September 11, 2013

From Thinspiration to Fitspiration

The Internet is a place to connect and find like-minded people.  The Internet offers a place to belong for some, a place to gather information, to learn. The Internet provides information about starving yourself, speeding up your metabolism, tips on burning more calories and photoshopped inspiration to stay thin and fit. Wait, what?! 

Over the past several years there has been a surge in websites that provide support for an eating disorder. Proponents of these websites would argue that an eating disorder is “a lifestyle choice.” Using pictures and quotes, the followers of these pro-ana or pro-mia websites encourage each other to maintain their disorderly eating behaviors and fight the guidance of family, friends and health professionals.

Recently, Lewis and Arbuthnott (2012) decided to explore how these websites were found. After choosing 26 pro-eating disorder (ED) terms, they utilized Google AdWords Keywords in February 2011 to study the frequency of pro-ED related searches. Their results indicated that there are 13 million searches annually on Google alone (Lewis & Arbuthnott, 2012)!  Pro-ana was the most common search term, with thinspo and thinspiration close behind. 

What is even more alarming is that there is a new villain in town, fitspiration. Fitspiration has not been scientifically researched at this time, however it is a close relative of thinspiration. Fitspiration includes images and quotes that are meant to motivate people to exercise more frequently and with more intensity in order to obtain a muscular physique (i.e. fit). Almost everyone on a social networking site has seen these images, so I will not repost them here, I will, however, provide a brief description. The images generally do not include a person’s head or face and instead focus on abs, gluts, chest, and thighs. People in the images are generally thin, toned, tanned, and photoshopped. Quotes are included that consist of statements such as:

Pain is weakness leaving the body.
Stop saying “I can’t”. You can, you just choose not to.
Obsessed is a word the lazy use to describe the dedicated.
Fit is not a destination. It is a way of life.
Would you rather be covered in sweat at the gym or covered in clothes at the beach. 
Making excuses burns zero calories per hour
First you feel like dying, then you feel reborn. 

Some of these quotes have been around for awhile, I remember my own swim coach in high school repeating the first quote listed. Inspiration is not new, but how it is being used on the Internet and on social networking sites is new. Feeling inspired to exercise is one thing, but berating yourself, comparing yourself, and purposely ignoring your body’s pain signals is another. 

Since there has not been any research on this topic, I cannot say what damage the fitspiration blogs, posts and website are causing. I predict that frequent visitation to these forums will lead to lower self-esteem, self-doubt, disorderly eating and exercise behaviors, and disconnect from the body.  Similar outcomes have been found in research on exposure to thinspiration (Jett, 2008). 

I recommend a mindful approach to both eating and exercise. Having a relationship with your body’s physical needs can lead to inspiration and motivation to choose health. If you do not have any pre-existing medical conditions, your body will let you know when it needs movement and when it has had enough. 

One way to combat the proliferation of fitspiration and thinspiration is to share your opinion. You can start here!