Good fitspo is hard to find

A lot of pixels have been lit up over the phenomenon of “thinspo,” which if you don’t know by now is a cutesy abbreviation for “thinspiration.”  Thinspo usually consists of photos of very thin women and text meant to motivate you to stick to a diet plan by thinking about the “gap between your thighs.”

Of course, that’s the more benign style of thinspo.  A lot of it consists of little more than pro-ana glorification. Here’s a quick example of things I saw just in a thirty-second skim of tumblr’s thinspo tag:

  • Someone saying she splurged by eating a little over 500 calories today
  • Someone panicking because she drank milk right after taking Ex-Lax
  • Someone who says she’s on her eighth day of fasting
  • Someone who says she refuses to chew gum because it means you swallow air which makes you bloat

All this, mingled between photos of women with visible ribs and jutting out hipbones.

I, as you can imagine, hate this stuff.  I hate it for a lot of reasons, none of which I need to enumerate for you, because if you are reading my blog, odds are good that you and I are in the same emotional universe when it comes to this kind of thing.

But even putting aside the completely depressing nature of all of this, can I just tell you how completely unmotivated I feel by any of this?  All I feel like doing when I see this junk is closing my browser tab and moving on.  The sad thing is that fitspo, which is supposed to be inspiration for more fitness-minded people like myself, is often not that much better!

Virginia Sole-Smith wrote about this last month:

Fitspiration is thinspiration, even when it’s dissing skinny girls. It’s not about health — it’s about using “health” and “fit” as code words for beauty standards.

And in February, Charlotte Anderson at the Great Fitness Experiment wrote:

Looking at rock-hard body after rock-hard body it occurred to me that fitspo may be thinspo in a sports bra. After all, the problem with thinspo is that the images represent a mostly unattainable ideal that requires great sacrifices (both physical and mental) to achieve and I daresay that most of those “perfect” female bodies, albeit muscular instead of bony, are equally as problematic.

Now, considering that my Pinterest is full of images that could easily be categorized as fitspo and that I regularly reblog fitspo on Tumblr, it might be construed as hypocritical when I say that I agree with both Charlotte and Virginia.

But this is the thing – the fitspo that I like?  Is often not what shows up as fitspo on Tumblr or Pinterest.  I do not care for photos of oiled-up women in bikinis, nor am I interested in looking at the photos sports bra-clad women take of their abs while looking in the mirror.  I don’t like photos where the women are posed, standing still or otherwise looking passive.  I don’t want to read detailed menu plans or slogans that rip on fat people.  And I really don’t like the unwavering laser-like on abs.  Abs are neat, yes, and they look cool, but enough already.

The fitspo that I love shows women lifting heavy weights.   It shows them in mid-run, or mid-jump, or mid-layup, or mid-something, mid-anything but standing around in a bikini.  Good fitspo makes me want to train harder than before.  It makes me want to try to lift heavier, to try to run farther, to pedal faster.  It makes me feel strong and excited and ready to take on the whole world with one hand tied behind my back.

Here’s an example: Crossfit Babes.  (h/t to Ramsey of Everyday Pants for hooking me up with this!)  I spent some time looking through photos of women doing things like this:

And more women doing things like this:

And then I went to the gym and did full push-ups until I collapsed, then begged my internal drill sergeant for more.  The entire time I was making my way through sets of twists and curls and presses, I thought about these incredibly strong women and how I want to be like them and how the only way that was going to happen was if I put in the sweat equity in the gym.  When I finished my workout, I felt like a beast.  It was exactly what I wanted.

This is how I think fitspo is supposed to work.  No shame, no loathing of one’s thighs, no barely sublimated self-hate – just pure, unadulterated fierceness.

Do you know how hard it is to find images like that on the internet?  I won’t say it’s impossible, but damn if it doesn’t seem like they aren’t outnumbered a dozen to one by Instamatic photos of thighs that don’t touch.  I suppose this shouldn’t be surprising as it’s still a fairly accurate reflection of idealized femininity, which is well-groomed, compact and passive while still exuding an available sexuality.  Idealized femininity is not sweaty and grimacing with ripped delts and solid quads.  The kind of imagery that appeals to me is still somewhat outside of the mainstream, much to my everlasting sadness.

What do you think?  Do you like fitspo or do you find it problematic?  If you like it, what do you like about it?  Where do you find good fitspo at?  (And why do I feel like a teenager asking for tips on the best free porn downloads right now?)

38 responses to “Good fitspo is hard to find

  1. I still end up torn on fitspo — even mid-action fitspo like the kind you posted (which is definitely among the fitspo I like better). I’m not sure how much of my misgivings are for what those images are compared to what they still lack. Basically, finding images like the ones you describe/show is hard enough — but the vast majority of ones I do find feature women who appear “straight-size,” which I definitely read as “thin.” (Not thinspo-thin, but conventionally-height-weight-proportionate-thin.) Finding images of strong, active, powerful women who are also my size… it’s more or less virtually unknown in the mainstream fitness channels I’ve seen.

    • Yes, this is something I’ve noticed too. I’ve rarely seen ANY kind of photos of women who are not straight size doing active things. That’s part of what was so cool about the Fit Fatties community, which is that it’s full of photos of bigger women doing all sorts of things like scuba diving, doing pole and kickboxing. When I looked at those photos I realized just how rarely I see women with bodies like that represented in…well…anything. It was sad and exciting all at the same time.

  2. I’ve used pics of athletes before (I have a kick-ass one of Alex Morgan running down the field from the World Cup), but I’m finding stories are more effective. I recently started running because our team at work is doing a 10k together in June and every time I want to quit, I think about you and your rain story. It helps a ton more than picturing anything does (for me).

    • Sweet! I’m glad to know that my Duathlon of Doom lives on in such a positive way! You make a good point about the value of stories – I also enjoy reading other people’s experiences while running and competing.

  3. krista scott-dixon at just posted this recently. ive been railing against these thinspo/fitspo pictures for a while. even shut down my pintrest account over it. i dont see anyone who looks like me. im 37, have two kids, and am still trying to lose 40 more pounds, but i can dead lift almost 3X what my husband can and i kill it at the gym and im super proud of that. i dont want to or try to look like a 23 year old xfit goddess anymore, but i do love seeing women DOING things instead of just gazing at their hip bones on a tropical beach.

    • Yes, the limited variability of bodies shown even in what I consider to be good fitspo is pretty annoying. I was actually just thinking the other day about how I’d love to do a feminist-oriented fitness magazine/online portal, and how part of that would be showing people with all types of bodies/abilities/appearances doing active things.

      Thanks for sharing that link! I actually read something a few months back in the Nation that addressed that general idea, that when you showed women and girls sexualized images of athletes, they tended to feel worse about themselves, but if you showed them images of the women in action, they felt like they wanted to be part of what was going on in the photo. It was really interesting and mirrored what I’ve found to be my own experience. I really don’t do well with glamourized/sexualized imagery, especially when it’s been heavily Photoshopped. I know the magazines call it “aspirational” but it just makes me feel crappy about myself.

    • I adore Krista but she uses the f-word way, way too much for someone of her education.

  4. Damn, just lost my comment. Anyway, I was going to say that I recently shutdown my pitrest account because of the bothersome amount of fitspo and thinspo stuff Im just not interested in it. I find some of the crossfit pictures to be the most inspiring and motivating, but even so, like another commenter pointed out, though muscular they are all also YOUNG, CAUCASIAN, WITH LOW BF%. I dont find many people who look like me; a 37 year old mother of two who will never have a 6 pack, but who is a bad ass for pushing out two babies and can dead lift almost 3X what my husband can.

    Anyway, Krista at just posted this article that I found fascinating:

  5. I like your take on it – essentially seeing the accomplishments of other people from their training and what their bodies are capable of doing, not focusing on individual body parts.

    I think in popular internet culture, though, what you’re describing unfortunately doesn’t fit into what most people think of as ‘fitspo’ and I’m more inclined to agree with the quote you shared from Virginia Sole-Smith. I think it ultimately promotes body shaming and body dissatisfaction, and could put people at risk for the opposite end of the spectrum with orthorexia ( and don’t see a huge difference between it and ‘thinso’ (gosh I hate that word!).

    As both a runner and a survivor of an eating disorder, I can relate to your finding positive motivation to appreciate what our bodies can do when we take good care of them, but I stopped looking at other people’s accomplishments a long time ago.

    • I hope I can get to the point where I am sufficiently internally motivated enough to be able to push myself to those kinds of levels of performance! I’m working on it but I do admit that I like to get boosts from wherever I can find it.

      I do think that anything that promotes body shaming needs to go, not just because it’s shitty and dangerous but also because it’s so ineffective. If body shaming were all it took to get people to embrace active lifestyles, we’d have a nation of athletes instead of a nation of couch potatoes who like to watch athletes. 🙂

  6. I don’t care for fitspo myself UNLESS MAYBE I’m looking at pictures of for real women athletes. Otherwise I tend to agree that it’s just a model in a sports bra or another way to showcase women with “ideal” bodies in next to nothing. I tend to enjoy the pictures when they come with little stories like, “this is right after my first 50 miler!” or something like that.

  7. I know some pretty good fitspo blogs, and I HATE thinspo. I have a fitspo of my own and I never post pictures of girls that are just hanging around being skinny. I post pictures of girls working out, exercising, and motivational words. The word skinny hasn’t come up. (my blog is linked)

  8. I have this problem quite often, actually.

    I love fitspo. But I prefer the text-based form: pretty typeface with inspiration thoughts like “Walking is better than standing and standing is better than sitting” or “never compare your journey with someone else’s.” These are the things that get me motivated to go run a mile, not images.

    The problem is that it’s almost impossible to find a place for this kind of fitspo that doesn’t also have a TON of thinspo along with it. Now, I’ve had a world of body image issues in my life, including being borderline-anorexic as a kid. Normally sayings like “nothing tastes as good as thin feels” don’t affect me (and BTW, eggplant parmesan totally does, y’all), but I try to avoid them anyway. It’s tough, though, to strike a balance between inspiration to get off my butt and work out and language that makes me feel worse about myself.

    There’s a point to all this, but I have no idea what it is.

  9. I have to admit that I’ve never really been motivated by other women’s bodies. Probably my biggest motivation has always been watching other people workout (for instance, on the Biggest Loser or Heavy where there are men and women of all sizes doing some crazy workouts… not saying the shows are perfect but I do garner a lot from their workouts). However, I think that’s much more about getting fun new ideas of what to do in my workout rather than really the act of watching them workout.

    I think on a deeper level, it bothers to me to be inspired by someone else’s body. It doesn’t make sense to me because even women who have similar bodies to my own are all slightly different in their own way (and isn’t that a good thing? it makes me unique :D). So I’ve always found reaching new fitness goals, or buying new clothes for myself much more motivational.

  10. This is exactly why I get most of my fitspo from your pinterest. I trust you to filter it for reality, which is awesome, because when I go looking on my own it’s bad news. I think that article linked about brains is right on, and for me, when I’m looking at an image and I want to *do* that it’s fine, but when it starts to be I want to *look like* that, then it’s a slippery slope, but I have ED history, so my brain is more slippery and more slope-y than average.

    • Thanks, Andra! I try to be cognizant of the way images can be triggering when selecting fitspo so I’m glad to hear that I am doing a decent job. 🙂

  11. Yes, this! My “exercise” board on Pinterest has, along with links to workouts and stuff, images that are I guess what the cool kids are calling fitspo these days! 🙂

    I am really trying to make a collection that is not dominated by thin white ladies, though! Fat ladies, chromatic women, etc. It’s HARD to find (not least because any search for “fatspo” et al is just as likely to turn up fat-hating/thinspo stuff). But I’m getting there….

  12. I feel like I’ve been living under a rock because this is the first time I’ve encountered the terms, fitspo and thinspo. >__< I can agree. I hate seeing pictures of girls with their ribs sticking out further than their boobs. It's sickening. To think that girls want to be THAT skinny really creeps me out. I have told people before I would rather be obese than anorexic because I couldn't starve myself. I LOVE EATING. But I guess I would fall under the category of what "fitspo" is. I'm an athlete and I'm pretty fit. My thighs touch! I'm not freaking out because I know they're muscular. I have a very muscular lower body. It's what my sport requires (volleyball). I like jumping higher than most people can jump. I'm 5'6" and I'm an outside hitter (for those that don't know volleyball, I'm one of the girls that stand at the net, jump, and spike the ball.) Considering the fact that I'm super short for my position, I have to have strong legs so I can jump and compete with the girls across the net. My coaches have always told me they never expected me to be able to jump this high. I jump the same height as our 5'11" outside hitter. I like fitspo. I like seeing girls do things outside of what is expected. I've never followed fitspo but I am going to start.

    • I have pretty muscular, thick thighs too thanks to years of playing volleyball! I was a middle blocker and inside hitter, which makes sense as I am very tall and so all I really needed to do was stand at the net and swat things down, like a gangly teenage-girl King Kong. It’s pretty amazing that you are able to play that position at your height – you must have some serious ups.

      There are a bunch of really good fitspo links just in the comments on this post, and I’ve actually come across some good fitspo that you could probably call “fatspo” because it shows fat women doing some really amazing physical things. I love anything that shows people in action. I have no interest in photos of people just standing around looking all waiflike. Boooooring.

  13. I don’t know if there’s anything like this out there, but I would like to see images that somehow combine women and fitness with improved health. I know showing images of women in action, lifting heavy weights and going distances is a way to show that, but if there was a good way to visually connect those actions with getting a healthy blood pressure reading, or something similar, I think that would be great and motivating for me. One of the most important motivations I have in exercising is not dying of a heart attack in my fifties like other people in my family have. Maybe just juxtaposing images of the same woman working out and getting a blood pressure check would work.

  14. As someone who it neither blond nor 18 – 24, I find 90% of both the fitspo and thinspo images neither inspirational or motivational. I don’t look like that. Even when I was that age and slender, I didn’t look like that. My tan was permanent for one thing. We didn’t pierce for another. And we sure and heck didn’t pass pictures around in our under wear or with our hands over our tits. And of the thinspo especially (even on the blogs that claim they do not support anorexia and bulimia) some of those girls look like they are dying from dieting or worse.

    As to the philosophy of fitspo: I agree with you 100% that images of thin, or even fit women sitting or standing around posing is not representative of health and fitness. I think most of the fitspo blogs rely too much on cliches and T&A and have little or nothing in the way of real workouts, healthy eating or lifestyles, etc. I don’t want to go the other extreme like on, either. But a vision board that is healthy, motivational and inspirational for me needs more than monochromatic, barely legal eye candy.

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  16. I try to pin stuff images of before and afters of real people. Those really inspire me! And it usually links to their story about healthy eating and workouts. When I pin pics of people who are really fit, it is usually a real person like Jillian Michaels.

    I do the Jillian Michael’s workout, and even her diet plan is full of good food so it is disheartening to see bodies with no or little muscle tone, so unhealthy.

    My almost three year old asked recently me if I was working out to be skinny. (I don’t know where she learned the word, I try not to use it around her! I must have slipped.)

    I told her “No, honey, I’m doing it to be healthy!” She just clapped as I kept working out.

    I hope to inspire her and not have her grow up to have health issues.

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  18. I am a fitness instructor and enthusiast. I don’t necessarily look like your avg trainer though, I’m actually bigger than most of the ladies in my class. I’m ok with it, cause I train hard and push myself to do more every time. I think thinspo is sickening, it’s not an ideal or achievable goal beyond poor health, and I agree with you, when I repin, or post pics, it’s my version of fitspo as well. I have several friends and family members that are cross fitters, or trainers and competitors, and they are my inspiration! Not an unrealistic vision of how I should look according to pics.

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