Have we traded in skinny for strong and stayed just as unhappy?

It seems healthier, but is fitspiration’s obsessive striving for ‘wellbeing’ sometimes just a less honest version of the body shame game?


‘Strong is the new skinny”, or at least that’s the mantra of those involved in a new movement born on social media and spread via the hashtags “fitspiration” and “strong”. Conceived as an alternative to the skinniness promoted in the noughties, “strong” has come to encompass almost every wellness genre and fitness regime while simultaneously aligning itself with mindfulness and meditation.

Its aspirational lifestyle mantra comes from the users of Instagram and Twitter rather than from any Jane Fonda video or magazine editorial. Its grassroots, peer- reviewed origins make it the bespoke health trend for the meme era.

“Strong” encourages taking care of oneself and striving for wellbeing through fitness. Russell Bateman’s phenomenally successful Skinny Bitch Collective is one of the most popular Instagram accounts and blogs for female fitness, boasting models and Made in Chelsea’s Millie Mackintosh among its clients.

In an interview with Vogue, Bateman described the workouts as: “You’re going to hold someone’s hand, smack someone’s ass whilst crawling like animals and be put through some of the most intense circuits you’ve ever done.”

The idea of women working to the point of pain, grunting like animals, smacking each other while they strive for better selves is a common formula for fitspiration: pain, social-media posting and the upkeep of both.

The reality is that the skinny myth has been substituted by something different only in that “strong” is reinforced by a sense of self-righteousness.

Kate Moss was the skinny era’s queen, causing a public outcry with her infamous, “Nothing tastes as good as skinny feels”. Where Moss was publicly denounced for that sentiment, the proponents of fitspiration are safe from public scorn thanks to the window-dressing of nutrition and mindfulness it encompasses.

Bateman has morality on his side. With Moss, and her bygone cocaine snorting and cigarette smoking, at least she was honest that thinness was the desired end result.

Fitspiration allows people’s expanding sense of body shame a safe harbour to openly vent insecurities by couching them in fitness. The conversation around skinniness and fitness is predicated by its up-worthiness: if commenters and Instagrammers like it, then it goes.

But its popularity does emanate from a collective shame we feel, one that is disguised as healthy self-improvement by the online jargon used: #avotoast, #feeltheburn, #healthy. Every post ends in “. . . alongside our nutritional guidance”.

An obsessional relationship

Fitspiration and “strong” preach a lot of sense all the same. Good nutrition, mindfulness and fitness are hard to argue with. Where it gets confusing is when it turns to dogma, and thus into a money-spinning online business.

The public disgracing of celebrity Australian health blogger Belle Gibson a few months ago highlighted the power these gurus can yield. Gibson wrote about nutrition and holistic therapies. She claimed to have beaten cancer of the brain, blood and spleen thanks to these. When she started to syphon off money promised to charity, she was investigated, and it emerged she had never had cancer.

A recent Hadley Freeman piece in the Guardian talked about the ascent of wellness bloggers. It pointed to their social- media savvy and good looks as key to their success and queried whether or not they actually knew anything about nutrition. One of the people Freeman interviewed was British Vogue’s fitness blogger and cookbook writer Calgary Avansino, a guiding light to many. Her new book is called Keep it Real. Her last book suggested serving avocado on cacao mousse instead of mince pies at Christmas. During the interview, Avansino tells Freeman: “I’ve never had any training, and I’m not a chef . . . I’ve just always eaten like this, and it comes from a very honest and easy place.”

Gibson and Avansino are attractive women who accrued massive followings because other women aspired to look like them. But their careers indicate that the information being put forward is not always coming from an educated or even a real place.

A few months ago, an interview with Girls star Jemima Kirke in the New York Times turned into a minor sensation. Kirke spoke out about taking the “the shame out of fitness” and pointed to how her workouts with Cadence Dubus had changed her relationship to her own body and fitness.

Dubus is a nutritionist and pilates instructor with years of training in fitness and nutrition under her belt. She runs Brooklyn Strength, a studio that focuses on holistic health and puts forward the idea that each person requires a personalised training programme with achievable goals. As Kirke puts it, it is “inspirational rather than aspirational”.

Dubus says that when assessing fitspiration trends, she looks at the science of what is being put forward. “Often I don’t believe the hype just because what they’re saying isn’t possible; it doesn’t make sense for the human body.”

The “strong” philosophy often focuses on the idea of transformation, but “there isn’t a single fitness regime out there that is going to change what your natural body structure is”.

Taking shame out of fitness is a challenge that constantly crops up in Dubus’s work. “Women are so conditioned to stare at the scale. I try to teach them about body composition. It’s different to wanting to reduce the amount of space you take up on planet Earth.”

Her pep talks focus on educating women away from weight fixation and encouraging them towards attainable goals for their work schedule and body type. “The reality is that people who put those fitspiration images out there are either born that way or that is all they do.”

A useful body

What advice does she have for people navigating the world of fitspiration? “It’s hard to read someone’s blog post and not be affected by the presentation. Everything is marketing; even my website and social media.”

Is the fitspiration and “strong” myth having a debilitating effect on the way people conceive of fitness and their bodies, setting up impossible goals? Dubus thinks it’s not all that bad. “If, ultimately, people are encouraged to eat healthily and exercise, I think: awesome.”

But she points, too, to the reasons why that New York Times article took off. “People want to just be real. They’re educated people who want to do things, and who’ve just realised that the constant shaming needs to stop. You’re not a lazy slob for having a muffin top. Women are starting to wonder why eating and not exercising feel like acts of rebellion.”

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