Saturday, August 3, 2013

Fitspo. Does It Help or Hurt?

Earlier this year I started my first Pinterest board.  I started it mostly to keep track of clothes I have wanted (or hoped) to add to my wardrobe this year and get some inspiration to build new looks.  While I was at it, I decided it was a smart idea to use it to archive interesting recipes I found online, so I started a board for that.  Finally, I decided to start a board with archives of my favorite common-sense health and fitness advice, including the occasional “fitspiration” photo.  (Yes, I realize that these two boards can sometimes be at cross purposes.)

I lost the momentum for keeping up those boards after just a couple months, so I forget what’s on them sometimes.  The recent wave of criticism against fistpiration made me revisit them.  I find myself asking myself, “What does fitspiration mean to you, and why do you need it?  Is it helping or hurting?”
“Thinspiration” or “thinspo” has long been a staple of pro-anorexia sites (or women like this who swear they are just heavily into dieting and truly prefer being as skinny as possible – but they’re not anorexic – really).  It was never my cup of tea.  You can argue until you’re blue in the face about whether or not it’s healthy to pursue an extreme body type, but taking away the health aspect, a skinny aesthetic is not something I aspire to or find attractive. 

I look at “thinspo” photos and just feel a sense of pity.  These women look so delicate and so weak.  I feel even sorrier for the women who pursue this look.  Yes, it’s hard to achieve such a thin body.  I just don’t see it as much of an accomplishment.  So you ate nothing but salads, clear broth, and skinless chicken breasts for a year to achieve that body?  Big deal!  If you wrote a novel, hiked the entire Appalachian Trail, danced the lead role in Swan Lake, ran for office and won, finished a PhD, had a winning season in your sport of choice, made a real effort to feed the hungry, or successfully campaigned to further human rights, then I will be impressed.  I will not admire Kate Moss, who chain smokes and has struggled with drug and alcohol addiction, just because she has remained skinny throughout the past two decades.  I’ll save my admiration for women like Hillary Clinton, Jane Goodall, Margaret Atwood, or Sarah MacLachlan.
Now we have a new version of body inspiration.  We have “Fitspiration” or “fitspo”.  This is supposed to be the healthy answer to thinspo.  Fitspo is filled with all kinds of inspirational messages about health, fitness, working hard, and taking pride in your achievements.  Fitspo doesn’t treat being thin as an accomplishment in itself.  Fitspo is taking pride in healthy hard work.  Anyone can just go to the gym and put on muscle.  Yes, you can do it too.  The message seems powerful.
How do I feel when I see these images?  Often my first thought is, “What a beautiful body that woman has.”  The next thought is, “I would like a body like hers,” followed by “I am going to have a body like hers someday.”  For a few moments I do feel as if I can achieve this.  Then some time after seeing the photo, my thoughts crash.  I see my arms that still look like slabs of meat, my soft and poochy belly, and my tree trunk thighs.  I search for signs that the lean, defined muscles exist somewhere on my body and I just don’t see it.  I find myself resenting those photos.  “They’re ridiculous.  That body is as unattainable as looking like twig-legged a runway model.”
There are pro-fitspo bloggers out there who would beg to differ with me.  There are those who believe that anyone can achieve a fitspo body if they’re willing to work for it.  Do you think a body like that is unattainable?  Of course you do, you fat slob.  You’re not eating healthfully.  You’re not working out.  You don’t dare sit on the couch and watch TV with an entire cake and then complain about how unattainable a fitness model body type is.  If you’re overweight, you’re obviously doing everything wrong.  Stop complaining and go to the gym.
The assumption the pro-fitspo crowd makes is that anyone who doesn’t like her body isn’t doing anything about it.  If you’re fat, you’re clearly not fit. 

I think I need to disabuse anyone who feels that way of that notion.  
I’m far from fitness-model fit.  That is true.  I would also like to point out that this week I did three difficult strength training workouts, two interval cardio workouts, and a Zumba class.  I went horseback riding twice.  This is a typical week for me in terms of exercise.  There is no junk food in my house.  You will not find chips, cookies, white bread, doughnuts, pastries, or ice cream in my kitchen.  If you do see baked goods in the house now and then, it’s because I baked them myself and gave most of them away.  I would say that fruits and vegetables are present in at least 18 of the 21 meals along with the snacks I eat in a given week.  My main beverage is water.  I don’t drink soda or juice habitually and I drink very moderate amounts of alcohol. 
I’m not perfect.  I don’t eat 100% clean 100% of the time.  There is a reason why I am not at an ideal weight and bodyfat level.  I am something of a “foodie.”  I do love to eat.  While I restrict what I have in the house, I can sometimes go a little crazy when I’m out of the house.  Parties are my downfall.  Family dinners are tough.  During my recent vacation I ate, without reservation, a Belgian waffle, French toast sticks, a hot fudge sundae, chicken fried steak, fried chicken, a cheeseburger, a couple of cheese-laden sandwiches, cream puffs, and a chocolate cake (I shared those last two with my husband).  I gained five pounds that week.  I lost four of them in a few days, but I could still stand to lose another twenty.  I'm working on it. 

Anyone who thinks that anyone can look like a fitspo image needs a real wakeup call.  The women featured in these images are fitness models.  Do you have what it takes to be a fitness model?  A fitness model makes her body her full-time job.  We are talking about extremely disciplined diets which become even more extreme and disciplined right before the photo shoot or figure competition. In fact, I'd say it's the same kind of diet our friend Skinny Gurl*  mentioned above would approve of.   Dehydration is standard practice.  Then of course you have the standard tricks like posing, lighting, tanning, and photo retouching. Many models have resorted to surgery.  This is in addition to working out at least two hours daily.  Again, for a fitness model this is her job.  She is paid to eat and train this way.  If you are not a fitness model and have another full-time job, a partner, kids,  other hobbies, or all of the above, you may have a few problems living the fitness model lifestyle.

So maybe when you consider the extremes, fitspiration is just thinspiration with more muscle.  The images are telling us over and over again that it's more important to be healthy than it is to be skinny, but I question how healthy these women truly are.  Many of us (well, except for Skinny Gurl and her ilk and the pro-ana crowd) look at a super-skinny model, whom we know had to resort to some very extreme eating patterns to be that thin, and think, "That woman looks way too thin to be healthy." Then we will look at a fitness model and assume that just because she has muscles that she must be doing everything right.  Her body came just from the gym.  We deny what really happened behind that image.

The other aspect of fitspo images that no one wants to talk about is that for the  most part, the women featured are quite young.  They are in their teens and twenties.  They haven't had kids.  They still have young metabolisms.  I'm 43.  I think I look pretty good for my age.  I attribute my relative youthfulness to a healthy lifestyle.  I've never smoked.  I don't intentionally tan.  I have been dedicated to exercise for over twenty years.  I eat my vegetables.  I keep caffeine and alcohol to a minimum.  I have never had kids.  Still, Father Time creeps up on us no matter how hard we try to fight him off.  I can reach my ideal weight and body fat percentage and still have saggy bits and wrinkly bits because that's just how 43-year-olds look. 

When I look at a fitspo photo, I see what is possible.  I don't see what is probable.  I am doing a decent job of transforming my body.  I know I can do better.  I also have to accept that age and a lack of willingness to forever shun treats is going to keep me from looking like a fitspo photo.  To eat like a fitness model would suck all of the joy out of life and I'm not going to go that far.  I still know that I can do better than I'm doing.  Seeing fitness models does remind me what the human body is capable of if you're willing to put in the work. 

Is fitspo inherently harmful?  Should women always ignore it?  I would say that if it inspires you to do a little better, to be the best you can be, then by all means continue to Pin it and share it on Facebook.  If you set your expectations by it, then perhaps you need to back off and not go down that road. 
 *I have to say I hate the spelling of girl as "gurl".  Is that supposed to be some kind of hipster thing?  Maybe she's eaten so little it has affected her brain and she can't spell properly.

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