Forget internet memes; my fitspo comes from real life

Me getting my ass kicked on the Computrainer by three of my sources of real-life fitspo. (From left to right: Katie Corbin, Corrie Hacking, Brian and me)

Me getting my ass kicked on the Computrainer by three of my sources of real-life fitspo. (From left to right: Katie Corbin, Corrie Hacking, Brian and me)

You’ve probably gathered by now that another “no excuses” fitspo meme has generated a lot of controversy.  I’m not going to lie – I’m really disappointed that this is happening again.  I had hoped after all the furor over Maria Kang’s photo that other aspiring fitness celebrities would have decided to take a different tactic, but apparently the real lesson learned has been that a photo of one’s abs juxtaposed with the words “no excuses” is a really effective way to become famous.

I don’t really want to talk too much specifically about Abby “Superabs” Pell, because frankly, the internet smashed its fist into my “let’s get outraged!” button one too many times last year and so my field of fucks on this subject is now barren.  So instead I’ll just leave this post by Jen Sinkler and and this one by Mama Lion Strong and this one by James Fell. There’s nothing I could say that they haven’t already said better.

My issues with the whole thing go beyond just one or two specific images.  Frankly, I’m pretty fucking bored with the whole genre of so-called motivational imagery altogether.  A photo of a nearly-naked woman + in-yo-face text + a bunch of Insta filters = zzzzz.  It doesn’t work for me at all.

I suspect that a large part of my indifference is that my standards for what I consider to be inspirational are a bit higher than what I commonly see.  For instance, a lot of people defend “The Biggest Loser” on the grounds that it is inspirational and motivational, but if “The Biggest Loser” truly was inspiring its audience to make big lifestyle changes, then we’d have a whole nation of fit and active people who love to eat their veggies.  That this isn’t actually the case makes me think that, for many people, “inspirational” means “made me feel a thing.”

That’s not enough for me, dudes.  For me to feel truly inspired by something, I not only have to feel a thing, but I have to be motivated to actually act on that feeling.  And then not just act, but do so with consistency over a period of time. The vast majority of fitness-oriented media that I’ve come across just hasn’t done this for me. The big exception tends to be videos like the #ThisGirlCan campaign, which gets me all excited to get out and get sweaty every time I see it.  Seeing people actually doing things gets me all fired up in a way that passive posing doesn’t.

(It appears as though there’s room to question whether it’s actually working among those to whom it is targeted.  According to a recent study from Flinders University in Australia, teenage girls who spend a lot of time on fitspo sites are actually less motivated to be active, because they feel as though their bodies don’t measure up.  You had one job, fitspo…one job. Could this be the end of fitspo?  Goodness, I hope so.)

So now that I’ve told you what doesn’t work for me, let me tell you what I’ve found does work.  What does inspire me are the people I know in real life.  The people I train with, the people I race with, the people I’m friends with, the people whose blogs I read – those are my primary sources of fitspo. Those people are the ones who legitimately inspire me in a way that actually means something.  They are my real life fitspo.

That photo I posted at the top of this post is a good example of what I’m talking about when I talk about real life fitspo.  In that photo, I (the woman on the far right, in case you didn’t know) am taking part in a Computrainer ride with three of my biggest sources of real life fitspo: my husband Brian, and two of my racing team’s female elites, Katie and Corrie.

If you’ve read this blog for any amount of time, you know that Brian has played an enormous role in helping me embrace a more active, healthy lifestyle.  He initially got me interested in running and eating better, and now we basically operate a two-person motivational feedback loop.  It’s a splendid little system that works wonderfully for us.

And then there’s Katie and Corrie. Like I said, Katie and Corrie are two of the elite racers on my team.  But in addition to being formidable competitors on the race course, they also happen to be a pair of hilarious, supportive, generous, kind women who juggle serious training schedules with the demands of motherhood.  Just being around these women – as well as several others with whom I race and train – has encouraged me to take myself more seriously as an athlete and to not be afraid to dream really, really fucking big.

The contrast between the blah indifference I feel in the face of traditional fitspo and the frisson of excitement I get when being around friends and teammates I admire is dramatic.  My suspicion is that the discrepancy is related to the fact that the majority of fitspo is designed specifically to be shared on social media (and on social media platforms like Instagram and Pinterest that are predominantly used by women and girls, no less).  Obviously I’m no Luddite who longs for the day when all communication was held via carrier pigeon – it would be hypocritical for someone who spends as much time farting around on Facebook as I do to say such things.  But as much as I like social media and the way it’s allowed me to cultivate relationships with people who live far away from me, I also recognize social media has its share of problems.  Researchers have drawn connections between decreased self-esteem and heavy Facebook usage, which can basically be summarized as “comparing your insides to others’ outsides.”

A lot of people – myself included – have a tendency to curate their lives on social media as to highlight the awesome things.  Like, if you were to look at my Facebook feed, you’d see race photos and training log updates, links I found interesting, status updates about funny things, and the occasional bit of self-promotion.  Facebook Caitlin looks really productive and active and on top of things!  What a go-getter, that Facebook Caitlin!

But what I don’t post about are all the hours I’ve wasted clicking and scrolling mindlessly, the times I got so stressed out by work that I cried in the bathroom, or the existential crises that have become a fairly regular part of my life.  And because I have a lot of friends, coworkers and families with diverse viewpoints – and because I hate arguing on the internet – I don’t post a lot of political stuff. I used to but I don’t anymore, because it’s not worth the stress.

The closest you might get to seeing the more complicated sides of me is when I post while having a meltdown because I’ve spent the last hour sitting in traffic, but for the most part, I make a conscious effort to keep my Facebook account pretty sanitized and positive.  Anyone who compares themselves against me based on what they see of me on social media is only getting a carefully curated version of me.  A flattened version of me, really, with all my edges sanded off just enough so I can be as palatable as possible to as many people as possible.

That’s how I feel about most fitspo meme-ry, that they are basically carefully edited, flattened versions of the people depicted in the images.  Yeah, there’s a lot of talk about sweat and sacrifice and hard work, but it’s all boilerplate rhetoric that doesn’t fully convey what is actually meant by those things.  They doesn’t show what the person in the image actually had to do and how they truly feel.  You don’t get the complexity and vulnerability that comes when you actually get to know a person and you see how they conduct their lives.  It’s difficult to find the common humanity between you and the person in those glossy, filtered photos, whereas it’s a hell of a lot easier to find common humanity with someone you actually know.

So yeah, I’ve got no more time for fitspo imagery.  I want to be inspired in my life, but I’m gonna need something more substantial than a filtered photo slapped with some word to make that happen.

45 responses to “Forget internet memes; my fitspo comes from real life

  1. Standing at a finish line of a race (really ANY race, ANY distance) I see average Janes and Joes out there that inspire me. Many of them would never show up on a fitspo meme, so yeah, I think you’re on to something. It’s real, and it makes me feel a thing, and often gets me clicking on that “REGISTER NOW” button for another race!

  2. I love this. I spend some of my online time around a community that tends toward that kind of Instagram fitspo and it never gets me going the way realness does. You, for instance – you may be an online person to me rather than a person in real life, but you do talk about a wide array of your experiences, including your struggles AND your triumphs. Reading your blog gets me going more than almost anything else for that reason – you are a real person that I can relate to and that inspires me because I feel like I can too!

    • Aw, thank you so much! You are so sweet to say that! I do try to be as genuine as possible – and I know that’s cliched to say but it’s true – so I really appreciate you saying this. Means a lot to me. 🙂

  3. Couldn’t have said it better. My recent marathon PR was accomplished in the presence of “real life fitspo”: friends of mine from the Internet who had completed several 100 mile races (one) and run a marathon in Antarctica (the other), in addition to having families and jobs and all the rest. I couldn’t believe they were running with me!

    • Whoo, congrats on your marathon PR! That’s so awesome that you are surrounded by such supportive, generous athletes who were with you when you achieved a goal of your own. Major congratulations!

  4. Amen! There are so many people in my real life that I see at the gym, in class, out on the trails, etc. as well as my family (thanks Mom and Dad for doing 10Ks and cross-country ski treks in your 70s!) who are my inspiration and positive peer influences. I also am bored to irritation with stupid fitspo messages and images. I think like any “provocative” marketing gimmick, it’s going to soon be passé and drop off the map…let’s hope so.

    • Provocative marketing is so dumb, because it’s based on pushing boundaries, and you can only go so far with that before you’ve run out of room. I much prefer advertising like This Girl Can, Always’ Like a Girl campaign, and some recent commercials from Apple and Fitbit promoting their wearable tech. Have you seen the Fitbit one? It’s pretty much my favorite:

  5. I love this – all the fitspo memes you see all over Pinterest etc just make me want to scream. I’m always inspired by other runners that I see when I’m running – partly because I always go first thing in the morning, and sometimes it freaking SUCKS to get out of your warm bed and go out into the cold, so whenever I see other runners I think ‘Hey, you managed to leave your bed too! Go us!’ and have to restrain the urge to high-five them as they go past. Doesn’t matter how fast or slow they’re going, seeing other runners makes me want to run more.

    • I ran in 40-degree temperatures this morning – I know that’s not truly cold but it’s cold for Florida so bear with me pls – and so I am particularly feeling this comment right now!

  6. I’m always inspired by the seniors who take their daily looooong walks in the park or who just have fun with fitness.
    Frankly I wisj Twitter, FB etc would all go away. I’m surprised no slick attorney has tried a class action suit against them. You know suing for emotional damage etc.

    • We’ve got a lot of retirees down here who are active and I love seeing them out doing their thing. It has really done a lot to change the way I think about growing older, that’s for sure.

  7. I used to like the fitspo images, back when I very first got into strength training. I think it was a combo of not knowing enough, and getting to feel like some moral person for doing it. However, that was a solid 3 years ago now, and I’ve learned what exactly goes into making those fitspo bodies.

    So now I pin some of them to my Fitness pinboard, but they’re up there alongside strength training routines from Muscle & Fitness Men’s, and they’ve got critiques in the description. My favorite is of a woman in a squat rack- I mention that she should have her feet shoulder width to protect her knees/keep her hammies in the game, as well as the fact that she doesn’t have the safety bars up. I hope someone sees it & it helps them to realize that these images can be misleading.

    • Will you share a link to your board? I’d like to see it.

      And yeah, I went through the same thing myself. The first couple of years I worked out, I exclusively consulted Oxygen and Muscle and Fitness Hers as my resources. It worked at the time but as I’ve learned more, I find they don’t serve my needs anymore.

  8. Okay. I couldn’t have said this any better. Thank YOU for posting this and for your words. Truly the “fitspo” images are not only uninspiring–but they are dangerous. They are toxic to a nation of people and young girls already struggling with body image and they can seriously lead to deeper problems and can trigger eating disorders (or worsen one.) Your post is empowering and fucking awesome.

    Also, on a related note I found this article about “The Biggest Loser” that is disgusting and terrible–and I can’t even imagine that such a show exists.

    • Thank you! And I did read that post and was horrified. Sadly, I’m not surprised though, as I have read a few other contestants talk about the conditions that take place behind the scenes. I was already not a fan of the show because it just looks so dehumanizing and unhealthy to me, but finding out what the contestants actually go through really sealed my non-fandom for me. Ugh.

      • There’s some research about the impact of the show on the people that watch it…people actually become less motivated to exercise & eat healthily if they watch the show. My theory is that it gives people unreasonable expectations for weight change and shows exercise in a punitive light instead of a joyful one (plus other issues like what Kai mentions in that interview).

      • I know it is truly dehumanizing. I guess it kind of slipped out my radar and I hadn’t ever really thought about the show. But it’s disgusting that it not only exists, but that it’s successful and makes a lot of money. Eek. We need some empowering TV shows about loving yourself to exist and be more popular than shows like this.

    • Same here! I’m so inspired by runners and triathletes of all ages and abilities. Love being out there and seeing all of us do our thing.

  9. I try so hard to teach my clients about physical empowerment as opposed to body obsessing. Then damn Fitspo comes around and fucks it up!!
    It’s so hard because I find the majority of fitness marketing uses fat shaming rather than physical empowerment. I would love to see a fitness ad say, “Join today and squat like a boss!”

    • It’s so challenging to change that mindset because it’s not just the fitness industry perpetuating it – it’s our whole culture! Trying to shift the mindset so it’s less focused on appearances and more about performance/ability can be a herculean task, but honestly I think the tide is really turning on this. Progress is slow but it definitely seems to me that it’s happening! Hang in there and keep doing good work with your clients, as I’m sure you’re influencing them more than you know. 🙂

  10. Hmm I’m not familiar with the so-called motivational imagery…and social media, etc.

    I made a clear decision not to make my personal blog a fitness training blog at all. Life is SO much more than exercise, fitness and health.

    My blog about what I see on bike as a take-off point, but not always and just gives me a narrative metaphor to tie together my life journey and wanderings on favourite topics.

    My partner is an experienced, long-time long distance touring cyclist –across Canada, U.S. ,etc. Am not convinced focusing on his fitness is useful either…. It just doesn’t help when we also become older, abit slower (it’s super reality)….that will not hold a blog audience.

    Motivation comes from within and creating our own useful hooks to keep chugging along in life.

    • If you aren’t familiar with fitspo, then consider yourself lucky. It really seems to be everywhere, and it’s obnoxious.

      I agree that the best kind of motivation is intrinsic motivation. It’s been my experience that when you are motivated from within, then you are more likely to stick with things and have positive experiences instead of feeling disappointed and lacking all the time.

  11. WOW, you couldn’t have said it any better. I first begin following fitspo for inspiration. I would wake up every morning, saw the images on instagram, and that was my motivation to go to the gym. As time went by, i didn’t see my body measuring up to the fitspo images. This led to less activity, low petite and low self esteem. It was getting to the point where I got discouraged every time I checked my twitter and instagram.

    Finally I put an end to the poisonous fog in my head and unfollowed fitspo. I resorted the accounts that posted healthy recipes and workout routines. I’m now happy with my mind and body.

    Social Media is a powerful communication outlet, and it truly affect its audience. Just like you said, it definitely has its share of problems.

    I recently wrote about the same issues with advertisement. The media is destroying girls self esteem one outlet at a time.

    To further discuss, feel free to email me at To read more about the impact of media and how it affects attitudes behaviors and lifestyles, follow my blog

  12. I love This Girl Can, partly because I think if you’re starting from behind your computer or on the sofa you just don’t know anyone well enough who’s into fitness to gather inspiration from their experiences. I avoid any kind of fitspo which is about what a fit body looks like. I struggle with my body image so I would rather focus on how I feel than what I look like, and This Girl Can seems very much to fit that mould.

    This year I have started my very slow journey towards getting fitter, and I think reading your blog for the last year or so has contributed to that, so thank you. I was really nervous about what was going to happen when I joined a gym, but everyone has been really supportive. Now I just need to keep up the momentum, although I’m struggling with how to keep exercising after developing some minor injuries.

    • I’m so happy to hear that! I mean, that my blog helped contribute to you going to the gym, not about your injuries. (That’s a real bummer, and I’m sorry to hear that happened.) I had a similar experience when I started running. I think I expected everyone to look like elite professional runners and was really surprised to find that wasn’t the case at all.

      Have you been able to find anything that works for you while you deal with your injuries?

      • Sorry for the slow reply! Mostly I am just slowing my pace down a bit, doing a few physio exercises to strengthen my ankles and doing quite a bit of walking to stay mobile. I got a sports massage for my neck after it caused pain along an occipital nerve and that worked wonders.

        Overall the main thing I’ve done is keep going with a personal trainer. I figured when I started I was so ignorant that I would really benefit from that knowledge and motivation. I think without seeing him every week, with his relentless optimism and total respect for my goals I would have given up by now. I keep him up to date with injuries (which have always developed in classes!) so he can plan around them and I always find our sessions enjoyable.

      • My injuries have all come about in classes so I’m dropping those for the time being and focusing on my weekly sessions with my personal trainer and doing a fair bit of walking to keep mobile. I need to do some physio exercises to strengthen my ankles but I keep forgetting!

        My personal trainer is fantastic, so glad I made that decision. I feel completely respected and it’s so much easier to stay motivated.

      • It’s all good. I figured it was because the first comment wasn’t approved and so you resubmitted. If you want I can delete one of them?

        I’m glad that you’ve been having good experiences with your trainer. I’ve heard some real nightmare stories and so a trainer who respects you while motivating you to reach your goals is a real gem!

  13. Pingback: Friday Inspiration – Fitness and Feminism | Reading, Running, Cycling·

  14. I’ve just discovered your blog through some tangenal internet procrastinating, and I just wanted to tell you that I have spent most of the afternoon reading it compulsively! It is so refreshing to read a fitness blog which is written from such an engaged and thoughtful perspective.

    I was an academic, bookish child growing up, and that false dichotomy between intellect and physical ability was pretty strongly entrenched. I believed I was a smart and capable girl, but only in a very specific arena. That I was also – by virtue both of my gender, and my ‘swotty-ness’ – physically weak, helpless, dependent upon others, and defenceless. Rape, and the subsequent emotional fallout led me further and further from my own body.

    I healed, but my body remained a burden to me. Fat, scarred, useless… I felt like it wasn’t on my side. Then a year or so ago I started to run. A little at first, and then a little more… I slowly came to appreciate the fact that you can’t cheat yourself when you run. You put in the miles, you make progress. You become stronger; muscles develop but so does something else. As I come to appreciate the things my body is capable of, more than that I have come to value that my body and my self are not enemies, they are not possessions or objects. They are mine alone.

    I’m doing my first triathlon in a week, and have spent a lot of time ‘researching’ on the internet, and am a bit disillusioned by the persistent need to equate fitness with thinness; for exercise to be a means to an appearance related end. The feminist in me can’t comfortably participate in a ‘fitness industry’ that continues to objectify women and encourage them to focus their energies on modifying their external appearance for the pleasure of others.

    So I guess what I’m trying to say with all of that rambling is… thank you for being a refreshing and intelligent voice amongst all the superficial crap!

    • Thank you! And I love your whole comment so much. I was a fellow bookish kid, and my participation in sports was almost desultory. (In high school I only played sports because I was tall, oy vey.) When I took them up as an adult, I learned a lot of the same things you did: that my body is miraculous, that I’m capable of busting my ass, that there’s so much more to life than how I look.

      I’m really glad to have you on board as a reader. 🙂

      • Thanks 🙂 Keep writing and I’ll keep reading, it’s nice to read something that your thoughts actually keep coming back to, rather than vacuous ‘inspirational’ quotes!

    • “I’m doing my first triathlon in a week, and have spent a lot of time ‘researching’ on the internet, and am a bit disillusioned by the persistent need to equate fitness with thinness; for exercise to be a means to an appearance related end. The feminist in me can’t comfortably participate in a ‘fitness industry’ that continues to objectify women and encourage them to focus their energies on modifying their external appearance for the pleasure of others.”

      Good luck with the triathlon! And this is exactly how I feel about so much online fitness content. I’ve found much better motivation through feminism and Health At Every Size proponents.

      • Thanks, I’m a bit nervous/excited! It’s heartening to hear that there are plenty of people out there who don’t buy into all of that rubbish 😉

  15. When I was younger these images (in workout magazines and now posted online as memes) were inspirational. But my knowledge grew as a fitness pro and I realised that fitness models etc undergo rigid diets and full-time training to look like that for the purposes of a photoshoot. Most of those guys and girls have a genetic advantage and a long history of athleticism starting at school. I don’t want to detract from their achievements, but as inspiration they put most people on a long and unfulfilling road of frustration. The ‘This Girl Can’ campaign celebrates effort and ‘doing’ rather than appearances (which as we know can be deceptive).
    Plus, anyone notice the way the same inspirational quote is being mis-attributed to different people…I mean, Gandhi and Muhammed Ali could not have said the same thing, right?

  16. I have to agree with you, as always. Motivational imagery is great in moderation as with nearly everything else, but too much of it becomes a bit like Valentines Day being shoved down the throat of a devoutly single person. There’s so many other real examples out there, real people who would probably be surprised to know that others look to them as a role model, a hero or champion for their cause. Just as I’m sure Caitlin that you’d be to hear that a lot of us think that of you. 🙂

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