The rise of fitspo: Inspiration or body-bullying?

Sjana Elise is an Australian photojournalist and yoga fanatic. She has one million Instagram followers (Instagram)
Sjana Elise is an Australian photojournalist and yoga fanatic. She has one million Instagram followers (Instagram)

Rock hard abs. Toned thighs. Slender, bronzed arms. Sports bra. Nike shoes. Spandex. These are the things you need to be a female fitspo star on Instagram, posting photos of you in a candid position, if not at the gym, against an aesthetically pleasing environmental backdrop.

The term fitspo derives from fitness inspiration – a visual trend that lurks amidst the online world. Fitspo accounts are designed to create motivational messages in the areas of exercise, weight loss, diet and healthy living. Fitspo accounts plague many social media giants, including Pinterest and Tumblr, but created its mightiest kingdom of followers through Instagram.

With 400 million active Instagram accounts already in existence, up from 90 million just two years ago, it comes as no surprise. As of January last year, 74 percent of those who use Instagram are women, with the majority being under the age of 35 years old.

University student Chloe Van Diepenbrugge is one. Having been a model in the past, the 21-year-old uses Instagram on the daily – her preference over Facebook. She checks her feed when she wakes up, throughout the day if she has a break, and before she goes to sleep. Out of the 750 people she follows, 100 of those would be males, a few more her friends, and the rest are models, fitspo accounts or fashion bloggers.

Ms Van Dienpengrugge is one of nearly a million followers of young Australian yoga fanatic Sjana Elise Earp.

Sjana Elise also has a YouTube channel where she reveals more to her followers about maintaining her lifestyle (Instagram)

"Half of her pictures are her doing yoga by the sea and on the rocks and beautiful sunsets, and it's just very nice to look at it, but does create that life where you're like, 'Oh, I wish I could do that'."

The fitspo trend catapulted into existence as a response to a growing obesity crisis in the United States. Fitspo provided the healthier alternative to thinspo, which was banned from social media because of the stigma attached to being heroin-chic thin and eating disorders. If you type thinspo into Tumblr now, it brings you to a page that says: "Everything okay? If you or someone you know is struggling with an eating disorder, National Eating Disorders Association is here to help."

But Women's Health Action body image programme promoter Meg Rayner-Thomas is doubtful fitspo is much better.

"The things being promoted are a lot of self-denial and rules, and if you start dissecting them they're quite literally the same thing as thinspo. In fact, quite a lot of them will use the same images…and slap a fitspo label on it and…somehow that makes it okay."

University of Auckland councillor Maree Burns says it's similar to when women would share dieting tips among family members and friends.

"Perhaps in this age of digitalisation and access to social media 24/7, it's just another way for people to connect, and in particular to connect around ideas of the ideal body, and interact with their progress and share that with their peers," she says.

Dr Rebecca Olive from University of Waikato's human development and movement studies believes fitspo does promote positive messages of women being strong, independent, active and capable.

"Women hadn't been able to do sport for that long, not as openly as we can now, so in some ways it's great women feel so free to do this and that we live in a society where women can feel so free to do it."

But there is a concern that these accounts, in their attempts to motivate, are in fact perpetuating a relentless, obsessive nature in young women.

"There's research that shows that after so much time of viewing images that promote incredibly thin body ideals… within moments, minutes, seeing these images they will start restricting their calorie intake and they'll start looking at how they're going to exercise," says Women's Health Action body image programme promoter Meg Rayner-Thomas.

Steph Claire Smith  is an Australian model. With this photo she tells her 846,000 followers what acai she uses for her acai bowls (Instagram)

A 2012 health and wellbeing survey of New Zealand secondary school students revealed 75 percent of young women are worried about gaining weight, and similar numbers had attempted weight loss in the previous 12 months.

"I definitely think it's something we should be worried about, it's not a small percentage. We know that a huge percentage of people report feeling dissatisfied with their body," says Ms Rayner-Thomas.

Ms Van Diepenbrugge says if fitspo is to stick around, the key is to find an account of someone who is willing to bare the gruelling truth behind their perfect body.

She also believes if fitspo is to stick around, it's about being realistic with what you can achieve in your own life.

"I used to be like 'Oh my god, look at these girls', but now it's more like I have a job, I have uni, internships and other things to sort out I don't have the time that these girls do," she says.

"It's all about what you're looking for, I mean there are alternatives out there about how to live and be healthy and achieve the best level of well-being for yourself. Ideally, we would see these other frameworks trend.

"If you hashtag body diversity you start seeing a lot of things, so it's just a matter of getting them to trend or go viral," says Ms Rayner-Thomas.

Monaharlem is a "plus size personal style blogger", and has 5,559 followers (Instagram)

"I think in some ways it's not always about us trying to find inspiration, it's actually about us thinking about the kinds of pressures that socially and culturally we put on young people," says Ms Olive.

Social media is not the truth, but a version of the truth, and Ms Olive says it must be remembered that it only shows the things people want to share.

"And that's something we can all relate to…but we have to keep in mind it's not the whole picture. It's literally a cropped, reframed, posed, filtered, highlighted image."

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