fitspo: what is it, and why does it matter?

This month I’m going to be writing about toxic fitness culture – what I call fitspo. 

It’s important, and hopefully by the end of the post you’ll agree with me.

What is fitspo?

The moniker “fitspo” comes from the instagram tag for “fitness inspiration”. Another interchangeable phrase: toxic fitness culture.

“Fitness” and even “wellness” in America generally means:

  1. slim
  2. able-bodied (or “inspirationally” disabled)
  3. youthful
  4. athletic/strong
  5. white and/or light-skinned
  6. a “positive mindset”
  7. affluent or giving the appearance of wealth and ease

A simple “yoga” tag search for on Instagram, currently our largest social media platform, is illuminating (notice – even the illustrations are skinny!):

"fitspo culture has gotta go - here's why" on toxic fitness and wellness spaces by Agni Hogaboom of Little Switch Yoga | Grays Harbor Hoquiam Aberdeen Washington
"fitspo culture has gotta go - here's why" on toxic fitness and wellness spaces by Agni Hogaboom of Little Switch Yoga | Grays Harbor Hoquiam Aberdeen Washington

(also note the tag “yoga” yields almost all physical/asana work – no mention of ethics, social observances, pranayama, philosophy, or history. But those are topics for another day!)

Who is welcome, in the fitspo world?

Youthful, slim, athletic (strong), racially and socioeconomically statused individuals are seen as more worthy and more desirable than their counterparts.

Fitspo ties in with our race, our age, our body shape and size, our socioeconomic class. You can’t really separate fitspo from patriarchal and white supremacist constructs.

But perhaps more than anything else, fitspo incorporates and supports ableism.

What is ableism?

Ableism places “well” bodies, “healthy” bodies, and able-bodied individuals as morally, ethically, and pedagogically superior to sick, unhealthy, or disabled individuals.

I don’t need to be a disabilities scholar to spell this one out.

We all know ableism is real, if we are honest.

If we haven’t felt ableism’s sting – well, that is probably because we’ve been operating from our own little bubble. If we haven’t been excluded or maligned, that’s because we fit in, in some way or other.

For instance I’m white; most fitness influencers you see out there, certainly the ones who get acclaim and book deals et cetera – most of them are white. So my entire life, I’ve been in the “in crowd” – at least with regards to race – in the fitness and fitspo world.

I am also able-bodied (at this time in my life) – so again, experiences like mine are spotlighted and held up as the “norm”.

In other ways, I don’t fit in so much. I’m old (at least according to the fitness world) and I’m fat, so in that sense I’m definitely sidelined. (I happen to currently be very strong and bendy – but most people don’t expect that, just by looking at me). I’m nonbinary, and boy oh boy are we excluded from discourse – everywhere!

It should go without saying: we shouldn’t have to be young, fit, thin – any of those things – to be included, welcomed, and supported in the physical movements space.

Aren’t you making a big deal of nothing? Isn’t it a good thing, to want to be in shape?

Sure! Kinda.

There is nothing wrong with working to be stronger, more mobile, and have more energy reserves. There is nothing inherently wrong with a workout!

In fact for the vast majority of human bodies, movement practice is recommended. 

But be careful.

Fitspo can still sidetrack you – even if you have the best of intentions!

Because remember: fitspo is above all about hierarchy, and trying to scramble into a place of cultural acceptance.

Fitspo tells us: we aren’t good enough, unless we’re better than other people.

And if we aren’t worthy, we should be TRYING to get more worthy.

In the fitspo world it is okay to be old, or fat, or not-white, or poor – as long as you’re putting in work to “better yourself”.

So when I say “be careful” I really mean it – because to the extent you buy into fitspo culture, you will suffer. Unfortunately, when we seek to “better ourselves” from a place of loathing, self-hatred, or even a sense of “less than”, lots of crummy things happen:

1. We won’t experience true joy in the process – because we are more focussed on the ends than the means;

2. We have a low tolerance for failure, injury, mishaps or slow progress;

3. We may end up aspiring to something that may not actually be appropriate or even achievable for us;

4. We are hyper-sensitive to what our fitness instructor thinks and/or the sleights (real or imagined) from our fitness community; 

5. After suffering from all the above ^^^ we usually give up on our movement practice, and blame *ourselves* for failing. This perpetuates a cycle of shame, sadness, and even apathy.

***

Trends in fitspo come and go – a few years ago there was a huge emphasis on being STRONG (mostly through weight lifting and so-called “clean” eating) but I’m reliably told that “heroin chic” is going to come back again (particularly with the skyrocketing popularity of Ozempic and other weight loss modalities).

So this month I invite you to look around the yoga space. Who isn’t there? And why are they missing?

Are we doing all we can, to let them know they are welcome?

(My Code of Conduct addresses that, at least in large part!)

I want something better than fitspo for myself, for my yoga space – and for the world at large.

The rest of this month, I’ll talk more about some antidotes to toxic fitness culture – and some constructive action we can take.

Resources:

“yoga” tag search on Instagram

“Understanding toxic fitness culture”, Ninjathlete at Medium.com

“How to talk about disability sensibly and avoid ableist tropes” , Shruti Rajkumar, NPR.org

Jonny Landels, male body image and strength coach

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