Women scrolling Instagram will come across thousands of posts with the hashtag #fitspiration. Attractive, fit women in form-fitting clothes show off their “fitness lifestyles” in order to inspire other women (or satisfy narcissistic tendencies.) But do these posts actually have the opposite effect? Are they doing damage to women’s body image?
For many years, media has consistently depicted an idealized female body type which is largely unattainable for the average woman. It has been dubbed the “thin ideal.” (1) Social media has become a platform for magnifying and multiplying the effect of highlighting this depiction. It has also allowed a multitude of people to participate as well, creating posts and content of their own that reinforces the “thin ideal.”
Throw the rise of social media “influencers” into the mix and things can get really messy. In case you have been living under a rock without a smartphone, influencers are essentially popular social media accounts who are paid to promote products, ideas and even lifestyles. Often, these influencers neither use nor believe in what they are promoting.
To be completely fair, many influencers are pretty authentic when it comes to what they promote. In the fitness world, it’s a mix of the authentic and the phony. Lots of influencer accounts promote the hashtag #fitspiration. The stated goal is to motivate others to get in the gym and get to work getting fitter and healthier – and trying to look like the influencer they’re following.
Unfortunately, it may be having the opposite affect.
Researchers at Flinders University recently got 100 Australian women between the ages of 17 and 25 to take part in a study to see if posts using the #fitspiration hashtag were, well, fit-spirational. They were asked to browse posts using the hashtag and then report on their mood and motivation to work out. (2) For comparison and control purposes, they were also asked to view posts about travel and to report on their mood and body image/satisfaction.
You know the posts. The uber-fit, pretty, polished, perfectly proportioned woman with the perfect amount of glowing sweat telling them to “rise and grind,” “never miss a Monday (or insert day here)” or “train like a beast, look like a beauty.” Perfectly staged but so authentic.
What did the women in the study really think about these posts? Were they inspired to feel better about themselves? To hit the gym and “get after it?”
In a word, no. Largely, scrolling those posts had the opposite effect.
In fact, viewing these posts increased negative moods by about 5% and body dissatisfaction by nearly 7% in the sample. Meanwhile, viewing social media travel posts increased feelings of well-being by about 3%.
With regard to increased desire to exercise, the posts failed again. There was no measurable increase in the desire to exercise. However, those who did exercise after viewing #fitspiration posts reported greater exertion even though researchers measured no such increase.
With greater body dissatisfaction and no greater exercise effort, it’s apparent that whole the #fitspiration posts hit a negative nerve, they essentially failed to do what they set out to do. The authors were clear about the issue.
“When considering actual exercise behaviour, there appears to be no beneficial effect,” says Dr. Ivanka Prichard, co-deputy director of the SHAPE Research Centre (Sport, Health, Activity, Performance and Exercise) at Flinders University, in a release. “Despite their positive intentions and popularity, #fitspiration images are yet another way to make women feel worse about themselves and their bodies.”
“Close to 90% of young Australians use some form of social media, such as Facebook, Instagram, YouTube or Snapchat. Young women’s rapidly growing use of image-based platforms such as Instagram is of concern, given what we know about the impact of idealized imagery on body image,” she continues. “One of the most consistent and influential forces on young women’s body image is the media’s depiction of idealized and often unobtainable body types such as a thin and fit ideal.”
There is one bit of good news. Exercise seemed to help offset the negative impact of viewing the fitness posts. The majority of women in the study reported feeling better after working out. This was true with regard to both overall mood and their own body image.Those who browsed the posts but didn’t exercise weren’t permanently damaged. After a period of quiet rest, they were back to feeling pretty normal.
“These findings provide further evidence highlighting fitspiration and aspiring to a thin and fit ideal as a potentially harmful online trend,” Dr. Prichard concludes. “We now need more research to examine aspects of fitspiration, such as focusing on body functionality and body diversity, that might promote positive body image.”
Social media isn’t going anywhere. If anything, it is becoming more pervasive by the day. As parents, teachers, friends and as a society we would be wise to help young women (and young men) learn to develop healthy feelings of self-worth and to understand that the images they see in social media aren’t always real.
After all, not many “influencers” show you the messy parts of their mostly normal lives. If they’re going to use their influence to sell things and make money, it’s the “ooh, shiny!” parts that have to be highlighted.
Perhaps that is the first lesson of social media to teach our kids!
Keep the faith and keep after it!
- S. Grabe, L.M. Ward, J.S. HydeThe role of the media in body image concerns among women: A meta-analysis of experimental and correlational studiesPsychological Bulletin, 134 (2008), pp. 460-476, 10.1037/0033-2909.134.3.460
- Ivanka Prichard, Eliza Kavanagh, Kate E. Mulgrew, Megan S.C. Lim, Marika Tiggemann. The effect of Instagram #fitspiration images on young women’s mood, body image, and exercise behaviour, Body Image, June 2020, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.bodyim.2020.02.002