the images SparkPeople uses. They consistently preach what I believe is a healthy lifestyle, but then show only thin, attractive models, including the coaches and workout videos, or even in their one-line motivational quotes. Granted, I suppose the coaches should be healthy, but they look just like the models in the photos. There is no reason an inspirational quote has to show a thin, even skinny young woman in stylish workout clothing. Why not a man? Why not in casual clothing, or with children? Why not sometimes, to be fair, but not always? I find it ironic, or even hypocritical. Report
Not offended at all. I believe most of us know that each woman (man) is built differently.
We also know that being obese is not healthy.
Health and Beauty are two different things: One can ALWAYS be beautiful, at any size. However, one cannot always be HEALTHY at any size. Report
If you're bothered by people who seek to be fit and lean, and find these pictures distressing, YOU have a problem.

Why is is the end of the world whenever flabby/overweight/obese/unfit people are called out as such, but it's perfectly for flabby/obese/overweight/unfit people to hurl insults are people who are in good shape?

Such hipocrisy. Report
Love this article. The women in the pictures are young and beautiful, and have obviously put in a lot of gym time to achieve their physiques, but they also have a genetic predisposition to being lean that not all women do. Fit and healthy comes in all different sizes. We need to focus on acceptance and love of ourselves, and all women. We are more than our bodies, and I think that often gets lost in the media, and even in a weight loss community! Report
I used to worry all the time about not being pretty/thin/fit enough. As you age that you recognize that attitude for the waste of effort that it is. Be good to yourself, guard your health, and disregard the rest. Most of the images in fitness ads are photo shopped any way. Nobody really looks like that! Report
NDAKOTAAJ
What is sad to me is how many of the visuals I see on this site could be referred to by this story. Hello - start listening - visuals with REAL people in them are long overdue HERE. If we cannot come here and see it, where are we to look? Report
ALIIDA
Is it just me, or are these women actually too thin anyway? Really strong lean women that I know look slim but more sold than this. Report
Thank you for putting into words what I've been noticing and feeling as I've looked at these images and posts. They do tend to leave me feeling more discouraged than inspired. Report
 
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