Media Monday: “Fitspiration” of the Nation: Motivation or Manipulation?

Lisa Henneman

This is a guest post by Lisa Henneman who blogs at The Watershed Addiction Treatment Center 

The female body comes in all shapes and sizes, as most understand. For a woman to be comfortable in her own skin is the pinnacle of confidence. For decades however, women have been hammered with images from the media presenting the twisted notion that beauty and desirability correlate with a delicate, and generally thin figure. Sadly, women can be vulnerable to internalizing these stereotypes, and base their self-worth on unrealistic beauty standards of mainstream media and advertising. The adverse consequences lead to insecurity and self-loathing, as well as eating disorders, emotional and behavioral disorders, and even death. While this standard of beauty still affects the self-esteem of women throughout society today, public perceptions of female health have shifted dramatically toward a focus on thinness. As evidenced particularly in the realm of social media, portrayals of beautiful women are increasing in the form of svelte, muscle-bound elite athletes with pretty faces.

“Fit is the New Skinny,” is the text on images sweeping through social media forums such as Pinterest, Tumblr, and Facebook. It’s become a slogan printed on a wave of images to offer what many have tagged “fitspiration.” In the pursuit of a toned physique, the images often facilitate encouragement when tempted to backslide into poor eating habits, and motivation when laziness threatens exercise regimens.  Other variations include:

  • “If you want to give rewards for food, get a dog.”
  • “Skinny girls look good in clothes, fit girls look good naked.”
  • “You can feel sore tomorrow or feel sorry tomorrow: YOU CHOOSE.”

Seems like a noble cause, since there isn’t anything wrong with eating healthy and exercising regularly. But could the subculture of fitness fanatics be molding a new standard of beauty? The idea that skinny is “out” and fit is “in,” automatically suggest a superior body type. While the images themselves may encourage a healthy lifestyle, it’s possible for women to respond to them in an unhealthy way. Before taking extreme measures to get the perfectly chiseled physique, it’s important to be honest about ways in which you will to meet your goals surrounding health and beauty. Here are some questions to ask yourself to decide if “fitspiration” is right for you.


What Am I Motivated To Achieve?

It’s very easy to cross the line between creating a healthy lifestyle to trying to meet a beauty standard. Try to pay attention to how you personally are inspired. Do most pictures cause you to covet an unrealistic standard of beauty? Putting in hours of grueling exercise to achieve the same rock-hard six-pack as your “fitspiration” role-model, is entirely different than strengthening your core because of the long-term health implications. Be honest, so you don’t set yourself up for overwhelming feelings of failure, and further depletion of self-esteem.

Tip: Instead of basing your success in health and beauty on an image of someone else, try giving yourself a step-by-step set of goals that are realistic, and measurable. For example, consider commitment to exercising three times per week for one hour. Maybe write down a list of short, and long-term goals you can discuss with your doctor or fitness trainer who can offer unbiased feedback, and assist in giving you a practical perspective on where your ambition in placed.


What Am I Willing To Do To Reach Physical Health?

Creating a healthy relationship with physical activity can be just as challenging as with diet and eating habits. If you see yourself developing obsessive behaviors all in the name of health, you may actually be doing more harm than good. The extreme desire for physical perfection has even led some to permanently change their appearance through body modification, and facial reconstructive plastic surgeries.

Tip: Accountability can be helpful, especially for those who tend to be perfectionists, or who have struggled with an unhealthy relationship with diet or exercise in the past. Sometimes, the best way to avoid developing (or returning to) unhealthy behaviors is asking someone to help keep you on the right track mentally, physically, and emotionally. Instead of just an images with motivational phrases, this would be a person you can trust to encourage you with the context of your personality and goals in mind. Whether it’s a friend, family member or medical professional, this person can help you keep the right perspective.


How Do I Respond When I Fall Short of My Goals?

Some “fitspiration” images can present an inappropriate message for the context or mindset a viewer is in at moment it’s received. Meaning, an image of a fitness model with the words, “You’re either a fighter, or a quitter. The choice is yours,” might make someone who just bailed on their workout feel like they’re a “quitter” and a “failure”. Following moments of weakness, do you punish yourself by not eating another meal until you’re back in a caloric deficit, or vow to sweat out every last empty calorie you ate? Extreme self-loathing can cause individuals to turn to disordered eating behavior to atone for perceptions of failure, while others are so discouraged, they stop trying to achieve a healthier lifestyle altogether. If images you post for motivation evoke self-depreciating emotions, to which you have a self-destructive response, you may want to rethink how helpful “fitspiration” is for you.

Tip: Falling below personal standards, in pursuit of health or beauty, never constitutes self-inflicted punishment of any kind. If you are someone who goes to extreme measures to relieve feelings of guilt, it’s best to talk to a professional. Remember, life circumstances don’t always allow for strict diet and workout regimes to be upheld. Keep in mind, missing a workout will not derail all your efforts.


It’s not wrong to take care of our bodies in the ways which helps us be the best we can be. It’s just not healthy when we start conforming to what pop-culture decides what “the best” is for us. Thoughts, feelings and behaviors related to managing food and weight can begin to interfere with our everyday activities. Focusing too much attention on our bodies and our eating can quickly lead to missed opportunities in other parts of our lives. Our personal and professional lives, as well as our overall well-being, can be drastically affected. If you or someone you care about is struggling with a negative body image, or is exhibiting dangerous behaviors in eating or exercise, there are people who can help.