Thinspo with Abs? The Health Conundrum at the Centre of the Fitness Community
When the Cosmopolitan cover featuring Tess Holliday was published, cries of ‘but what about her health?” were heard from almost every corner of the internet. As pseudo-health warriors proclaimed ‘How dare she be promoting such an unhealthy attitude to food, exercise and her body and do it so blatantly?’ they neglected to mention that a far less healthy, but distinctly more socially accepted, body had graced the covers of magazines for decades. Women’s Health, Women’s Fitness, Shape, Train for Her, Oxygen, STRONG; the list of magazines whose sole focus is supposedly ‘health’ is vast and filled with diets, workouts and lifestyle tips to help you be ‘your best self’. But what do these incredibly popular publications actually mean by your best self?
Unfortunately, the answer seems to be slanted towards the self that is smallest, leanest, with the most muscle definition, and this message is conveyed explicitly by models that have dieted and trained for months for the chance to grace the pages of these magazines. Models and celebrities with washboard abs, muscular arms and perky bums appear alongside messages of health, longevity but also, unmistakably, weight loss. But isn't this better, I hear you say? We have replaced thinspo - the damaging trend of the nineties and noughties where size zero models are ‘goals -’ with fitspo, which encourages health and strength; strong, not skinny, right? Wrong. Just because these new ‘ideal’ bodies are dressed up with messages of fitness and clean-eating it does not mean they are any less damaging. Fitness models have to diet and shrink themselves just as doggedly as catwalk models; just because the Victoria’s Secret Angels now go to pilates does not mean that their paradigm has distinctly shifted. Increasingly, these magazines, as well as the fitness community on online platforms such as Instagram, are championing the extreme: promoting bodies and lifestyles that can leave you without a menstrual cycle, or a functioning social life. This becomes very problematic when considering the audience of Instagram; with little regulation or control, girls as young as 8, and those with vulnerable attitudes towards food and exercise, could be viewing incredibly triggering posts.
Moreover, a large proportion of these fitness ‘influencers’ and models, those without a significant genetic or sporting advantage, are drained from dieting, exhausted from exercising for hours on end, and isolated from having to avoid social occasions that hinge on food or alcohol. Yet, they are presented as models of health and fitness, and their bodies as aspirational ideals for all women. Why is it that the essentialism of health is applied to Tess Holliday, but not to women at the other end of the spectrum? Because the body of the fitness model or ‘influencer’ conforms. It fits our societal ‘thin ideal’, despite muscle being present. It represents hours of ‘self-control’, which women are taught is essential to their attractiveness and worth. They may not be healthy, but they are dedicated; to their bodies, and the ideals of a society that is fat-phobic. It is not to say that some of these women are not fit and healthy; many run marathons or can lift double their body weight - but so can many women who are in larger bodies, yet, they are not upheld in popular culture as idols. It is time that we recognised, as a culture and a society, that we still value thinness above all else, and that health only matters when it seems a legitimate way to attack body types you do not see as ‘ideal’. It does not truly matter how fit and healthy these women are, as long as they conform and perpetuate the idea that, as a woman, you must shrink yourself regardless of the consequences.
It is becoming an increasingly worrying issue that many girls lose their periods in pursuit of the fitspo ideal, threatening their bone density, fertility and long-term health, and yet this is considered a normal and necessary part of achieving such a body. Therefore, many of these fitness models, fitness competitors and Instagram influencers are actually putting their health at risk in order to promote health and fitness. This deeply flawed logic is not only hypocritical but has the potential to permanently damage not only their own body, but those of the girls who attempt to imitate their lifestyles. The fact that such practices are promoted as a lifestyle, one that should be utilised long-term, just perpetuates these issues and legitimises use of extreme diets and rigid daily practices. That these bodies and ideas are so evident within popular culture at every level of society can serve to validate many disordered eating and exercising patterns, so that if loved ones express concern, you can say ‘but look mum so and so is doing it and they’re fit and healthy!’.
Instagram is constantly in the news for being the worst social media for our mental health, but this is often attributed to vague ideas such as ‘unattainable bodies’, ‘perfect lifestyles’ and it being a ‘highlight reel’; why are we not holding content creators responsible? Recently, when Love Island’s Montana Brown posted her skeletal body after she had taken part in reality show ‘Bear Gryll’s Island’, hundreds of people commented how triggering, unhealthy and irresponsible the post was. Yet, she has not taken it down, and no one has made her. The fact that Instagram is unregulated is a key part of its appeal, however without accountability how can we expect young girls to not absorb unhealthy expectations and develop low self-esteem?
Why do we not talk about how damaging the popular media is, and who is holding them accountable? Magazines run columns on who is too fat and who is too thin, how to lose 10lb in a week, why you NEED to lose weight, and this is considered normal and, disgustingly, entertaining. The use of the female body to sell magazines is a long-standing trope, but we have moved into a disturbing era where these magazines stratify female bodies based upon how they look and, ultimately, what this makes them worth. Using the guise of fitness and health to legitimise this hierarchy only allows it to continue; publications that focus on health and fitness should focus on that at every size, not just the one that society deems acceptable. If they fail to do this, then they are just as bad as the Daily Mail (and who wants to have that accolade).