Now that we’re in May, it’s likely that everyone’s New Year’s resolutions to eat better and drink less have fallen by the wayside. And as we move into winter (in the Southern hemisphere at least), it’s getting harder to convince yourself to get out from under the blankets and go for an early morning run.
It’s harder still to look at photos of thin but incredibly toned people demonstrating twisty Yoga poses, which appear to have taken over Instagram, Tumblr and other social media sites, as well as marketing for supplements and sports gear.
These kinds of pictures form part of the Fitspo (“Fitspiration”) movement, which focuses on images of athletic-looking woman (rather than men, for the most part) and adopts mantras such as “fit not thin” or “strong is the new skinny.” Fitspo represents a backlash against the obesity epidemic on the one hand, and “thinspiration” or pro-anorexia sites on the other.
Fitspo might be seen as a positive, embracing the idea of strong, dynamic women who aren’t afraid of lifting weights or building muscle.
But I think we should say no to FitSpo, and more specifically, to images of tiny, toned women looking graceful yet sporty in carefully chosen athleisure wear.
Why? Well, where to begin.
There’s nothing wrong with promoting or encouraging physical activity, and if you want to post on Facebook that you just ran 10km, well, you won’t see any complaints here. But FitSpo often conflates vanity and self-promotion with fitness, and its body positive message can hide obsessive dieting or exercise routines that are just as detrimental to women’s health as excessive weight gain or eating disorders.
What’s more, Fitspo continues the traditional trend of close scrutiny of women’s bodies (at the expense of prizing women’s intellects or personalities), as well as encouraging competition between women as to who can look the most toned (but not too bulky, remember).
People who exercise a lot don’t necessarily look like FitSpo models. I’m a long-distance runner and general all-round exercise junkie, but I don’t have the legs of Meghan Markle (I don’t have Prince Harry either for that matter). I have stretch marks, a scar where I burnt myself with the iron accidentally (long story), and what could best be described as wobbly bits.
Even professional athletes don’t necessarily meet the Fitspo ideal. One of the best things about looking at pictures of female athletes is that it shows that women come in all shapes and sizes. But keep in mind that Serena Williams, one of the world’s most successful athletes, has faced criticism over her body shape.
For the most part, FitSpo normalizes a particular brand of (thin, white, middle-class) beauty. It suggests that we can only do exercise if we can look svelte in expensive sports gear, while sucking down green goddess juices in perfect make-up.
Sport and exercise aren’t just for the young and beautiful. Everybody needs to be moving more, and they should feel comfortable and happy when doing it, rather than self-conscious about how they look or whether they’re wearing the right thing. There’s a book I like called Just Ride. Its central argument is that people shouldn’t worry about having flashy Lycra jerseys, clip-on shoes or grinding out endless miles– they should just get on their bike (in normal clothes) and ride. The same applies for other forms of exercise too. But I worry that body beautiful ideals too often keep people out of the gym or off the walking track.
It doesn’t have to be this way. Check out this ad, part of the New Zealand Government’s “Push Play” campaign to encourage physical activity. Another ad in this series featured a Polynesian man taking his pig for a walk – not exactly the Insta-perfect image we might see on Fitspo sites, but one we should be encouraging instead.
So how about making a May resolution to put on whatever clothes you feel comfortable in, and going for a walk with friends, taking up salsa dancing, playing a game of footy, or doing whatever else you like to get moving. And feel free to post a picture on social media, even if you do look #lessthanperfect.