TL;DR: Fitspiration sucks. Stop fat-shaming/fit-shaming yourself and others, kthx.
Strong is the New…?
I just want to take a brief interlude and ask a question, because it’s something that’s been weighing on me pretty heavily.
How many of you out there in the blogosphere have read or shared a blog post or article about the emotionally damaging effects of the “strong is the new skinny” message and fitspiration?
More and more, I feel like my Facebook feed is inundated with health and fitness bloggers who have something to say about why “fitspo” is just perpetuating disordered eating, disordered exercise, and disordered body image.
For example, see:
‘Fitspiration’: Why It Isn’t So Inspirational — Huffington Post
Is ‘Strong is the New Skinny’ Really Sending a Good Message? — Huffington Post
Why Do We Need a New ‘Skinny?’ –Happy is the New Healthy
Strong is Still Strong, Skinny is Still Skinny –Breaking Muscle
Need I go on? (There’s more. Google’s got a plethora. Just ask.)
So here’s my question:
Why are all of these women (and men) writing all of these articles that go viral and get shared all over the internet universe and generate millions of comments, likes, shares, retweets, and vehement “hell yeahs” from every fist-pumping feminist on social media….and yet NOTHING has changed?
Why are we addicted to fitspiration? Why do the marketing messages keep winning?
I started to write this post…and then the internet exploded over a fitspo picture of a woman named Maria Kang that went viral last week, and I knew this needed to be addressed…ASAP.
If you haven’t seen it or heard/been a part of the controversy yet, consider yourself lucky. However, here’s the lowdown:
Maria Kang is a fit mom. A very fit mom. She posted a picture of herself, in all of her tight, fit, and 6-packed glory, with her three baby boys…and superimposed above her fitness model body was a simple question: “What’s Your Excuse?”
Of course, there was a backlash (and here are some really great responses): on the one side, there were those (myself included) who believed that Maria Kang is fit-shaming and fat-shaming women (intentionally or unintentionally*) who don’t live up to her ridiculously idealistic view of fitness and/or who don’t prioritize a strict diet and ritualized exercise over their families and lifestyles; on the other side, there were those who cheered her on for providing inspiration to those who want to “get healthy” by getting “in shape.”**
Now, here’s the thing: Maria has gone through a lot, as she confessed to Yahoo! Shine. She’s been through her own eating disorder–and supposedly overcome it***–and she wants to inspire others to use fitness and a clean diet to push through their own adversity and achieve the bodies they want. I hear that. I do. However, I believe that the way she chooses to inspire–through a “fitspirational” message that preys on insecurity and uses shame as its primary mechanism–is a symptom of a very disordered mindset, and, more globally, a culture that has a completely broken understanding of what health actually looks like.
*I say unintentionally, as I’ll explain in more detail below. She’s not a bully; she’s just a product of a fitness-bullying culture.
**Totally nothing wrong with being inspired to get healthy. In fact, please celebrate yourself if you’ve decided to change your diet, develop a healthy exercise habit, or otherwise take responsibility for your own health. You’re awesome, and keep it up. I just personally think there’s a line between “health” and “aesthetic perfection,” as I’ll elucidate in this article.
Fat: Disease, Disgust, and Morality
A few months ago, the American Medical Association labeled obesity as a disease, although I’d argue that our culture viewed “fatness” in terms of a disease long before the clinical diagnosis–from gouty noblemen in the 1500s to the “diabesity” epidemic* of recent history, we’ve long considered excess weight as undesirable from a health perspective.
It is human nature to fear disease. In fact, a healthy sense of disgust for things that could cause disease is…healthy. In The Paleo Manifesto, John Durant talks about “disgust” in terms of the natural human reflex developed to help prolong our lives. He quotes three preeminent scholars who study disgust, saying that “…disgust is triggered by the same nine categories: ‘food, body products, animals, sexual behaviors, contact with death or corpses, violations of the exterior envelope of the body (including gore or deformity), poor hygiene, interpersonal contamination (contact with unsavory human beings), and certain moral offenses’ (p. 262).”
Disgust keeps us from touching or associating with things that could potentially expose us to disease, and fat, in some ways, can be seen as a “violation of the exterior envelope of the body”–because fat violates our expectations of the human form in the same way that other physical deformities might. (And if you don’t believe me, ask someone who is or was overweight how it felt to be treated as less-than-human.)
Moreover, as human beings, we’re hard-wired to avoid the things we feel will cause us pain, suffering, and/or death…and knowing that “fatness” (obesity) is associated with everything from diabetes to heart disease and cancer sets off that hardwiring to incite disgust. Disgust with overweight, I would argue, stems in some part from a deep-seated and unconscious fear of illness and death.
It is also human nature to ascribe moral failure to certain types of diseases. While you won’t see anyone calling you a delinquent for catching the common cold, all of you lit-major-types will certainly recall Henrik Ibsen’s A Doll’s House with the syphilitic Dr. Rank, whose illness can be directly correlated to his father’s sexual depravity.
We now live in a culture where “fat” is labeled a disease…and fitspiration turns that disease into a moral failure.
Fat is a failure of willpower. Fat is a weakness. Obesity is a punishment for an inability to commit.
Think of morality in Western/Christian terms: there are seven deadly sins, and two of them are gluttony (overeating) and sloth (laziness). While the American Medical Association might ascribe obesity and even overweight to things we (supposedly) can’t avoid like a genetic predisposition,* at the end of the day, we’ve got the idea in our heads (thanks Jillian Michaels!) that obesity is a punishment for not working out hard enough or for eating too many calories.
I believe that many of us who have committed to “getting healthy” now use fitspiration, whether we are aware of it or not, both to prove to others that we are free from “disease” (I define myself by the ideals encapsulated in this picture) and to keep ourselves accountable to a lifestyle that we believe will ward off the “disease” (this image reminds me of the implications of regaining–or remaining at–my weight.)
But, as are now learning that carrying around a bottle of Purell to kill off potentially harmful germs is actually impairing our abilities to naturally kill off germs, I’d argue that fitspiration is just as harmful to our ability to fend off the disordered eating behaviors that lead both to anorexia and binge eating disorder (as well as exercise addiction, bulimia, and all of the other lovely addictions along the spectrum).
Yes, I’m saying that Fitspiration is triclosan for the disordered mind.
* “Epidemic” itself a word associated with rapidly spreading, deadly contagion
**Although I’d argue that just because you are genetically predisposed to a disease or trait, you are not always apt to develop it. How your genes (nature) express themselves often depends on certain environmental factors (nurture). This results in an epigenetic expression. So if you’re predisposed to obesity, heart disease, cancer, etc., but you do not indulge in the lifestyles that set those diseases in motion, there is much less chance that you’ll actually develop those traits/diseases.
Symptoms of a Deeper Disease
Fitspiration is a symptom of a culture that not only actively fears disease and ill-health, but also a culture that has been sold a marketing message about how “good” health physically manifests itself.
Moreover, Fitspiration is also the side effect of the pill we’ve been marketed by the “mad men” of the past 50+ years, conflating physical health (freedom from disease, fitness, good biomarkers, etc.) with manipulated aesthetics (six pack abs, no “bra fat,” thigh gaps, etc.). Fitspiration is also the side effect of the pill we have collectively swallowed about the calorie myth–a side effect that we actively refuse to acknowledge, even as we push more and more “calories out” with miles logged on the treadmill, desperately trying to outrun the supposedly negative side effects of any “calories in.”
How many fitness and lifestyle magazines (both women’s and men’s) can you name that have featured an article on health and wellness that has been accompanied not by an image of your average, healthy Joe or Josephine, but by a photoshopped picture of a fitness model in his or her prime? How many people do you know who have set out to “get healthy,” but have measured their success or failure by the number of pounds they’d lost?
There’s nothing wrong with celebrating the victory of moving the needle toward a body in better health, but we’ve been sold a lot of lies about how to measure that victory. Moreover, as fitspiration, as well as shows like The Biggest Loser and even those ridiculous calorie-counting segments on mainstream media like The Today Show, becomes our cultural norm, we start to lose perspective about what it looks like to have a healthy body. In our twisted cultural mindset, obesity* is inevitable unless you take drastic measures–and the opposite of obesity is 0% body fat. There is no spectrum–we believe that we can measure–and live in–our bodies in extremes.
*And let me just take a moment to address the term “obesity.” I’m not suggesting that everyone who is at an average or slightly above average body weight–even at a significantly above-average body–runs the risk of becoming obese. What I’m suggesting is that the specter of this disease runs rampant through our cultural dialogue. That we resign ourselves to “being fat” because we “can’t live without [INSERT POOR FOOD CHOICE HERE]” or because “I hate exercise,” or whatever reason we have for not wanting to buy a gym membership and beat/starve ourselves into the ground as fitspo suggests all healthy eating and exercise routines should look.
FAT AS DISEASE, FAT-SHAMING AS CURE
At what point do we recognize that pushing past the point of exhaustion is not a moral victory, but an act of self-punishment? I’m not saying that we should all go cancel our gym memberships, leave our Crossfit boxes and yoga studios, or withdraw our registration from the next marathon for which we’re training. On the contrary: I think that exercise can be an incredibly healthy, wonderful, and fulfilling habit, one that sometimes requires a little bit of cultivation and commitment–especially if you’ve never had a regular exercise program before.
But when exercise is painted in extremist terms, where self-flagellation during exercise (and restriction of food) is expected and self-flagellation if the exercise is missed (or food is overeaten) is prescribed, then it’s time to reassess your priorities.
Beyond that, when you extend your endurance of self-flagellation to a place of moral rectitude and righteousness, i.e. you turn your flagellation/punishment outward and begin to look down on those who aren’t as righteous and committed as you in order to prove just how righteous you are, you are playing right into the hands of this very twisted, calorie-phobic, aesthetics-centric culture that is turning us into disordered eaters and exercise one Pin at a time. We are disgusted by fatness, by disease, by moral weakness, and we believe fitspiration will cure ourselves and others of this affliction.
As Durant points out, “humans move surprisingly easily from physical disgust to moral revulsion…throughout history, disgust has been harnessed to achieve in-group purity and cleanliness at the expense of filthy human outsiders. The problem is that these moral institutions can easily be used to justify the persecution of others (Paleo Manifesto p. 263).” Applied to fitspiration, it’s easy to see how fitspo images could be seen as persecuting or “fat-shaming.”
Maria Kang has been called out as a bully for fat-shaming women who make “excuses” for not looking like her–but given the assessment above, can you blame her? If fat is a disease (impurity) and fat is a moral failing (unholiness), but we live in a culture that seeks to eradicate impurities and unholiness (and has the means to do so through a generally “acceptable” format such as internet memes), then who can blame her for behaving as she did (creating a fat-shaming/fit-shaming meme)?
We live in a world where we’re expected to post our progress photos. We tell the story of our weight loss in terms of numbers (pounds lost, pants sizes dropped, pounds lifted at the gym) in the back pages of magazines. We “check in” at 24-Hour Fitness at odd hours to show our Facebook friends that we’re burning off the calories from our check in at the burrito restaurant earlier that day.
There’s nothing “wrong” with what Maria Kang posted, if we look at it through the lens of the cultural norms we’ve come to accept; however, I would argue that there’s everything wrong with the fact that fitspiration has become culturally acceptable.
BEYOND FAT-SHAMING: THE HOLIC STORY
If fat is a disease, then obviously fitspo–and the avoidance of fat–is a good cure, right?
What if I told you that fitspiration sounded pretty darn similar to a very famous disease that affects and destroys the lives of millions of Americans on a daily basis?
Take the message of the picture of a flat stomach and superimpose it on top of a picture of a woman with a bottle of vodka in her hands, and, suddenly, “fitspo” doesn’t seem so innocent anymore.
A series of “drunkspiration” images have cropped up on the internet recently, exposing the not-so-benign “encouragement” behind each fitspo message for what it truly is: a symptom of and/or a trigger for disordered or addictive behaviors.
As I’ve said multiple times on this blog, exercise addiction is a real thing, and our Biggest Loser society not only condones, but also encourages, an unhealthy preoccupation with burning calories. This encouragement uses guilt and shame to prey upon our insecurities about our bodies and peer pressures us into adopting these very unhealthy mindsets, practices, and world views in the name of “health.”
And peer pressure–which we tell our nation’s youth to avoid at all costs so they don’t end up involved in behaviors that could be harmful to their development or health–is exactly how these fitspo images operate, as these drunkspo images all too dramatically demonstrate.
*You do not have to have a clinical eating disorder to partake in disordered behaviors. Just because you aren’t an alcoholic doesn’t mean your #YOLO lifestyle won’t put you at risk for alcoholism in the future and/or cause you pain/harm/difficulty in the future (for example). I believe that disordered/addictive behavior falls on a spectrum, and for some people, it is fostered by unconsciously adopted cultural practices that have been generally accepted as “normal.” For the record: six packs are not “normal.” Counting calories is not “normal.” Obsessively label-reading, canceling plans because they interfere with your gym schedule, working out through injuries because you can’t stand down time, creating fitspo vision boards, etc…these things are not “normal.” They’re “average”–as in too many people are now doing them, and they’re skewing the scale, but I do not think they are “normal” behaviors for human beings who are living optimal, happy, fulfilled and healthy lives.
THE RISE OF THE FIT-BULLY: WHAT RECOVERY?
If fitspo is just drunkspo/addiction in disguise, then it gives disordered people* leave to continue to live their illnesses under the guise of recovery.
I know that this is going to upset a lot of people, even people about whom I care very deeply, but I believe it has to be said: if you have partaken in any sort of disordered eating or exercise in the past–especially if you’re of the ilk who once/continue to subscribe to the likes of Oxygen Magazine, continuing to use fitspo, even under the guise of “doing it healthily this time” is not a good idea. It’s like an alcoholic hanging out at the bar but “just” drinking non-alcoholic beer. It’s not changing the habit, and it leaves the door open to your being triggered again.
Moreover, because fitspo gives its users a sense of moral righteousness that extends past their own bodies and into the bodies of others, I believe that fat-shaming/fit-shaming is a natural extension of the culture it creates–whether or not the user intends for that to be the case.
Fitspiration is about judging bodies, whether you’re doing it consciously or not. I am ashamed to admit (although not too proud to humble myself) that during the height of my illness (read: second relapse with ED), I used to stand on the New York City subway and judge the women around me by their arm fat. I used to look at them in disdain, knowing that I held the secret to banishing that unsightly disfigurement (because I had my folders full of workouts and inspirational fitness model photos to keep me “accountable” to being “strong”), wanting to help relieve them of what seemed like a grotesque deformity…but also feeling a sense of moral superiority over them because I had a body that fit into a more socially acceptable definition. It was sick.
Fitspo turns the disordered eater/exerciser into a fit-bully, and applauds him/her for adopting a “healthier” lifestyle and mindset, even as s/he both falls prey to ED and helps him spread his body-loathing message to others.
I look at the photo of Maria Kang, for example, and I am sad. I know that in her “apology,” she mentioned having recovered from an eating disorder–and I see this with many fitness/figure/gym addict types who eventually go back to restricting food, overexercising and competing–but continuing to “make sacrifices” for a perfect body under the guise of health is really just not healthy.
Even after I had started my “recovery” (and I “recovered” many times before I stopped turning back to ED), I hung pictures of women just like Maria on the inside of my closet next to a full length mirror to remind me of how “healthy” I could look if only I let go of my “excuses.” I dieted under the guise of “clean-eating.” I restricted under the guise of “eating more protein and less fat.” I made the gym “my priority” and cut out all excuses–family, friends, dating, hobbies–because thiner equalled healthier, and an obsession with resistance training for a rounder butt and a six pack equalled strength.
Because I stopped “making excuses,” not only is my metabolism so broken that I’d probably never be able to achieve a body like Maria’s again if I were to try, but my body is now so hormonally broken then I’m probably never going to get to take a picture with my three beautiful babies smiling around me.
I am so sad for my sisters (and brothers) who believe at their cores that a healthy core can only be expressed in washboard abs. I am so sad for my sisters (and brothers) who stay trapped in the fat-shaming, self-abusing diet mentality that expresses itself in the form of these silly memes and throughout our culture’s marketing and advertisements.
There is nothing wrong with wanting to change your body composition in order to achieve an athletic, performance or health goal–truly. There’s nothing wrong with being excited about going to the gym, loving your local/organic/sustainably produced foods, or striving to make major life changes in order to change your fate in the face of “diabesity.”
But if your motivation to do these things must be fueled by motivational sayings that are steeped in self-loathing, fat-shaming, disgust, or guilt, then I ask that you at least by willing to take a step back and examine your true motives and methodologies.
Nobody wants to be told that their beliefs about body image and health are “wrong.” Nobody wants to feel as if they’ve been manipulated into believing something. As human beings we rail against a deterministic universe (“My free will is mine!”) so the thought that we may have been unduly influenced to feel a certain way about nutrition, exercise, or aesthetics–influenced and not chosen–can cause us to rankle.
Over the past several days, I’ve gotten into more debates than I’ve wanted to over this one photo, the motives behind it, and the message it sends. The main opposition–the “good-for-hers” and the “this-inspires-mes”–come from the same women who leave comments on my posts about why I don’t read Oxygen Magazine anymore to boast that my words have not swayed them from letting go of the Oxygen message (“Strong is the New Skinny,” anyone?). I am sad because nothing I can suggest will help these women see beyond the rah-rah motivation that first provoked them to lose the weight or get in shape–beyond the empowerment to take control of a health condition and into the disempowering message that puts their fates firmly in control of ED and his life-stealing friends. All that I can do is be here for these women (and men, who am I kidding? We’re all a part of this machine), and ready to support them if and when fitspo finally backfires.
I care deeply about creating a culture of body acceptance while uncovering the truth behind the photos for all of us–even for those of us who still believe that the calorie theory of nutrition is sound science, for whom physical perfection is a marker of good health and moral fortitude, for whom losing the last five pounds, the baby weight, or the fat that makes us female is, as today’s media landscape would have us believe, more important than anything else–not extra time to spend with family, not dinners out with friends, not achievement at work. After all… “nothing tastes as good as skinny feels,” right?*
You don’t have to be “at risk” for an eating disorder to develop disordered eating or exercise habits. If you’ve lost control of your relationship with food, exercise, or body image, there is help. Please reach out. Your life is worth more than a starved, dehydrated fitness photo, and we change the paradigm together.
*I’m gonna go with…probably not.