During my typical daily perusal of Pinterest, I am beset with various cheerful, click-baity pins suggesting various diet and exercise tips for staying or becoming slim and/or fit. Whether I’m browsing for bathing suits, a new workout top, or a vegan cupcake recipe, Pinterest assumes I’m also looking to be skinny. A search using the term “fitspo” or “fitspiration” turns up very similar results to a search using the word “healthy”. Fellow pinners are constantly sharing posts like “How to Beat Back Fat,” “10 Natural Ways to Get Rid of Belly Fat,” or the more concerning “21 Ways to Lose 10 Pounds in a Week” or “5 Foods to Never Eat.” Each headline is accompanied by images of women showing off their toned physiques (all too often without showing the model’s head, driving home the point that I’m not to look at them as people: they are bodies and with enough work, I can insert my own head onto their form). The cumulative message of these pins is that with a few simple tweaks to my routine, I will be able to achieve the svelte physique of my dreams.
The internet is full of articles that seem aimed at empowering people to change their bodies. Through these articles, people are provided with questionably authoritative scientific knowledge that may help them make changes and choices in their lifestyle that allow them to wield a greater degree of control over their bodies and their health. They can, for example, fight against their genetics and natural body composition in order to seek a desired “look”. According to the fitspo narrative, our bodies are ours to shape and by exhibiting discipline, self-control, and extreme amounts of hard work, we really can achieve whatever shape we desire—or more accurately, we can achieve a physique which falls into a range of “acceptable” body types (for women, slim, toned, “goddess”, etc.)
On one hand, the claim that we have control over our own bodies, even against our predetermined genetics, is hopeful (if only lawmakers took women’s agency as seriously as Pinterest does). However, ultimately this narrative is built on an unstable web of half-truths and bad assumptions. Fitspo’s assertion that we have the power to change our bodies takes for granted that people are not—and should not—be happy with their bodies unless they fit into one of a few “attractive” body types, and learning to love, care for, and revel in the body that you have is never a virtue. While we have the power to fight back against genetics, fitspo never tells us we have the power to rescript what “fit,” “healthy,” “attractive,” and “beautiful” mean in our world.
As someone deeply invested in both the health of my own body and the right of people everywhere to make decisions regarding every aspect of their physical, mental, and emotional selves, I want to highlight what I see as some of the underlying issues that make the fitspo narrative—as well as other narratives we see or read about obesity and sickness—so dangerous. While fitspo pretends to offer us agency over our bodies, it really serves to affirm and extend the belief that fatness is a moral problem, an issue of work ethic.
But let’s back up a bit. Medical professionals have agreed that statistically Americans are getting fatter and sicker at an alarming rate (especially among juvenile populations).This fact, combined with the rise of processed foods* and the historically powerful lobby of certain food industries, has been the subject of documentaries such as Food Inc., Hungry for Change, and Fed Up. Each of these documentaries outlines the way that the “big food” lobbyists have created a situation where we are left in the dark about the nutritional content of the food that we are sold. For example, the sugar lobby has made it so that food manufacturers do not have to print the daily percentage values for sugar on their products, masking the fact that many foods probably have too much of that sweetener.
Here’s the typical narrative: Food companies are huge players in a capitalist system that encourages and incentivizes them to make processed food as cheaply as possible while also being tasty enough to fly off the shelves (read: lots of sugar or artificial sweetener). As more health information is disseminated amongst the general public (i.e. that a diet with too much sugar leads to health problems) these companies try to protect their product by hiding contents or by making a new product that has lower amounts of a specific ingredient (i.e. diet soda is sugar-free) and is marketed as “healthier”, despite the fact that in order to take out a specific ingredient, they often had to replace it with an even less desirable alternative (like aspartame, a neurotoxin-cum-sweetener found in diet soda). Occasionally, policymakers or healthcare whistleblowers call these companies out for their crap, often with scientific studies in hand in government hearings and demand that companies provide more information and become more accountable for the harmful ingredients in their food, but this rarely ever leads anywhere. Increasingly, the powerful “big food” lobbyists sideline systemic change by buying their way into academic studies and by choosing certain nutrients, often “fat” or “calories” to demonize while they continue designing low quality foods. These foods activate our brains in a way that causes us to become addicted to specific ingredients and then gain weight which has been correlated with certain health problems, such as diabetes.
It’s at this point that health professionals often step in, offering ways to combat big food’s nefarious plot. But health professionals are often also tied into their own industries and we see magazines and TV programs report on “superfoods” or supplements that promise to transform our diets and health (often these superfoods are then incorporated into processed foods to make them more appealing to health-conscious consumers). Thus when faced with criticism, the food industry throws up its hands and says “I don’t know what more you want from us. We gave you low fat food with acai berries. Your weight gain (obviously unwanted) must be because you don’t exercise enough”. And then, the fitness industry—bolstered by online movements like fitspo—takes over and tells us that “This month’s choices are next month’s body” and “suck it up so one day you won’t have to suck it in”. We are convinced that it is our work ethic rather than our ability to make informed decisions about food and exercise that will give us control over over bodies and self-esteem (nevermind freeing ourselves from this system by choosing to accept our bodies the way that they are).
Try as they may, the documentaries that shed light on this system also do little to actually combat it. Like fitspo, they focus on body weight as an indicator of health, often showing pictures of headless fat bodies as signifiers of sickness and spending little time discussing the way that thin does not mean healthy (and vice versa!). As many of these documentarians point out by using the phrase “fat and sick,” being overweight and being sick are two separate things. But by focusing so heavily on losing weight as a key to a healthier life, these documentaries implicitly make the inaccurate claim that we can know whether or not a body is healthy by looking at its size alone.
The solutions that these documentaries often suggest appeal to our power as consumers, not activists. They ask us to change our buying practices, moving away from processed foods and towards local, organic options, which are not options available to everyone. Though choosing one product over another can certainly be a form of activism, I am uncomfortable with the conclusion that the way to combat big food is to opt out of their productions, instead of demanding that they make more honestly-labeled and perhaps even higher-quality processed food. As it stands, these documentaries give people who do not have access to local, organic food no other options, confirming that people with less income or the many Americans who live in a food desert with limited grocery options actually do not have the same level of agency over their health as their wealthier, suburban counterparts.
A few more observations about this system:
- All of the industries described benefit from you trying to lose weight (buying new food products, gym memberships etc.) but none of them benefit from you actually being happy about your body (as a result of weight loss or just because you’re cool with your body the way it is).
- By not providing information about nutritional content or by providing false information about nutrition and exercise in order to protect industry interests, all of these industries take away our abilities to make informed decisions about our health.
- When our health suffers the consequences of not having this information, it becomes our problem to fix: we have the power to remake our bodies, but apparently not the power to force the food industry to be more transparent about their contributions to the public health problems.
- By displacing responsibility for health problems away from industry and onto individual morality/willpower, the conglomerate of food, fitness, and health industries encourages us to see our bodies purely as a result of our discipline and the obesity epidemic resulting from a collective dearth of individual willpower.
The problem with all of this is that it transfers the “blame” for fatness or sickness to a person’s lack of labor and lack of moral fortitude without ever holding large scale capitalist industries accountable for the way that their practices affect not only our ability to make decisions about food and health as informed consumers, but also for the way their products have spawned other industries that contribute to this vicious cycle. This situation leads to phenomena such as fitspo that further affirms that society connects thinness with values such as discipline, willpower, and endurance (all forms of labor) and fatness with immorality and laziness.** Fitspo messages like “Don’t give up what you want most for what you want now” ignore the possibility that we may want to live in a mindset and a body where those two wants are not opposed. What I want is to live in a society where my self-control regarding ice cream is not an overall statement of my moral fortitude. Eating ice cream now does not threaten what I want most, because what I want most is not related to the way my body conforms to social norms. Fitspo assumes that our primary want is for our bodies to be deemed attractive by society.
I also do not want to argue that wanting to be fit or lose weight is bad. Fitspo and the food industry wrong those of us with those goals as well. They work symbiotically: the food industry keeps information from us that will actually help us make informed decisions in pursuing our health or weight goals and the fitness industry tells us that our ability to lose weight depends on us, regardless of the fact that the consumption of certain foods and chemicals that appear to be diet-friendly actually lead to weight gain.
What we choose to do with more accurate nutritional information once it is disseminated is ultimately up to each individual. It’s necessary for us to stop all of our body shaming practices, perpetuated by fitspo and the diet/fitness industries. Our power and right to decide what our body looks like is not limited to those of us who want our bodies to fit a certain cultural norm. We have a right to ignore any and all health guidelines without any consequence to the perception of our “discipline,” because if we can reshape our bodies however we want, fat is also an acceptable body shape.
Therefore, if we are truly to have power over our bodies, as fitspo wants to claim we do, we need accurate information about the nutritional content of our food and reliable information about nutrition and exercise that will promote health without selling us a normative body type. Furthermore, we need more healthful alternatives to low-quality food that do not come with a high price tag. Perhaps it’s time to start figuring out how to make a higher quality processed food that is available to everyone, or how to make organic and local food available and affordable for all.
Most food industry critics realize that the problem we face results from a capitalist system that creates low-quality, dishonestly-labeled food, but those critics still often insist that the solution lies in individual willpower and consumer practices. It’s time to rethink that logic: the problem is with production, so let’s fix production. Equally important is the cultural work we do in advocating for body-positive movements that will ultimately allow us to find pleasure and satisfaction in our bodies, whatever size and state of health they are in. We have a right to make informed decisions about our health, but we are not then obligated to make our bodies conform to a certain societal norm. As soon as we can culturally abandon the notion of an “ideal body,” the forces of the food, health, and fitness industries will have one less way to lure us into their traps.
*Due to the forces that we are discussing, the phrase “processed food” has been evacuated of stable meaning. I tend to use it to describe foods that have artificial ingredients or additives (with a negative connotation), but in reality most of the food we eat must be “processed” in some way to make it edible. Here’s a great article from Jacobin about the history of food processing if you’re interested in pursuing this further!
**By asserting that fatness is not a result of a lack in moral fortitude, I’m not trying to take anything away from those who have had great success with losing weight or toning up. It certainly does take discipline to do those things. My point is that being fat does not equate to a lack of discipline and we are wrong to make any assumptions about a person’s health, happiness, or fitness based on the way their body looks. We all have different goals, challenges, and resources and it’s time to stop policing bodies.