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The cult of fitspo, clean eating’s even darker sister

My first and only gym selfie

My first and only gym selfie

I’m a keen gym goer and am no stranger to the free weights area as resistance training is a fantastic way to build strength and increase your lean body mass.  I once even took my hobby to the next level by entering a bodybuilding competition (more on that fateful story later).  This was a good few years ago and since then I’ve seen an explosion of girls and guys on social media posting their ‘fitspiration’ or ‘#fitspo’ gym selfies along with their highs and lows of training and competing.  Many of these wellness warriors have set themselves up as health and fitness coaches offering online advice on training and diet for those who aspire to their physiques.  Fitspo has gone mainstream and in my opinion, it’s not necessarily a good thing.


OK, so first things first, why did I, a registered nutritionist on the wrong side of 30, feel the need to do a body building competition?  I’ve always enjoyed sport, including running, cycling, swimming and weight training.  I love keeping fit but have a spectacular lack of co-ordination when it comes to throwing or catching, combined with a running injury that put paid to further races, so I wanted to do something competitive without risk of further injury.  I thought it would be a fun and interesting experience.  I couldn’t have been more wrong.


Now this isn’t about how to prepare for a body building competition.  If you’re reading my blog then that’s probably the last thing on your mind.  This is my personal view on what I believe to be a pathological obsession with achieving an ever more unrealistic level of physical ‘perfection’ that is being spread by social media and its fitspo gurus.


I’m not saying resistance training is bad; far from it.  It’s great for strengthening and improving body composition and helps avoid other sporting injuries.  It’s a significant part of my fitness regime.  I’m also not saying that competing or posting the odd progress update is always a negative experience: many people love having the goal of a competition and find sharing their own and others’ fitness journeys motivational.  I have a problem with ‘the cult of fitspo’ i.e. the endless gym selfies and ‘motivational’ quotes that demand that you push through pain, illness and genuine fatigue to keep training (if it hurts or you’re very unwell, you really need to stop) or that you keep eating clean 100% of the time to stay lean (yes, we all love clean eating and its needless elimination of perfectly healthy foods).  These lean, lithe fitspo ambassadors have legions of followers but they are selling an image that for most is utterly unrealistic and potentially unhealthy both physically and mentally.


But back to my brief foray into this environment.  Needless to say, I didn’t do very well.  I love training and still do.  I train very hard and love to push myself but if I’m in pain, I stop.  And I enjoy eating.  I don’t have a weight or eating problem and I eat healthily most of the time but allow myself the odd treat because life is for living and not for eating plain chicken, sweet potato and green beans out of a plastic box 6 times a day.


I presented a reasonably toned 5’4’’ frame, weighing just over 8 stone.  I was told I needed to lose 14 pounds.  That I needed to look more glamourous, grow my hair, wear more make up, get my teeth whitened, get fake nails, have a darker tan, a proper competition bikini.  The litany of harsh criticisms went on.  Basically, I needed to be everything I didn’t want to be and represent everything that is wrong with our superficial, body-shaming culture.


Now I knew I could have been leaner but I wasn’t expecting to have to lose that much weight to be deemed acceptable, even in this relatively niche context.  I was pretty shocked and my self-esteem took a huge hit.  Now people in the bodybuilding industry would say, “More fool you for not doing your homework or dieting enough”.  I probably didn’t plan my preparation particularly well but this isn’t about me and this isn’t just about bodybuilding competitions, much as they are becoming increasingly popular and appealing to a wider audience (and I believe that some coaches in the bodybuilding industry legitimise eating disorders to an even greater degree than the clean eating devotees).  This is about what the broader fitspo phenomenon is doing to young and impressionable girls and guys with their fragile body image.


All over social media you will find images taken in gym changing rooms, dance studios, on beaches, in parks, wherever is the most ‘of the moment’ location, of honed, bronzed, pouting specimens of perfection, all rippling abs, narrow waists and sculpted shoulders (I’m talking male and female here).  Usually between these pictures of post-workout fitspiration, you will see shots of meals in boxes, ‘meal prep Sunday’ pictures where the week’s meals are prepared in advance to ensure that there is no temptation to go ‘off plan’ and glib, often nonsensical motivational quotes about self-belief, self-love and pushing through pain barriers.  I’m not calling out everyone who takes a cheeky selfie here: I’m specifically referencing those who sell online workouts and diets who make it look like their physiques are easily attainable with a few very simple lifestyle changes, if you just buy into their regime.  More worrying still are those ‘coaches’ that prescribe diets for people without even meeting or assessing them.  Prescribing an 800 calorie a day diet combined with hours of training is a terrifying prospect and one for another blog…


Now don’t get me wrong, if people took more time to exercise, plan meals in advance, eat freshly prepared, healthy meals and avoid junk food, the world would be a healthier place.  But this goes way beyond that.  These images and the lifestyle and products that they promote are normalising excessively lean bodies.  I am not body-shaming thin or muscular people any more than I would body-shame someone who is overweight.  Some people are naturally lean but for most women at least, having visible abs means that their body fat has dropped to potentially dangerously low levels.  There is a phenomenon known as the female athlete triad, characterised by disordered eating, loss of monthly periods and low bone mass formation.  It’s common in weight restricted sports but also, given the high value our society places on thinness, it’s seeping into the mainstream and the cult of fitspo is not helping. Also, it’s important to recognise that eating disorders and body image issues are genderless – men may also suffer from eating disorders and body dysmorphia, fearing that they are not lean or muscular enough, just as women feel under pressure to be ultra-lean and toned.


On top of this, the media are constantly showing images of washboard abs on both male and female celebrities and these are deemed to be aspirational.  Marie Claire recently published an article celebrating the abs of Jennifer Lopez and assuring its readers that this look can be achieved with a few stability ball exercises.  This and the many articles on ‘how I get this look’, including the unlikely exercise routines from fitness star Joe Wicks, totally mislead the public into thinking that this look is easily attainable with a few minutes of running on the spot and a sit up or two.  And don’t forget the ‘beach body ready’ articles that pop up in the spring, as if somehow, the body police won’t allow you onto a beach if you’ve anything less than an 8 pack.


Here’s why you shouldn’t always believe what you see and why rippling abs aren’t necessarily attainable nor desirable:

  1. Most fitness models and Instagram stars don’t look like that in real life. That shot that looks like it was taken in 10 seconds as the fitspo star was leaving the gym most probably took hours of posing, using flattering angles and lighting, tanning, body contouring, make up and working out to get a quick but short-lived muscle ‘pump’.  It’s not real life.
  2. Most fitspo stars don’t look like that all the time. Before a shoot, fitness models will diet and manipulate their intake of carbs, water and salt to achieve a lean, muscular and ‘dry’ look.  On the day of a shoot, they may be considerably dehydrated to look as lean as possible.  Again, it’s not real life, even for them.
  3. Many (though of course, not all) who compete or who post endless perfect-looking gym selfies will actually be struggling with self-esteem issues themselves and the positive feedback they get from their fans only drives them to exercise and diet further to get ever more likes. You are only as good as the number of likes on your last photo.
  4. The life of a fitspo star is full of sacrifices. In pursuit of the perfect body, you will need to prepare virtually all meals at home and take them with you, eating them at set times, regardless of where you are, whether it’s a car park, shopping centre bench or your friend’s house.  Food is often plain and monotonous, as the list of acceptable items decreases and it becomes solely about the macronutrient balance food provides rather than the joy of eating it.  Eating out or going for a few drinks is a thing of the past as it’s just too hard to find something acceptable and alcohol means you might be tempted ‘off plan’.  Friends and family find it harder to be around you as so much of our culture is about the joy of breaking bread together and enjoying good food and great company.  Some people love the control this lifestyle gives them but it’s certainly not for everyone and you don’t have to live this way to be healthy.
  5. It’s a lonely and sad place for many and can lead to social isolation. Among the online fitspo community, you may feel you have like-minded peers but together it’s easy to lose perspective and normalise unhealthy and disordered eating and body image.


I’m not saying everyone who trains, competes or takes fitspo selfies feels this way and some naturally find it easier than others to look like a ‘fitspiration’.  But the cult of fitspo is selling an image of perfection that isn’t real or easily attainable yet it’s portrayed as being both easy AND desirable.


I see too many people in the gym striving for this unrealistic goal; sad, full of self-loathing at their seeming lack of discipline, feeling worse after going on social media for advice and tips and finding instead that they don’t measure up to the pictures of perfection they find.  We have to stop shaming bodies, whether thin or fat, old or young and stop creating unrealistic idols for people to hero worship.  While there are concerns in the public health arena that we are normalising obesity, I fear we are in tandem normalising disordered eating and body dysmorphia and it needs to stop.


We should instead celebrate health in all its forms.  Healthy can mean a 6 pack and bulging biceps but it can also mean a dress size 16 when combined with a varied balanced diet and an active lifestyle.  It is possible to be a little overweight yet still healthy, fit AND attractive.  Healthy is full of life, energy and fun and that is attainable and desirable for everyone.


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