Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Bodybuilding and the blogosphere: the line between health and obsession (Part II)

Typical Thinspo image
Over the past few years, there has been growing concern over websites and blogs that promote anorexia. Young women use these forums to document their weight loss, support each other in their common goal of consuming as few calories as possible and glamorize starvation. Recently social media sites such as tumblr and pintrest banned content from a webpage known as Thinspo. Thinspo features pictures of skinny models, celebs and everyday people for the purpose of providing thinsporation.

Supporters of the website claim that it’s designed to inspire women to lose weight. That may be so, but scrolling through and comparing yourself to pictures of sexualized, underweight women is not exactly healthy inspiration.

Typical Fitspo image

What bothers me is that several fitness and bodybuilding websites do the same thing, but no one seems to care! For example, content from thinspo’s fitness counterpart, fitspo, has not been banned from tumblr.

Similarly, no one seems to have a problem with people using bodybuilding forums to recommend supplements banned by the FDA, encourage each other to work out through the pain (mind over matter!), or manipulate your water intake to unhealthy levels before competitions. Young women use blogs to document their fitness evolutions and every calorie that enters their bodies, in a way that closely mirrors the pro-ano sites that people are concerned about.

While there is consensus that Thinspo is bad for young women's self esteem, there is genuine debate concerning whether fitspo type sites are unhealthy. For example, Cynthia Bulik, Ph.D., director of the University of North Carolina Eating Disorders Program and author of The Woman in the Mirror: How to Stop Confusing What You Look Like With Who You Are, argues that “a lot of fitspo is a thinly veiled version of thinspo, promoting the same obsessive tendencies and impossible appearance ideals, and that’s a trap.”

Conversely, fitness trainer Valerie Waters explains, “when you’re trying to develop the drive to get active and healthy, you need motivators, and pasting inspiring pictures on a board, online or otherwise, has really helped [her] clients.”

Fitspo motivational meme
There is no scientific consensus on whether addiction to exercise or obsession with healthy eating are disorders in their own right or simply symptoms of OCD or other established disorders. Obsession with a healthy diet is known as orthorexia, but it is not an officially recognized as a mental disorder

As I discussed last week, our society champions the ideal of fitness and health.  It is difficult to fault criticize someone for being healthy. Amanda Mellowspring, an eating disorder specialist, explains, "One of the things that's tricky about our culture is that orthorexia is socially acceptable and often even heralded as a great statement of self-control and doing the right thing for your health."

My personal antidote about Vanessa was meant to illustrate the ways in which eating healthy and working out can be used as a cover for dangerous obsessive behavior. Dr. Bratman, author of Health Food Junkies, agrees.  He argues that there is often a hidden agenda behind orthorexia: "A dietary theory can allow women to seek the culturally accepted norms of beauty without admitting it to themselves. … You can 'accidentally' live up to the Barbie image without admitting you believe in doing so." Dr. Bratman also highlights the underlying problem of people receiving positive feedback for their obsessive behaviors.

My friend Vanessa has a profile on the popular website fitocracy. She uploads pictures of her changing body, and gets "points" for how long she works out everyday. She has amassed a following of people who comment on her pictures and encourage her progress. While this type of positive feedback may be a great motivator for some to lose weight, it has led her down a path full of jack3d, OxyElitePro, and endless hours at the gym.
There has been little research concerning the dangers of obsession with health and fitness. Most of the scholarship focuses on male bodybuilding and steroids. With increased focus on exercise and strength training for women, it seems a new ideal of "perfect" is emerging. Through my research, I found that it is all too easy to fall down the rabbit hole of reading blogs and forums that inundate you with dangerous advice and pictures that are terrible for your self esteem. I am not arguing that such these websites should be taken down, but I do think that we need to be conscious of young women's workout and dieting behavior. An overemphasis on  any type of "perfect" body is unhealthy


KRB said...

Extremely interesting topic. I agree that sometimes an obsession with healthy eating and working out hides another agenda- being stick thin. But, because we have always been told that eating healthy and exercising are the best things we can do for our body, it is hard to draw the line, or accuse someone of becoming obsessed. Hopefully research in this area will continue and come to be included in discussions about eating disorders and body image.

Sam said...

Whenever I read something about women’s fitness I can’t help but think of this passage critiquing “buns of steel” from Susan Douglas’ “Narcissism as Liberation:”

“Perfect thighs, in other words, were an achievement, a product, and one to be admired and envied. They demonstrated that the woman had made something of herself, that she had character and class, and that she was the master of her body and, thus, of her fate. If she had conquered her own adipose tissue, she could conquer anything. She was a new woman, liberated and in control. She had made her buttocks less fatty, more muscular, more, well…like a man’s. So here we have one of the media’s most popular – and pernicious – distortions of feminism: that ambitious women want, or should want, to be just like men. The woman whose upper thigh best approximated a fat-free male hindquarter was the woman most entitled to enjoy the same privileges as men. Orange-peel skin [cellulite] should be a source of shame, not only because it’s “ugly,” but also because it’s inherently female. It indicates that, as a woman, you aren’t working hard enough, aren’t really taking responsibility for your own life. You aren’t really liberated because you haven’t overcome being a woman. A desirable woman doesn’t look like a real woman looks; thus, one of the basic physical markers of females is cast as hideous.”

She goes on to argue that this type of message directs the revolutionary message of feminism towards women themselves rather than the inequitable patriarchal system:

“Smooth, toned thighs and buttocks obstruct any vision of social change and tell us that, as women, personal change, physical change, is our last, best, and most realistic hope.”

And then there is just this gem of a sentence about the “benefits” of exercise:

“I learned in graduate school, for example, that if I swam sixty-seven laps in the poo I was less likely to strangle the pompous white male professors making my life miserable, and I’d also sort out some problem with my work as well.”

Jihan A. Kahssay said...

Writing about American manhood, Michael Kimmel theorizes that American men at the turn of the century started going to the gym when lost autonomy and economic independence during industrialization. After industrialization, men experienced a "shift in identities and ethics from the "inner directed" nineteenth-century man -- a man of strong character animated by an inner sense of morality, fixed principles by which he grounded his identity -- to the twentieth-century "other directed" man -- a sensitive personality, animated by a need to fit in, to be liked." (Kimmel, Manhood in America 88 (2012).)

Kimmel argues that men turned to recreational physical activity to "replace the inner experience of manhood...and transform it into a set of physical characteristics obtainable by persistent effort in the gymnasium." (Id. at 89.) The idea is that man "was making over his physique to appear powerful physically, perhaps to replace the lost real power he imagined that he -- at least his father or grandfather -- once felt." (Id.)

I wonder if there is a similar phenomenon happening with the women that your blog refers to. Perhaps they are also trying to replace the lost real power of women?

I also think it is interesting that so many law students go to the school gym on a daily basis (I know, because I used to be one of them...). I always thought there was a connection between feeling a loss of power and trying to look powerful.

Thanks for the post.

Patricija said...

This post and the subsequent comments are terrific.

Kaila, I'm an avid Pinterest user, and I have to agree that many of these fitspro images and articles they link to are incredibly similar to thinspro. I also think that in a good deal of cases, they are not even thinly veiled.

I think both Sam and Jihan point to some deeper meaning of the need to harness control and to shape your body at any cost. I think a whole article could be written about once ambitious woman who are now stay at home mothers. I immediately picture Tea Leoni's character in Spanglish (

The one thing I would add to the discussion is that physical appearance can often symbolize class. I think this is particularly true for women. If the woman is not working, then it can show that she is a "kept" woman who has the time and money to work out regularly and eat the healthiest of food. If she does work, then it shows that she has the luxury of time to work out (perhaps a nanny watching her children) and again the comfort of finances.

KSergent said...

I recently came across this article [] that discusses a disturbing trend among the pro-anorexia blog community, including Thinspo. The “goal” is for a woman to work out or starve herself so that her thighs do not touch. This creates what is called the “happy gap.”

The article exemplifies the speed at which such trends spread throughout the online community, as I discussed in my blog post. I also find it interesting how the trend spread from the female pro-anorexia community to male dominated posts on reddit and the male dominated porn industry.

I agree with Jihan’s assertion that this fitness obsession is connected to a woman’s desire to regain power. Unfortunately, it looks like these women are handing power back to men on a silver platter. Or perhaps, men will just always find a way to exploit the power that women achieve.

Sophie said...

This post was extremely thought provoking and something I have considered a lot. While blogs have promoted unhealthy body obsessions, social media platforms like Instagram are also contributing to this troubling problem. Not a day goes by where I don’t see some sort of post of some half-clothed girl flexing her ultra skinny body or a quote like “Nothing tastes as good as skinny feels.” It’s horrifying to me that “Thinspo” has become this popular and while I’m happy sites have banned this type of content, I’d be curious how this is actually monitored. At the end of the day, I think a lot of this goes back to the unrealistic expectations society puts upon us regarding our bodies -- Whether its super thin models or Barbie, we’re constantly seeing images of females with these extremely thin (and unrealistic) bodies as being the norm.