The Problem with Fitspo

Trigger warning: Discussion of fitspo and thinspo, “motivational” images, body shaming, and diet culture

A new year has just started, which for many people will mean making resolutions for the year ahead. By far the most common resolution I hear people making is to lose weight and/or get fit, and lots of women will turn to online fitspo and thinspo communities in order to find motivation, workout ideas, diet plans etc. I am definitely not against anyone wanting to get more in shape, or even to lose weight if that’s what they wish, though I do believe the focus should always be on health and fitness rather than aspiring to an arbitrary number. However, there are various problems in the fitspo and thinspo communities, and since many more people will be looking into them at the moment, it seemed like a good time to talk about some of them. 

I will start by saying that thinspo and fitspo are somewhat different animals, and I will mainly be discussing fitspo. Thinspo usually completely skips the focus on fitness, instead focusing on glorifying specific body types and features which are unattainable for most women (case in point: thigh gaps). Thinspo images often encourage undereating and romanticise thinness, suggesting that being thin will solve all of your problems. Fitspo was created to be a healthy alternative to this, and by comparison, it’s definitely an improvement, but there are still some very toxic ideas present in the fitspo community.

Fitspo image: "Don't stop when it hurts, stop when you're done"

That is, assuming you want to seriously injure yourself.

One of the biggest problems with so many of these fitspo motivationals is that they promote unsafe behaviours and goals, and they rely on guilt and shame to do so. Too many of these images glorify pain, discourage listening to your body, and use shaming language to “motivate” you into working out or eating less. Some motivationals irresponsibly insist that you continue working out even if you are crying, out of breath, sick, tired or in pain, claiming that “quitting is unacceptable”. This, of course, is a good way to cause yourself serious injury. Exercise shouldn’t feel like punishment, and it is much easier to be motivated when you’re enjoying yourself. Listen to what your body is telling you, and rest if and when you need to.

Other images frame eating anything outside of a strict regime as a failure and something to be ashamed of, yet eating different foods in moderation is entirely reasonable. Outside of medical reasons, staunchly cutting out specific foods is usually completely unnecessary, and these sort of messages often cause guilt and self-loathing should you ever “slip up”. It’s also unsustainable in the long term, with some people feeling that eating something unhealthy compromises their entire diet, resulting in a complete return to less healthy habits. Sustainable eating habits should not have forbidden foods – everything should be allowed, as long as it’s in moderation.

Fitspo image: "Flat stomach of sweets?"

How about both? Or neither? Everyone’s genetics are different.

On top of the image captions themselves, these communities are filled almost exclusively with pictures of very thin, white, able-bodied women, intended to be aspirational, yet alienating for so many. “Do it for the body you’ve always wanted”, one image proclaims. “Do it to like what you see in the mirror”, says another, over a picture of someone with a body type that is just not attainable for most women. While these images could be inspirational for those who already have similar bodies, many other women feel dejected or intimidated by the constant stream of idealised bodies that they can’t, and may not ever, relate to.

A common side of fitspo is the “Get strong, not skinny” slogan and its variants, which supposedly encourages lifting weights and getting strong, rather than focusing on size. It sounds good on the surface, yet it has the same issues of promoting damaging behaviours, and it falls into exactly the same trap of only showcasing one kind of body. Strength is possible at any size or weight, yet once again, 99.9% of the time it is represented by thin, white, able-bodied women, this time with extra muscle definition. It claims to be a better than the images promoting thinness, but the subtext is clear: this is what strong looks like, and this is the sort of body you should aim for.

"Strong [and skinny] is the new skinny"

Annotations by fit-fabstroid

I have to admit, I am not the most qualified to speak about this topic. I am not currently trying to lose weight or improve my fitness, and I have never been involved in the fitspo/thinspo community. My opinions on these things are based mostly on reading what other people have written about how these images have affected them, and the images that I’ve come across myself. The reason I decided to write about this is due to Panache Lingerie’s current campaign, in which they are aiming to provide their customers with resources and motivation to improve their health and fitness. Along with reviews of their sports bra (which I hope to be doing soon), they have been doing numerous other projects, including a pinterest board of information and motivational images. The pinterest board is a group project with over 50 people currently participating, including everyone from lingerie bloggers to designers to retailers, which makes for a wonderfully diverse group. However, while I was happy to participate with a review, I was disappointed to open the pinterest board and see so many of the sort of images I’ve discussed above.

Fitspo pinboard screenshot

I was saddened to find such a space in the full-bust lingerie world, a world that (thanks to many bloggers and various brands) I often consider to be positive. I considered not participating at all, not wanting to associate myself or my blog with any of the negative messages, but ultimately I realised that I (and some of my fellow bloggers) could instead add some balance. For the past few days, a few of us lingerie bloggers have all started adding positive fitspo – inspirational plus size athletes, practical resources, along with reminders to take care of yourself, and to start loving your body even if you aren’t at your goal weight. I hope this does not come across as a plug for the campaign, nor a criticism of any of the other participants, as this was definitely not my motivation for writing this. I understand how many can find these images to be inspirational, and I am definitely not judging anyone who finds them useful. However, it seemed a good time to highlight the issues with these images, and explain exactly why I had decided to contribute to a pinterest board dedicated to them.

I guess the point of this post is this: If you have decided to improve your health and fitness this January, make sure you evaluate what you use for inspiration. So many of the motivational pictures and resources available promote dangerous workout and eating habits, and it’s very easy to take these things on face value without considering the underlying messages. Remember that you are just as valid and important a person at your current size as you would be smaller. Remember that you can be fit and healthy, even if the number on the scale isn’t what you wanted. Remember that food is not the enemy. Remember that everyone’s limits are different, and it’s not worth hurting yourself through overexertion. Remember that weight loss won’t magically fix all of your problems. And remember that you are worth loving, right now, exactly as you are. You don’t have to wait to start enjoying your body.


If you would like to look into more positive fitspo, you might be interested in some of these sites. I haven’t been through all of them in their entirety, so I can’t guarantee there will be nothing negative or problematic, but they are generally good resources from what I’ve seen:

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Founder and main author of Bras and Body Image. Anna is a lingerie lover, feminist and maths student based in the UK, who hopes to someday cuddle every cat in the world.

12 thoughts on “The Problem with Fitspo

  1. Pingback: Review: Panache Sports Bra | Sweet Nothings

  2. *applause* I’m glad you decided to write this since I think it’s easy to get discouraged when so much of the weight loss motivational material promotes certain bodies the most, especially when they may not be attainable for you. You don’t need to have a rock hard body or ridiculous flexibility to be healthy, and I’d like to see more posters with realistic imagery.

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  4. Great post. I really agree with what you said. Most of my concern comes from the extremity in which some of the photos portray. Of course I’d like to be strong, healthy and generally fit. But my mind isn’t stuck on being a particular size/shape, or being able to deadlift a crazy amount of weight or to have extreme muscle definition–I exercise and eat well for health reasons, including mental ones.

  5. Great post. I run occasionally and really enjoy it but I have friends who think it’s not enough. But I enjoy it and I don’t feel guilty when I don’t do it. My view is running once or twice a week (for me) is better than not running at all. If I don’t do it, there’s normally a good reason so I just get over it! The media is generally too extreme. Do what feels right and it’s unlikely you’ll go too far wrong.

  6. To be honest, a lot of those quotes sound like things that my wrestling coaches would tell me. Not so much the “strong=new skinny” ones but the more “pain no gain” ones. I don’t think of those as glorifying pain, but more of trying to push yourself to the edge of your limits- which, I don’t think is a bad thing. While I have issue with glorifying specific body types, those motivational ones don’t seem like there’s anything seriously negative about them.

    • Exactly. I’m on my university’s rowing team, and I agree: the quotes in this post sound like things that my coach would say. While you’re definitely not supposed to row while you’re seriously sick or injured (and you shouldn’t be injured unless you’ve rowed with improper form), you can and should row if your muscles ache or you’re tired. Rowing is a team sport: no matter what, you can’t just give up, because your teammates need you to finish any race. Besides that, strengthening your endurance in any sport means ignoring or pushing through pain and tiredness on some level. Your body will always want to stay in its comfort zone, and raising its threshold means that you have to learn to refuse your body and mind’s demands to stop. I’ve rowed and felt like crying, felt nauseous, felt as limp as cooked spaghetti, etc.; it wasn’t (isn’t) fun but I was proud of myself afterwards because I’d refused to slow down or give up, had pushed myself beyond what I thought I could do–or would have allowed myself to do–and came out stronger for it. That being said, you shouldn’t push yourself to near failure every time you work out or neglect things like eating healthy snacks before and/or after, eating to support your body, getting at least 8 hours of sleep each day, and getting rest between workouts; the focus should be on being the best athlete you can be.

  7. I find fitspo as is to be thinspo plus damage yourself workouts.

    I’m big. I’m built that way. Even when I look skeletal (fun of four stomach viruses back to back – lost 32 pounds), I’m big in my legs and wear a size 10 pant. I normally wear a 14 or 16 in US size. I run marathons, I bike almost everywhere, I kick box and am a trainer for several classes. I get my doctor cranky because I’ve got a low body fat percentage.

    Most of my “gross” fat is carried in my stomach. Common in women, it relates to the ability to carry and develop a fetus. To get a six pack as shown, my doctor and trainers agree you have a body fat low enough to stop menstruation. It’s as bad as thigh gap.

    So, I figure, I’m active, fit, love to help people start, wave my virtual pom-poms – fitspo would be good. Nope. My fat stomach means I’m not fit. I have to lose that icky stuff. Yay, more fools on the internet.

    But – I see some of the extreme flexibility shown and want those people to be checked for Ehler Danos. Which is why I’m that flexible. It’s not good at all, it can be just painful all the way to fatal. You don’t heal normally from injuries. But, not me, and I’m a fat slacker or something, so I can scram.

  8. How did I not see this post until now? I love this so much. I totally agree. I’ve noticed that Panache is doing this a lot, pushing the whole workout/fitness theme, and I’m unsure why, as their sports bras are a small portion of their lingerie designs. Regardless, this post is so well written and it reminded me why you’re one of my favorite lingerie blogs.

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  10. Pingback: Fitspo: Inspiring Or Dangerous? – A Social Media Blog

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