Fitness photos posted within the context of social media fitness culture – using hashtags such as ’fitspo’ and ’fitspiration’ – are supposed to inspire others to exercise but, in fact, the photos can have the opposite effect. In the pursuit of perfection, a need for validation is born that cannot be satiated, new research shows.

The consequences can be mental illness and distorted body ideals.

"Fitspiration captures the essence of the problematic side of social media,” says Aurélien Daudi, a PhD student in sports science at Malmö University. He has carried out a philosophical and psychoanalytical analysis of fitness culture on social media.

Within this culture, there is a great focus on the well-trained, attractive and “sexy” body.

Aurélien Daudi

Image-based social media platforms such as Instagram have an inherent objectification logic. Fully representing all of yourself through a picture is actually impossible, it is not feasible to capture everything you are as a person through a picture, believes Daudi, who adds:

“Instead, you inevitably end up reducing yourself to identifiable and communicable signs. Within this culture, there is a great focus on the well-trained, attractive and “sexy” body. That is often what one displays of oneself, leading to a natural marriage between objectification and sexualisation.”

‘The medium is the message’ is a well-known expression. In this case, the message tends to become "I" rather than one about inspiration. According to Daudi, Instagram invites individuals to indulge their own narcissism.

“Narcissism is often used as a derogatory word, but in psychoanalysis the term also describes a driving force, wanting and desiring something for oneself, towards the general well-being and prospering of the self. There is reason to attempt to control this narcissism, and in social contexts it is normally kept in check. On Instagram, however, the narcissism that exists in everyone is instead fuelled and cultivated.”

Social comparison and the incentivisation to live up to the ideals propagated via other people's photos creates stress, as can the act of posting oneself. Images that constantly show idealised versions of oneself and others, and that clash with reality, can often create emotional dissonance. Frustrating feelings of inadequacy are compensated for with even more narcissism, thus more images are posted in search of a greater response. A "feedback loop" is created that becomes difficult to break.

“Previous research also shows that the fitspiration culture contributes to mental illness, distorted body ideals and negative self-image in general.”

The image sold through social media can be a motivator to exercise, but if the motivation is always external – that one engages in exercise from a motivation to please others rather than from internal motivation – then the risk of more negative effects can also follow.

Both men and women post pictures within the social media fitness culture. However, women have traditionally been more exposed to the critical gaze of the media, making the negative impact of fitspiration on this group potentially greater, according to the study. Daudi points out that fitspiration does not show a direct portrayal of gym culture or strength training, but that fitspiration represents a culture of its own:

“More young women than men publish on social media within the framework of the phenomenon, while bodybuilding culture is still quite male-dominated. The pictures on social media are usually not centred specifically on the training itself, even if the captions often contain clear references to exercise. The pictures instead tend to either show carefully chosen poses or highlight selected body parts."

Behind a published image there are usually many more variations of the image, and the best, most perfect image is published. “In other words, the signal value, the status that the body and the image displays, is more important than showing that one actually has practical benefit from a strong and healthy body,” he concludes.

Text: Kristina Rörström & Adrian Grist