Social Media #Fitspiration: Helpful of Harmful?

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Let’s Talk About This #Fitspiration Thing..

If you’ve tried to get in shape in the past, chances are you’re intimately familiar with how difficult — scratch that, how impossible it is to force yourself to go running at 6 a.m. Many people turn to fitness blogs and Instagram accounts for motivation, but according to recent research, fitspiration posts can negatively affect women’s self-esteem. This doesn’t mean that finding motivation on social media is inherently bad; it is, however, another reminder that social media’s effect on us largely has to do with how we use it.

With regard to women in particular, social media can be a direct gateway to body shaming. Thanks to the lovely and talented Zlata of Sexy Fit, we we’re able to hone in one the negative effects of social media from someone who’s experienced them first hand. “I believe we have created a society that looks at our body as our only value as women,” she says. “With beauty trends changing all the time, it’s so hard for us to find a happy medium.”

We couldn’t agree more. On the surface, fitspiration sounds pretty great. The shortened version of the hashtag, #fitspo, has racked up more than 25 million uses on Instagram, where it is typically attached to images of fitness bloggers mid-workout, motivational quotes, and healthy meals. (Also protein shakes. So many protein shakes.) Although fitspiration is about fitness and health rather than weight loss, unlike #thinspiration, psychologists are still wary of fitspiration’s larger effect on mental health.

And according to the results of a recent study from Flinders University, they may be right to be concerned. After surveying their mood and level of body dissatisfaction, researchers assigned 130 female participants to two groups. One looked a set of travel images, while the other viewed fitspiration images from Instagram; both types of images were overlaid with vaguely inspirational text. After viewing the photos, participants took another survey to measure their mood and level of body dissatisfaction.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, women who had viewed the fitspiration images reported a more negative mood and were less satisfied with their bodies than the women who saw travel images. Furthermore, this was mediated by “state appearance comparison,” or comparing themselves to the fitspiration photos. In other words, researchers believe the women who viewed fitspiration posts compared themselves to the subjects of the photos, which in turn negatively affected their self-esteem.

Zlata takes pride in encouraging her Sexy Fit community to steer clear of social media’s high standards and focus on what’s within. Of course, she didn’t stumble upon this realization until she had the opportunity to transform the lives of hundreds of women. “Our true beauty and true strength lies within our imperfections,” she says. “We truly make a shift in ourselves is when we begin to embrace those perfections.” 

Ultimately, the problem boils down to our tendency to compare ourselves to others. We’ve all heard that social media might make you depressed, but further research has indicated that this effect depends on how you use it. According to a Forbes study, users who are prone to social comparison are more likely to become depressed after using Facebook, but Zlata has made it her point to filter out any negativity. “For me, the further I explore my imperfections, and I explore ‘who am I,’ the more and more I move away from social media and unrealistic expectations,” she says. “As a result, I look better than ever, I feel better than ever, and my life is better than ever. And it all started with embracing the things I didn’t like about myself.”

Whatever the intention, following fitspiration accounts on Instagram may not be such a healthy habit, according to the researchers. It might be hard to completely remove yourself from the fitspiration community, but the researchers (and the lovely women at SexyFit) suggest that you limit your exposure as best you can! Remember, women are like fine wine. “Whether we put that fine wine in a house glass or martini glass, the essence of that wine doesn’t change,” Zlata says. “At the end of the day we’re the flavor, and the glass doesn’t define who we are as human beings!”