Muscle in on the online fitness craze

Tanya Sweeney looks at ‘fitspo’, a new beauty craze that claims to empower its followers but may just be an alternative form of body fascism.

Muscle in on the online fitness craze

Paris Fashion week is known for blazing a trail, and in April this year, France’s National Assembly finally called time on models with a BMI (Body Mass Index) of less than 18.

In fact, the death knell for Size Zero first rang out when Instagram and Tumblr banned pictures of ‘thinspiration’ in 2013 (images designed to promote skinniness but can sometimes actively encourage eating disorders).

But it meant that the time was nigh for a new female bodily ideal.

A divine collision of the selfie craze and the need for a move away from Size Zero, the ‘strong not skinny’ brigade swapped out the thinspo hashtag for something much more positive: ‘fitspo’.

Fitspo came to prominence in the mainstream when the likes of Beyonce Knowles, Gisele Bundchen, Adriana Lima and Candice Swanepoel started posting photos of their workouts online… and the excessively ripped, toned results of said workouts.

Pink took the cause further still, tweeting that she felt beautiful and secure after critics commented on her weight gain. Celebs like Jessica Simpson and Jennifer Lopez have also become ‘strong not skinny’ supporters.

And these days, you can’t move on social media for images of women — and men — flexing their excessively gym-honed bodies. Instead of jutting hip bones and painfully visible clavicles, you’re likely to see six-packs, biceps and buns of steel.

Once upon a time, a paparazzi shot of Madonna jogging in Central Park with her minders was an arresting sight. But now, the fitspo pictures now come to us, unbidden and in spades.

The fitspo playground isn’t the red carpet or the nightclub, but the beachside yoga class or the free weights section in the gym. And there already are ‘strong not skinny’ superstars all over the Internet.

An Australian study of 13- to 17-year-old girls, conducted at Flinders University, found that their main role models were women who ran online fitspo pages.

For some of Rachel Brathen’s ( ) 1.3 million followers, a Paris-LA flight is worth it for one of her yoga classes.

There are other fitspo global superstars: New Yorker Jen Selter (@jenselter on Instagram) has 6.2 million followers, while celebrity trainer Massiel Arias (@manofkit on Instagram) has 1.7 million.

And these numbers can translate into cold hard cash by way of sponsorship and endorsements; a sizeable slice of the global fitness industry valued at an estimated €70bn .

Closer to home, model and former Tallafornia cast member Kelly Donegan has ratcheted up over 50,000 followers online.

Once she began her weight training, Donegan ( swapped out skinny selfies for pics of her muscular frame. Having represented Ireland as a bodybuilder at competition level, she now plans to make fitness her career.

“It wasn’t intentional,” she says, referring to her ‘rebranding’.

“Everyone had a real giggle, because one minute I was a model, and the next I was in the Miss Bikini Classic competition. It was a very personal thing.

"I was a bit depressed at the time and needed to shake things up. I felt trapped in a hole in my life, and I needed something to get me out of it. I started bodybuilding and found it really inspiring and empowering. You want to get bigger.

“Something else that really drives me is the setting of goals and targets,” she adds.

“When I used to try and get in shape as a model, it was exhausting mentally.

"But lifting weights is pretty easy for me. You become more confident with your body and you accept yourself more. I’ve never been happier with my body.”

Personal trainer and power-lifter Danielle Hayes (, based in Dublin, is every bit as effusive about her strong new look.

Weighing in at almost 14 stone as a teenager, she slimmed down to a dress Size 8 when she developed bulimia for two years.

After running the proverbial gamut (“I was a cardio bunny, I under-ate, I used diet tablets and Slim Fast”), she has found a happy place.

“I wasn’t happy when I was at my skinniest,” she recalls.

“I was depriving myself and had a fear of eating in front of people. But there’s no better feeling than lifting 150% of your body weight. You become stronger and more confident. I’m a broad girl so I play to my strengths.”

Hayes posts fitspo pics to motivate and inspire her clients, and rebuffs the idea that there’s an element of narcissism or seeking validation involved.

“I actually hate that ‘strong is sexy’ stuff, and it still labels women as sex objects,” she observes.

“When I’m at the gym I don’t show skin and I get on with it. I’ve had to unfollow people who put up pics of themselves (at the gym) in thongs.

"I wear a size 14 now so sometimes I have trouble getting into clothes in Topshop or Penneys… but even though I don’t look like a conventional girly girl, I love it.”

There’s no doubting that both Hayes and Donegan are in the best physical and mental shape of their lives.

Still, a growing number of commentators have hit upon an interesting point: that swapping one feminine body ideal for another is simply another, newfangled, form of body fascism.

Ostensibly, fitspo is meant to provide motivation to those finding it tough to wrench themselves away from the desk or sofa.

Others, however, have noted that ‘fitspo’ is every bit as self-righteous, inclined to feed into self-loathing, and as misleading as the Size Zero craze.

“It’s certainly more healthy than people trying to be as skinny as possible, and in the overall scheme of things it’s great that a more positive image is being promoted,” says Harriet Parsons, a psychotherapist and services co-ordinator at body image charity Bodywhys ( ).

“It would still have little alarm bells ringing around it if people started to obsess over it. If it dominates their life, that is a problem.

"Fitspo promotes an ‘ideal’ body image, rather than promoting health and difference and the acceptance that we’re all different.

"It tells people that if they achieve this idea, they will be a better person. That can conflate a person’s sense of self and the measure of a person’s worth with their physical image.

“The reality is one should be healthy and fit for your body type, live as healthy a way as possible, but remember that body image is just one aspect of who you are and your sense of self,” she adds.

PUTTING oneself at the mercy of online followers for comments, ‘likes’ and general validation hardly sounds like the best way to boost one’s sense of self.

Fitspo may inspire better living in general… but another development has risen in parallel with the ‘strong not skinny’ phenomenon: the rise of orthorexia.

When it comes to fitspo burnout, the red flags are easily recognised: physical injury, declining performance, feeling burned out, and feeling stale in terms of exercise or loss of motivation.

Yet for anyone who has posted a photo of the results of their health kick, this no doubt sounds rather familiar.

Further still, Parsons believes that those predisposed to Body Dysmorphic Disorder (BDD) are more likely to be affected negatively by fitspo culture.

BDD can become overly fixated on parts of their body that they view as flawed if they routinely work out.

Sure enough, the research conducted by Flinders University in Australia found that the influence of fitspo superstars might not always be a positive one on young women, as the research found that many of the girls interviewed felt ‘bad’ about their body as a result of these blogs.

Already, it is thought that two per cent of the population will develop body dysmorphia, a condition characterised by severe preoccupation with an imagined physical defect.

The person’s perceived defect may not be noticeable to others, but is excessively obvious to the sufferer, who may spend several hours a day checking their appearance in mirrors or comparing themselves to others.

The BDD Foundation have posted a video entitled You Are Not Alone, which perfectly encapsulates the intricacies of the condition.

The video also reminds sufferers they are not existing in isolation; as it happens, a number of celebrities have spoken out about their experience, among them Robert Pattinson, Hayden Pannetiere and Lily Allen.

“Body dysmorphia is in the same area as anorexia nervosa, where people can’t see their own emaciated, skeletal body and instead they see folds of fat,” explains Colman Noctor, psychotherapist at St Patrick’s Hospital, Dublin (

“BD is a clinical term and is different to having low-self esteem. It’s a condition that exists on a spectrum, as does every mental illness. And can range from milder instance to something more neurotic.

"If you’re concerned with being a size 14, your reference point exists in pop culture. They will certainly feed BD if you’re that way inclined.”

The uneasy marriage between ‘strong not skinny’ and BDD is of course more complex than that.

Some people simply want to be strong and fit and not all of them find fault with their own bodies. Likewise, those affected by BDD aren’t always aware of, or affected by, fitspo images.

For Hayes, not being able to fit into size 14 jeans is less a point of anxiety and more a badge of honour.

“There’s no better feeling than feeling strong and the best bit is that you’re not doing it for anyone else… you’re doing it for you,” she says.

“I’ve come a really long way, and I hope I can help to empower other women.”

‘Power’, it seems, is a keyword that pops time again with those who routinely use the ‘fitspo’ tag to speak to their social media followers.

There is something to be said for the ability to train hard enough to be able to lift one’s body weight.

Yet forging a sense that doesn’t depend on Facebook likes, retweets, followers and comparing oneself to others… presumably, that’s where the real power lies.


The fitspo trend recalibrates our relationship with food and crucially, ‘strong not skinny’ does little to address the emotional or psychosocial reasons for obesity or eating disorders.

Psychotherapist and author Susie Orbach notes that relationships with food are now viewed through Instagram: “Food becomes this completely fetishised and privileged thing,” she told the Guardian newspaper. “The basic underlying psychology of it is terror food — something that could do terrible things to the way you look.”

Orthorexia, the obsession with healthy living and clean eating, has been linked with those who routinely post food and workout images online.

Colorado-based physician Dr Steven Bratman coined the term ‘orthorexics’ (derived from the Greek orthos, meaning ‘correct’ and orexia, meaning ‘appetite’) to describe those addicted to healthy eating.

As addictions go, it sounds relatively harmless. Not so, says to Dublin nutritionist Aveen Bannon ( “Orthorexia would really describe an unhealthy obsession with healthy eating. It can begin with a focus on healthy eating, herbal remedies, vitamin supplements and some food avoidance. Often quality of life decreases as the quality of the diet increases,” says Bannon.

“It’s all very amenable, but you then need to weigh up your eating habits with your emotional state. If it affects your life, your relationships, your work performance or your happiness, and your eating has enduring effects, it’s time to look at it in a different light.

“There is a lot more information readily available to people now about healthy eating and headlines can influence peoples food choices… but it is more complex than media influences.”

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