Thinspo, eating disorders and the dark side of fitness

My kind of fitspo

I’m always looking for inspiration in my life.  I love finding a photo or a video or an essay that gives me a metaphorical kick in the pants.  It’s not like I’m particularly lacking in motivation; I just like to be inspired to up my game (or in the words of Nerd Fitness, “level up my life.”)

But sometimes this desire for inspiration leads me to some really dark, sad places.  Sometimes it leads me right into the festering pit known as “thinspiration,” or “thinspo” for short.

If you don’t know what thinspo is, I’m jealous and I would like to trade brains with you.  But I’m willing to bet you do know what it is; you just haven’t seen it referred to as such.  Thinspo are images, quotes, blog posts, food logs, exercise journals – anything meant to encourage people in their pursuit of the Almighty Skinny.

I usually go out of my way to avoid anything marked as thinspo, but I do like fitspo quite a bit.  The problem is that thinspo and fitspo often bleed into one another, and so, for instance, I’ll be browsing a collection of photos of women with cut delts or videos of CrossFit competitors being all boss and shit, and bam!  There’s a photo of a girl whose thighs don’t touch, or a photo of a girl with her rib cage poking out, usually tagged with the words “flawless” and “beautiful.”

I run into the same issue when I read fitness blogs or I peruse xxfitness over at Reddit.  A conversation about nutrition for endurance athletes will attract women who want to know how they can run five miles each day while never eating more than 1,200 calories.  Or maybe a woman will ask for help with reaching her fitness goals, but her fitness goals are “lose 10 pounds, and by the way, I’m 5’9″ and weigh 125 pounds.”

The only thing I’m inspired to do after seeing things like this is cry.

The fact that I regularly come across things like this while scanning the internet for fitness inspiration tells me that the line between fitspo and thinspo, and consequently the line between caring about fitness and having a disorder, is porous and blurry and easily crossed.

If you are prone to disordered eating, then the world of fitness must seem like a safe harbor, a place to indulge your obsessions without drawing criticism, because after all, you aren’t starving yourself completely and you’re spending a lot of time in the gym.  You’re just being health-conscious!

And the bleed-over goes the other way.  I read an essay in “Sole Sisters” about Amber Trotter, who was a champion runner as a high-school student, but whose competitive spirit led her to develop an eating disorder.  She said it wasn’t even like she made a conscious decision; she just sort of slipped into it.   Her eating disorder was so severe that she developed osteoporosis – when she was a sophomore in college.

Trotter is hardly an anomaly.  As a commenter pointed out a few weeks back, female collegiate runners are extremely prone to developing eating disorders – maybe even more so than any other sport.

In fact, eating disorders among female athletes are so common that they’ve even named a condition for it, known as the “female athlete triad.”  A female athlete with an eating disorder is likely to experience amenorrhea, low bone density and a lack of energy due to inadequate nutrition.

While I have a hard time understanding the desire to starve oneself into thinness, the desire to lose weight to be more competitive at a sport is one with which I am much more familiar.  I understand the desire to shed body fat for more visible muscle definition, or the desire to drop a few pounds so as to lose seconds per mile in the 5K.  That desire was behind my recent efforts to lose a few pounds, even though I am already a fairly thin woman.

For me, disordered eating dressed up as good fitness habits is a far more dangerous trap than disordered eating with the goal of being skinny like a fashion model.  I couldn’t care less about looking like Karlie Kloss, but I care intensely about being the fastest runner I can possibly be.

The main thing that keeps me from falling down that rabbit hole is understanding that food is a non-negotiable part of life.  It is not some optional thing that I can just decide to skip if I don’t feel like it. When I lost weight, it wasn’t because I started eating less.  I just changed what I ate, and in fact, I actually eat more now than I did before.  And when I have run on an empty stomach, I am usually slow and sluggish, which is how I would fully expect to be.

I find it sadly ironic that food, which helps people reach their highest levels of performance as athletes, inadvertently becomes the very thing they fight hardest against.

If you think you might be dealing with these issues, I suggest you check out the resources provided by the Female Athlete Triad Coalition, which is a non-profit group dedicated to addressing disorders among female athletes.

And because I can’t bear to leave this post on such a sad note, here is some fitspo featuring ladies who lift heavy and eat well, which is my favorite kind of fitspo!

  • Nerd Fitness shares the story of Staci, a fairly average young woman who decided she wanted to be a fitness superstar.  She tried the normal route – running and eating next to nothing – but she hated the way it made her feel.  Now she lifts like a champ, eats like a horse and gained a bunch of muscle-weight, and she looks fantastic.  I dare anyone not to be inspired by her.
  • Man Bicep – by the way, how much do I love the name of this blog? – posted a video of Annie Thorisdottir, who is the 2011 CrossFit Champion.  Her name – which loosely translates to “Thor’s daughter” – is very fitting, don’t you think?

21 responses to “Thinspo, eating disorders and the dark side of fitness

  1. I find it hard to exercise at all, as someone who used to struggle with over-exercise and a 12-year eating disorder. Trying to learn how to do a little, without overdoing it, is still a challenge with food. I hope someday to be able to both eat and work out in healthy ways, but for now I’ll take the absence of binging, purging, working out till I tear muscles, and wasting hours of my life crying because I don’t look airbrushed.

  2. Excellent post (fitspo! new term for me!), as ever. I’d add that the desire to be thin is usually a symptom of EDs, not a cause (though it can also be a trigger). I suspect that the intense control issues that are at the root of many EDs are also funneled into the discipline it takes to be a competitive athlete, even if competition per se isn’t a part of the equation. The two are compatible in many ways and it’s particularly unfortunate that one can easily masquerade as devotion to the other.

    • Very good point. The causes and symptoms can seem almost interchangeable, which makes it hard for people who don’t have eating disorders (like myself) to fully understand. The thing that seems to make it really challenging is that the symptoms of an eating disorder can often lead to positive feedback in the form of good performance, praise for being attractive/thin, etc. As a result, it’s like whatever is going on in the person’s head is just reinforced by all of these external factors.

  3. Great post and thanks for the shout out! 🙂

    I agree whole-heartedly with Caitlin. An athlete with an eating disorder often receives positive feedback until they are so far gone that they must seek out medical help and/or take time off from their sport.

    We need everyone chanting the phrase, “Strong is the new skinny!”

  4. Not all thinspo is bad, honestly. It doesn’t all promote eating disorders, and it’s not all for girls who want to weigh 85 lbs. True, a lot of thinspo blogs are unhealthy, but wanting to look like a model isn’t always a bad thing. They’re pretty.
    “Thinspo” has helped me lose 22 pounds the healthy way. I’m now well within the healthy weight range for my height (BMI of 23, and couldn’t be prouder). I’m not done losing yet, and looking at pictures of Miranda Kerr and Megan Fox help me get excited about what I’m trying to do for myself. A lot of us (thinspo/weight loss bloggers) would never starve ourselves, and exercise several times a week to reach our goals in a healthy, sustainable way. It just so happens that we identify more with the skinny girl in fabulous clothes than the buff girl benching twice her body weight. They’re both beautiful, but it’s a matter of preference.

    • I’m glad it worked for you in a healthy way! Unfortunately I think a lot of people don’t use it in a healthy way, and instead use it as a way to perpetuate some really scary habits. I’m not just pulling this out of my butt; I’m basing my opinions on the actual things I have seen women and girls post in thinspo communities. I wish I could say that I was exaggerating with some of the things I saw, but sadly I’m not.

      • I know I’m late but considering the comment above you says
        “I’m now well within the healthy weight range for my height (BMI of 23, and couldn’t be prouder).” and straight afterwards “I’m not done losing yet…” I think she’s pretty much proved your point.
        Not only that but the person commenting seems to have missed the point that most people start out losing weight normally, very few people intentionally set out to have their BMI drop under 17.5%. That’s what’s so scary and insidious about eating disorders- they sneak up on you, they slowly steer you from healthy aims to “just a little bit more” and before you know it you’re in a freaking hospital with a tube up your nose being force fed “endure plus”.

  5. Okay lady… you need to get out of my head! I was thinking about this exact issue!!!

    For me I’ve been skinny all my life. Playing roller derby has made me desire to gain weight… being 120 lbs turns me into an out-of-control slingshot on the track when I get hit by a bigger skater.

    But with that desire comes fear of gaining fat as opposed to muscle, which then alters my eating, which then alters my energy, because I never make the right food choices… it’s a vicious cycle that makes me fight with my own hangups about eating, weight and exercise that I’ve had my entire life.

    Saying you want to gain weight and actually doing it is very frightening to a woman who always gets the, “You’re so skinny. I wish I had your body,” comments.

    Staci’s story is inspiring and cuts through a lot of the bull**** marketing in the health industry. Her 142 lb body is inspiring. You posted this article at the perfect time for me and I learned a lot from it! Thank you.

    • I’m so glad to hear that! Maybe you can get some ideas about nutrition that will help you achieve your weight goals while keeping your energy levels up. That whole Nerd Fitness site is just teeming with good info about nutrition. It tends toward the paleo/primal side of things, which I kind of like, but I also started reading a nutrition book by a professional Ironman triathlete who is vegan. I doubt I’ll ever go vegan but it’s good to know that there are several options out there.

  6. Yes. It’s a slippery slope/huge grey area, and everytime I spend too much time on running websites I end up triggering myself somehow. But I swear every time I want to lose ten pounds I should look at the side-by-side of Staci at 131 and 142 and go lift weights instead. For real.

    • Dude, isn’t Staci amazing? Reading her story did a lot for me, too. It’s a very visceral reminder that the way most people go about all of this is completely bass-akwards.

      P.S. Lifting weights, especially with my legs, has really helped me with my running. I’ll never be an Olympian or a pro, but I have seen incredible gains in the past year, which is when I really started to become focused with both weight training and speedwork.

      • That’s really interesting. I have a hamstring injury right now (BLECH) but the good side is that my PT is a serious weight-lifter and so I’m learning how to do all these awesome things — like deadlifts and one-legged deadlifts.

        Also, it’s a space where I’m unequivocally an athlete (something I have a really hard time internalizing, which makes sense, since I *only* run 15-25 miles a week, right? And *only* 30 when I’m not injured, right? #disorderedthinking). They are so not about me losing weight and so about me getting stronger/healed so I can run more. Yay.

      • Oh my goodness, I have not run 30 miles in a week since I trained for my last marathon, and yet I still consider myself an athlete. I think it’s all in the attitude you take, like if you are dedicated to it and care about doing well, then you are an athlete. At least, that’s how I see it.

        I’m glad your PT is into weight training, because I bet it will help you out so much with running when you are healed. (Blah, injuries, yuck.) I noticed that I can run up hills so much faster, and that my legs experience less fatigue. So maybe the injury will do you good, in a weird, reverse way? At any rate, I hope your hammie gets to feeling good again soon.

  7. This is a big reason why I’ve removed myself from a number of fitness-oriented spaces, both online and in real life. Too often, fitspo and thinspo and fatphobia get tangled up to become a hot mess that likes to tell me:

    1) My body “becoming fitter” must be synonymous with “losing weight.”

    2) If I’m not losing weight via a particular activity, then I’m doing it wrong and should learn the “right way” to be fit, which coincides with Point #1 above.

    3) If I am doing something that results in weight loss, not only is that good, but I should do more of it. Because, you know, I’m still fat.

    I’ve found an awesome online community to talk about fitness + fatness and a yoga studio that’s body accepting, so I’m not hurting for a space right now. But it’s scary to realize how many past places I’ve left and how many people are still there.

    • Oh man, I’ve seen that all over the place and I cringe. I try to filter out posts and discussion of those sorts, because I’m just not interested in obsessing over losing weight. I’d much rather read about different training plans for racing or ways to properly fuel myself for maximum muscle gain. Weight loss and “skinniness” gets boring pretty quickly.

      I imagine it would be much more difficult if I were heavier, because then I’d feel personally attacked, and I don’t do well in situations like that.

      I’m really glad to hear you found a good community, both online and in real life. Where’s the fitness + fatness community?

      • I imagine it would be much more difficult if I were heavier, because then I’d feel personally attacked…

        For me, part of the issue was that, during times when I was engaging in and talking about behaviors that were:
        a) not good training
        b) quite frankly, disordered
        The absolute categorical response was that I should keep doing these things (if not do more of them/more extreme versions) so that I’d get “down to a healthy weight.”

        As far as the community, I’m a fan of fathletes on LJ. It’s not terribly active in terms of numbers of posts (though posts do generally get responses), but it does a good job of respecting people’s various goals and needs.

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  9. Ahhhhh thank you for this. As a person with disordered eating, and also as a person who is fat, working out/fitness is something of a struggle. In fact, I wrote a blog post about it a few days ago because I was so frustrated. There are many, many things I have to avoid online to keep myself out of the rabbit hole. It’s so easy to get down there and so incredibly difficult to get out.

    • Hey, I just read your post and it’s fantastic! I’m so with you in that I HATE the kind of thinspo/fitspo that is all about “be skinny! be tiny! don’t be fat!” and it’s like, what happened to “be healthy! be strong! enjoy your life!” I know how troubling that kind of stuff is for me to look at; I can’t imagine what it must be like for people with a history of disordered eating/eating disorders.

  10. As far as I know the term is “orthorexia”, where a person’s exercise and diet becomes compulsive in the same ways of more well recognised ED’s .
    I am a recovered bulimic/anorexic and I am heavily into weight lifting and am now trying my hand at crossfit and, while I am not interested in my weight per se, I am extremely focused on reducing body fat levels and I realise that this is just another facet of the disordered mindset being expressed in a more socially acceptable way.
    I have come to accept that I struggle to apply moderation in many aspects of my life (I am also a recovered addict, and that took 20+ years to kick) and so I am trying to find the least harmful ways to express that “all or nothing” mentality and, for me, physical fitness allows me to have some control over my body, to get the endorphine rush, to push my self and yet not end up with osteoporosis and amenorrhea.
    I think most women (and many men) who go hard at sport/physical fitness are engaging in compulsive, ED-like behaviour, it’s just that we package it in a healthier looking body.
    BTW, love your blog 🙂 Keep at it!

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