Those ‘fitspiration’ photos make me feel inadequate

#Fitspo social-media images of toned bodies can become a nasty visual tool


Unless you’ve been living under a rock with no wifi, you may have heard of the term “#Fitspo”. It’s like “inspo” – that’s “inspiration” for us millennials who are too busy to bother using the full word – but with a different theme: fitness. Most pertinent across the social media platforms of Instagram and Snapchat, fitspo is a relatively new culture of instant, image-based fitness motivation, but one that for many, should be consumed with caution. 

“Fitspo” accounts are usually followed with the best of intentions; they’re consumed as a positive tool for self-motivation. Similar to a can of Red Bull, the initial effect is one of feeling “pumped”, particularly powerful after a weekend of indulgence (just look up #MondayMotivation). These social media posts show you – via the popular #TransformationTuesday, for example – that anything is possible. They remind you that there’s really no such thing as being too busy to squeeze in a quick session at the gym. They prove that you don’t have to be an athlete to maintain the kind of physique that we’ve long been conditioned to identify as ideal. “If he can do it, I can do it”. . . You know the rest.

The thing is, this does not have the same effect on everyone; over time, your mindset and core beliefs play a major deciding role in how this kind of content will affect you. According to clinical psychologist Dr Malie Coyne, if you have good self-esteem and positive self-belief, you may interpret fitspo as motivating; it spurs you on. You might even begin sharing your own fitness posts, inspiring your own set of followers. If, however, you have lower self-esteem and a more fragile view of yourself, this kind of “upward social comparison” is more likely – paradoxically – to have a damaging effect. It was a mild case of the latter that I experienced.

Physical aspiration
At the beginning of 2017, I was feeling lazy, lethargic and under the weather. I turned my gaze towards social media, following a wave of fitness accounts, plenty of which were already inescapable on my newsfeed. But unlike a magazine I could finish and throw in the recycle bin, this was an endless, daily stream of physical aspiration. No longer, it seemed, was good physical health defined by the absence of disease – or the lack of muffin top – but by the presence of carefully sculpted muscles and other body parts I couldn’t pronounce. We’re talking gravity-defying bums, cheese-gratingly good abs and an upsetting amount of broccoli. 

It made sense, I thought; before embarking on my own fitness regime, I would start by building up my motivational reserves via Instagram. If I can visualise what’s possible, and get into this mindset, I’ll be more encouraged to get going. I was hooked, scrolling obsessively through accounts called “Squatspo” and others such as the one by social media star Kayla Itsines. 

Not long after, however, the motivation waned. Instead of focusing on my own goals and a fitness routine that would suit me, I sat back, absorbing everybody else’s physical achievements – I was purely focused on the aesthetics of body shapes nothing like mine, instead of the actual exercises that I could try – and so, I felt bad about myself. No longer helpful, it had become a nasty visual tool, with which to berate myself for not being good enough, or for sleeping in instead of getting up to work out at 7am, or for devouring that “family size” bar of Galaxy Caramel without having “earned it”. Sure, I still admired people’s personal efforts to get fit and stay fit, but I disliked the exclusivity of terms such as #FitFam – a concept that’s supposed to be about support but feels a lot like Taylor Swift’s squad; you’re either in or you’re out – which many subscribe to. 

While this act of social comparison is nothing new, it’s something we’re engaging with at an extreme and often counterproductive level, thanks to today’s social media. According to Leon Festinger, the leading psychologist behind social comparison theory, the desire to “keep up with the Jones’s” is deeply ingrained within us all. All through evolution, we’ve stacked ourselves up against others in an attempt to measure our own self-worth in light of other people; it’s an (often failed) attempt to make “accurate” self-evaluations. But with social media, as you can imagine, it’s anything but accurate. 

Lighting and filters 
The information we use to compare ourselves with is more skewed than ever - thanks in large part to good lighting and filters – all of which leads us to make inaccurate evaluations about other people and thus devalue our own sense of worth. For too many of us – particularly those growing up with social media – this kind of social comparison will always be heavily tinged with discouragement; whatever way it works out, someone’s always going to end up on the bottom. 

I spoke with several Irish men and women who shared their thoughts on this wave of #Fitspo. Did it inspire them? Did it affect them in a negative way? Were they indifferent towards it? Is there a healthy approach? 
For the most part, the men found it encouraging. Will Lynch, who works in digital advertising, says of these posts: “They are hugely inspiring, motivating and encouraging! Seeing the amazing body transformation and ripped physiques of the likes of Hugh Jackman, Henry Cavill and Jason Statham remind you that you are not pushing yourself hard enough.” “Nothing but motivational,” says professional trainer and fitness clinic owner Thomas McLoughlin. While Mark O’Toole, who works in PR, adds: “I think some can be vanity. I prefer brands and people that put up practical things that focus on holistic wellbeing that help me with diet, exercise and motivation; not the ‘gym/food porn’ that some people put up.” 

Unsurprisingly, women were more familiar with my predicament. 

Dr Coyne explains that “within Festinger’s theory, ‘upward social comparison’ refers to individuals who compare themselves with an individual or group that they perceive as better than themselves with the aim of either making them feel better about themselves or inspiring them to improve. Although men do make upward comparisons, research has found that more women make upward comparisons by comparing themselves with unrealistically high standards presented in the media. As women are shown more mainstream media images of fit, trim, and so-called ‘happy’ women, they perceive the ideal to be the norm for societal views of attractive. Not surprisingly, this can result in more negative feelings about the self.”

‘Fit failure’
I talked to a sample of women about #Fitspo. “I unfollowed all the fitness models as they made me feel bad about myself,” said Roisin Finnegan, who works insocial media. “It makes me feel like a fit failure”, said radio presenter Claire Ronan, while Lauren Higgs, a digital marketer, added: “I find it particularly demotivating on Instagram. I recently just went through all my followers and unfollowed the ‘fitspiration’ accounts I had originally thought would encourage me. I don’t find it realistic to compare myself with women and men who work out at least seven times a week. Each time I’m exposed to it, it makes me feel guilty for not focusing my entire week around exercise. The most worrying part of it, I find, is young girls and teenagers thinking they need to be on that level – feeling self-conscious if they’re not.” 

Perhaps hitting the nail on the head, another women, entrepreneur Andrea Horan, told me that if you’re looking for fitness motivation, fitspo can indeed do the trick; what doesn’t help is the underlying “bodyspo”: “I love looking at workouts on Instagram. It totally gets me pumped and excited for my next gym session, it almost gets my heart beat racing with excitement. But I think the key is who you follow. For me, I follow places like TigerMuayThai in Phuket because the focus is on the workouts, not photos of abs and how muscly people’s’ backs are. Sure, there are prime athletes there but there’s also people just starting their fitness journey (and loving it) in the videos too. I also love watching people like Ashley Graham doing her workouts as it’s great for representation and shows that it’s not the size of your body but what you can do with it that’s important. Plus-size people often get tarred with the lazy brush and so many times it’s just not the case. So for me, fitspo is about actual ditspo, and it totally inspires me. What puts me off is bodyspo, and I just don’t tune into pages or people that promote that.” 

Proper professionals
Amy O’Gara, who also works in digital marketing says: “I think people are looking at ‘fitspiration’ here the wrong way and in the wrong places. Unfollow the self-appointed fitness influencers who post endless photos in crop tops and brightly printed leggings that are a size too small for them. Why not follow proper professionals who post videos of their training so you can see learn about proper form? Why not follow foodies who provide endless photos of healthy meals? I urge everyone who has commented here saying that fitspo infuriates them or makes them feel bad about themselves to unfollow these people and look for normal people in Ireland or abroad who post things that actually motivate them.”

Freelance journalist Sarah Doran says: “Everybody’s body type is different and that’s something that’s just not reflected on a lot of these channels. And as one comment I read on an Instagram video so astutely put it, you never see the slightly bigger or normal-figured person doing these little workouts they recommend – so you have no real concept of how long it takes to get your body into that shape.”

Is there a solution? Ultimately, we should be more focused on the workouts that appeal to us on a personal level – for which the videos are more helpful – than perfectly posed imagery. Thankfully, several bloggers are beginning to shed light on the magic of a good filter, or the mysterious abs that can appear and disappear from morning to night. “Set your own goals towards your own individual needs”, says Rachael Kellett, who works in banking.

“I take what I want from them”, says blogger Michelle Murphy. Stylist Justine King says: “The great thing with Instagram is that you do choose who you follow so I still have a couple of fitness accounts on my feed whose posts I am interested in and if I want to check in on someone I’m not following I can search for their page. This way it’s less in my face than before.” Be selective about who you follow, and be wary of the kind of imagery that promotes looking a specific way, though it might sit under the convenient guise of “fitspo”, “wellness” or “strength”. 

Chicken and broccoli
Louise O’Connell says: “the life and the diet they promote doesn’t really fit in with the lifestyle of your average woman. I work 12-hour shifts in an emergency department, I can’t live on chicken and broccoli. Once my eyes opened to the reality behind the Instagram photo I know longer looked at them as inspiration. I’m more inspired by the woman out there making the most of her life, feeding her family, working hard. Abs or biceps no longer appeal to me as a measure of my self-worth.”

Or, if you want to take Leon Festinger’s advice, step away from it entirely. While it is necessary from time to time to take stock of how we’re doing, there’s a more positive way for us to do this than getting competitive with or feeling less than our peers. When you catch yourself in a spiral of self-comparison, Festinger wisely suggests interrupting this pattern with “temporal comparison”; a lesser-known theory but one that yields far more encouraging results. According to this theory, our best bet is to compare ourselves today with how we were in the past. We don’t involve anybody else in the picture. By focusing on ourselves alone, it shifts our thinking from one-upmanship to positive self-improvement.

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