“Fitspiration”, “strong not skinny” and “Instafit” – they’re hashtags which in recent years have garnered a huge following on social media channels. Hailed as being motivators for women keeping active, these phrases have become common parlance of fitness bloggers and the media for being empowering to women by taking the focus off size or weight.
Yet despite appearances, researchers at Griffith University revealed this week that these “fitspiration” mantras can be as harmful to women’s health as “thinspiration” – the insidious trend which encourages women to focus on weight loss. This is based on research which shows that mantras including “strong not skinny”, which may initially seem to be beneficial for women, can have an equally negative impact by leading women to want to be thinner.
From a This Girl Can viewpoint, the findings by Griffith University highlight just how damaging a repeated exposure to these idealised images can be. The heart of the problem lies in the fact that when people feel that they need to live up to certain ideals - whatever they might be - it can lead to a sense of disappointment and come as a blow to self-confidence.
When some women see only a certain body type promoting this fitness message, it is not surprising that they start to equate fitness with that particular body type. This can lead some women to feel inadequate when they don’t look like these idealised images.
The need for the wider fitness community to hero diversity feeds into the insight we have garnered about the main barrier for women into sport: the fear of judgement. This can embody itself in various ways. It might exist as a fear of being judged for your priorities, for using spare time to go for a jog round the block instead of spending it with family or friends or heading to a gym class during a work lunch hour. It could also manifest itself in fear centring around your ability or for your appearance - we know that the thought of being red-faced, sweaty or working out in Lycra puts off a huge number of women.
The This Girl Can campaign wanted to send the message to women of all abilities, backgrounds, ages and sizes that there is no ‘one’ perfect body type. We’re all fantastic as we are; various bumps, lumps, jiggles and all. We know that if you can’t see it, you can’t be it, which is why our advertising always features women of all body shapes and sizes exercising – the sweat you see on the women in any of our imagery is 100% real.
There’s no one body type which is best suited for exercise and by championing the fact that we’re all different, we can continue to inspire more women to engage with activity. It’s about being as active as you want to be without fear of judgement (regardless of whether you’re particularly ‘good’ at it – we’ve got a whole host of different sports you can try on our website). This week’s research starkly reflects the need to hero diversity in the wider fitness community.
It’s because we’re aware of the impact which the fear of judgement can have that as a community we encourage women to engage with activity by helping them to manage judgement barriers and showing women of all shapes and sizes. We know that women are inspired by seeing women who are like them, and not by the pursuit of one ideal body type. We’re calling on the fitness community to cut the use of ‘fitspiration’ hashtags and the like – if you really want to empower women, do so by welcoming those of every shape and size into the community.
Kate Dale is Strategic Lead at This Girl Can, the campaign by Sport England which has encouraged 3.9mn women to engage with physical activity since 2015.