If Instagram feeds provided a balanced picture of real life, you might be forgiven for thinking the rest of the world was going to come out of the COVID-19 pandemic with abs of steel, a new instrument under their belt, and a profitable side-hustle to boot.
As we hunker down at home under lockdowns, many of us are turning to social media for connection – and inspiration. Popular Instagram hashtags like #fitspiration and #fitspo pick up tens of millions of posts across Facebook and Instagram, and mostly slim, mostly well-toned, cisgender women in their ‘20s post thousands of images of themselves in workout clothing. They are Posing. Exercising. Eating healthy food. They are getting fit, eating “clean”, and being their “best self.”
“One day or day one, you decide,” reads the inspirational quote in one post. “It’s not about ‘having’ time. It’s about making time”, reads another. Followers hope that looking at the images will motivate them to get fit themselves.
But according to a new study by researchers at Flinders University in Adelaide, it doesn’t actually work like that. Their research suggests that viewing #fitspiration images tends to make women feel worse about themselves – and doesn’t motivate them to work out more, either.
The research team recruited 108 women aged between 17 and 25, and had one group scroll through #fitspiration images, while another looked at a selection of inspirational travel pictures. They were then asked about their mood and their level of satisfaction with their bodies.
Members of each group were also asked to walk on a treadmill at their choice of speed, and others were asked to rest; both groups then rated their mood and level of body satisfaction again.
Researchers found that women who saw the #fitspiration images rated their mood and body satisfaction lower than those who viewed the travel images. For the women exposed to fitspiration images, their average negative mood score was a 29.10 and their body dissatisfaction score was 60.24. Compare that to the group that only looked at travel images – a 23.6 in mood and a 55.89 in body dissatisfaction – and the results become clear.
What’s more, while most people who saw the #fitspiration images said it made them feel motivated to get fit, they didn’t actually work out any harder than the other group. Interestingly, they actually found the exercise ‘harder work’.
Those who exercised after viewing #fitspo images did report higher mood and body satisfaction than those who rested quietly – which aligns with other findings that exercise tends to boost our mood and self-image – but not enough to mitigate the deflating effects of viewing the images in the first place.
Lead researcher and health scientist Ivanka Prichard told Kin it’s not surprising that
viewing the images had such a negative impact on participants’ body image.
“Lots of the images in this space are quite idealistic,” she said, “so they only demonstrate one particular body type that’s really hard – or near impossible – for most women to achieve.” Canny edits, filters, and camera angles also come into play.
“But I’m still perplexed somewhat about the effects on actual exercise behaviour,” said Pritchard, “because obviously these images are insanely popular. So it’s clearly something that people are looking at and that they think inspires them, but that doesn’t seem to be translating into actual behaviour – at least not in the way that we’ve managed to measure it yet.”
One reason might be that many #fitspo models have more time and resources than the rest of us to devote to working out, says Pritchard. It’s something of a self-reinforcing cycle: as #fitspo models’ popularity (and income) grows, they’re able to devote more and more time to their workouts – and to attaining a body type that’s further and further out of most people’s reach.
But we know exercise is still important for our mental and physical health, including boosting our immune systems and helping us relieve stress, both crucial functions at the moment. It can be great for our body image if we frame it right. So what’s a healthier way to motivate ourselves to exercise?
“Focus on doing it for the right reasons,” says Prichard, “so do it to improve your mood, do it to make you feel more healthy” – rather than to impact on what you look like.”
Should we also ‘unfollow’ our #fitspiration friends?
“You can follow whoever you want,” says Prichard, “but if you start to notice that following someone is making you feel guilty about what you’re doing, or negative about your body, then perhaps you should just unfollow or mute that person, and try and find someone else whose posts help you to feel better about yourself.”
Curating your feed with people who focus on body positivity (the hashtag #bopo is one of the more commonly used) and body functionality might be helpful, says Prichard:
“Athletes are great people to follow at the moment, because they’re supremely fit and they’re really inspirational, but they’re doing that for their sport profession as opposed to trying to encourage other people to exercise for appearance reasons.”
Plenty of trainers, dancers, yoga teachers, and other exercise professionals are sharing home practices online at the moment, too: joining in on one that you enjoy will likely boost your mind and body much more effectively than peering in on other people’s #fitspo workout snaps.
Giving the screens a rest might also be just as helpful.
Social media relies strongly on visuals, so whether we’re viewing #fitspo or #bopo, it’s still directing our attention to appearance as a source of validation. Stepping outside, if our circumstances allow, can help to shift that focus.
Another new study has shown that gardening helps build positive body image, because it lifts our appreciation for our bodies’ abilities; other research reveals that connecting to nature can help us to feel better about ourselves in general.
Right now, prioritising how we feel rather than how we look might be more important than ever. As many mental health experts have reiterated, we’re currently going through an experience of collective trauma, and whatever it is we choose to do – and not do – being kind to ourselves should be top of the list.