There’s a new brand of annoying on the internet, and its name is fitspiration. Fitspiration, for those lucky enough not to have stumbled upon it, is a style of images/websites/blogs/pages in which the viewer is bombarded with supposedly inspirational images aimed at getting them to exercise more. Typically, pictures feature well-defined, scantily clad white men or white women looking pretty, paired with inspirational quotes. For women, it’s skinny white women with advice about eating less. For men, it’s endless pictures of Arnold or Zyzz or some other bodybuilding icon with advice about being super alpha and lifting heavy and not being weak. Sites like these are typically community oriented, and also feature user-submitted transformation pictures of extreme weight loss.
One problem is that these sites, like any motivational site aimed at a particular group, are essentially nothing but a feedback loop. They amplify praise and motivation and feed it back to the member in a multiplied form. They are endlessly supportive and never critical, and are almost always positive. But life isn’t always positive. A healthy lifestyle contains both praise and criticism, and people need to be criticized when they’re wrong. Giving people endless praise without any criticism desensitizes them and makes them unable to handle real criticism when it inevitably comes. If no one told you you were doing an exercise wrong, for example, sooner or later you’d injure yourself doing it. And that’s precisely the issue: these sites are scanty on serious exercise information, being largely aimed at beginners.
Of course, this is less of an issue because, being aimed at beginners anyway, it’s unlikely that serious exercisers are going to turn to them for fitness advice. But I still take issue with it in the same way that I take issue with Planet Fitness: in creating a feedback loop from which the exerciser never actually has to escape, fitspiration creates a black hole from which many simply don’t. They think that all this motivation is going to get them healthy, when in reality the motivation is secondary.
Another issue is that these sites invariably promote very sexist and hegemonic gender roles. Women are expected to eat less and be skinny, men are expected to get big and tough looking. Women are given advice about training hard and eating less, with the goal of ‘strength’. Of course, eating less and training hard isn’t a recipe for strength, not in the way they preach it. It’s a recipe for weight loss, and the two aren’t the same. Rarely do you see a picture of a woman actually lifting a heavy weight, because such women aren’t skinny, don’t have big tits, and can’t be objectified.
Images like this one are particularly infuriating because they pretend to be solving the very issue that they propagate. This picture features a skinny woman and no evidence that she is in any way strong, yet still claims that strong is the new skinny. I use that phrase all the time, but I use it in a very different way. For fitspiration, ‘strong is the new skinny’ is an attempt to redefine skinny as also including strength, which is to say that it upholds strong as an attribute which is acceptable under the greater category of skinny. In reality, it should be the reverse: skinny should be an acceptable attribute under the greater category of strength, because strength should be more important than body weight. The above image claims to be advocating alternate body types when it actually does nothing of the sort.
Men are similarly shoehorned into unpleasant roles. This goes hand in hand with my alpha article from last week, because fitspiration for men is nothing but alpha advice. Lift hard. Eat a lot. Look like Arnold. Don’t take excuses. Punch life in the face. Be an asshole. BS like that. I could go on for ages, but I already have. Go read last week’s article.
In short, fitspiration commits many of the common crimes of the fitness community at large. Skinniness is mistaken for strength and health, and being overweight is demonized. Men are taught to be alpha and women are taught to be white and small. I’m not implying that the site doesn’t have any value; it’s certainly good at getting people to lose weight, and I’m not going to belittle people who get into exercising solely to keep their weight down and to stay healthy. However, it’s best if you don’t drink the kool-aid: don’t take much of anything those sites say very seriously. For exercise advice, go elsewhere.
Closely related yet (sometimes) less offensive are gym memes sites, which feature gym-related jokes. These can be cruel, particularly if they ridicule those with weight issues or little lifting knowledge, but they can also often be in good fun. While gym meme type sites also fall into many of the same issues as fitspiration sites, they tend to focus on a much more comprehensive and varied understanding of fitness, and are better at providing alternative advice (even if they’re still not good by any standards). While gym meme websites tend to feature an influx of alphas (they breed like goddamn rabbits), and these alphas tend to make it more problematic for everyone else, at the very least gym meme websites can often offer a good laugh.