Originally written for www.stuff.co.nz, published 18 July 2016

We all need a little motivation or inspiration to exercise, do healthy stuff and look after ourselves better.

The fitness industry is no different, and even has its very own version of it – fitspiration, or ‘fitspo’. Fitspo manifests itself both in a mentality and state of mind and in visual imagery.

You’ve seen them, those images that dominate social media, usually a faceless toned set of female abs, glistening with attractive sweat and carefully chosen filters, accompanied by messages to #embracethepain, #eatclean and revel in the sacrifice for the perfect bikini body – or some such.

Being ‘healthy’ according to fitspo means looking a very particular way. Women (and men) are often sexualised, objectified and dehumanised. The images unrealistic, unattainable and, well, unhealthy.

My experience of fitspo is that it has three goals: promoting exercise as punishment, focusing on the ideal physique and causing guilt, shame or anxiety and calling it motivation.

Phrases like, “Go hard or go home,” “Nothing tastes as good as skinny feels” or “Unless you puke, faint, or die, keep going,” are used like mantras with alarming regularity. Should your body really need to reach a point where throwing up or passing out is what lets you know you’re done? Should we all starve ourselves because the only thing that counts is being skinny?

How did it become so accepted that we must suffer for ‘health’?

On a conscious level we know much of what we see in social media and advertising is the result of clever angles, filters and Photoshopping, but research shows this doesn’t matter.

The fitspo message is one that constantly tells us that looking a certain way is the most important thing. We see the same messages and the same body shapes so frequently it seeps into our subconscious and we get the sense that these images are real, even though rationally we know they aren’t. This shapes our environment and what we think is ‘normal’.

It isn’t just women who are affected by fitspo idealism, males are propping up an exploding supplement industry, striving to be ‘shredded’ and ‘ripped’.

What is all this doing to our health – physically, mentally and emotionally? How far can we be pushed to attain the ideal look?

Back in 1990, Naomi Wolf wrote in her book The Beauty Myth about 33,000 American women who told researchers their biggest goal in life, over anything else, was to lose 10-15 pounds. This can’t have changed much in 25 years, except that women (and now men) have even higher expectations to conform to even more unrealistic ideals. Fitspo messages are producing a new generation of body obsessed.

And they’re starting early. According to a British report on body image, girls as young as five are worried about their size and how they look; a quarter of seven-year-old girls and one third of boys aged 8-12 have tried to lose weight at least once.

Yes we should be healthy and look after ourselves, but we’re getting confused about what this means. 

If your biggest goal in life is to punish yourself in the gym till you have abs that glisten (or have the very latest in fitspo trends – the ‘ab crack’), only to take a carefully posed selfie so you can feel validated by ‘likes’ on social media or you guilt yourself into going for a run because you ate that piece of chocolate cake, and need to tell everyone about it so they can comment on how ‘good’ you are, then we all need to reconsider the things that shape these values and perceptions.

It’s not OK that we never seem happy with our bodies. Health is more than what you look like and you are more than just your body.