Is "Fitspo" the New Thinspo?

Heather my love, there's a new unreasonable idealized beauty standard in town.
Publish date:
June 13, 2012
eating disorders, fitness, weight, body politics

Dramatic reenactment of what I look like at the gym. Feel free to use this as "fatspo" or whatever. (Gym image credit:

In case you don’t frequent the Internet much (HAHAHAHA), “thinspo” is short for “thinspiration,” traditionally a term used to describe images and ideas that help anorexic people to keep up their eating disorder (or, as pro-anorexia folks sometimes more innocuously call it, their chosen lifestyle). Most thinspo consists of images of very thin young women with visible skeletal features.

Thinspiration has been around for as long as there have been ED-addled teens on the Internets (to be fair, it predates the social web entirely), who have exchanged these images along with tips for successfully living with anorexia (or any assortment of other disordered eating patterns) as a valid life choice.

But recently, sites like Tumblr and Pinterest have made efforts to eliminate thinspo-tagged photos, owing to their presumed influence in encouraging young women to adopt disordered eating as a normalized and routine way of achieving or maintaining a certain appearance.

In February Tumblr updated its site terms to prohibit the sharing of any information -- “thinspo” images included -- that might encourage eating disorders. In March, Pinterest took the same route.

As a result, thinspo has become something of a reviled concept, and is being forced further and further underground as its adherents migrate from one site to the next. Of course, this doesn’t actually help anyone, much less the girls and women relying on this information to maintain their ED, nor does it accomplish anything in the way of eradicating pro-ED communities, and yet the thinspo banning continues because letting it stay looks too much like support for a practice that most people consider extremely destructive. And understandably so.

But it seems thinspo has a sister: rapidly replacing thinspo on social media sites is something called “fitspo” -- that is, fitness-based inspiration. Fitspo favors muscle over bone and carefully crafted bodily definition and shaping over straight-up skinnyness. (If you need a frame of reference for this, there’s a great gallery of fitspo-esque images, many of them advertisements, over on Blisstree.)

The idea is that fitspo is HEALTHY, see, which thinspo is ostensibly not, so everyone should be cool with this, right?

But in our rush to focus on health -- or at least the perceived appearance of health -- we’re simply setting up a new idealized figure to chase after, and not necessarily one that is any better for us.

What kind of monster is against health? This kind, I suppose. While I mightily dig the notion of individuals deciding what health means for them, and making whatever efforts they feel comfortable with to achieve that sensation, I do not think that fitspo images are actually advocating for broad individually-based standards of healthiness.

Quite the opposite: They advocate for a specific shape of health, and one that is possibly more damaging than thinspo ever was, because it is making “health” into an issue of appearance and not of how one feels or what one can do or what one’s laboratory findings say.

Think about it: “She looks so unhealthy!” has become a tricky insult couched in faux concern, levied at thin women and fat women alike. It’s really a semi-polite way of telling someone they are unattractive without calling them straight-up ugly, and cushioned by the assertion that we’re telling you this for your own good.

But, tellingly, we don’t do it the other way around. Nobody says, “Wow dude, she looks sooooo healthy. I bet her arteries are as smooth as marble and her resting heart rate is like, seven. I would kill for cardiovascular efficiency like that.”

That’s just sort of weird, isn’t it? Like a stalker who gets off on reading people’s medical records.

The obvious problem with idealized figures is that they are idealized: very few people can reasonably achieve them, and often depending on the amount of post-production tweaking done to a given photo, even the person providing the ideal does not look quite that way. Fitspo imagery is still about chasing a figure that may not be achievable, but in this case we’re actually affecting our cultural understanding of what it means to be healthy, turning it into something you can tell by looking at a person, as opposed to a concept self-determined and unique to each individual body.

And possibly most importantly: PRIVATE. Your health should be between you and your doctor; it should not be written across your “perfectly” formed ass for all the world to read. Can we please stop using "healthy" as a code word for "attractive"?

It is one thing to use other people’s stories and experiences to motivate oneself to feel as healthy as one possibly can; it’s another thing altogether to erase all the multitudinous factors that make up “health” and replace them with a picture of a woman from a Nike ad. Fitspo is no improvement on thinspo; if anything it’s more insidious because it exploits a concept we’re all obsessed with -- our health -- to create a new unattainable, damaging beauty ideal. And I’m just not OK with that.