Experts warn ‘fitspo’ devotees against body image obsession

As the weather begins to warm up, more and more Australians are venturing outdoors to get fitter and healthier.


And to motivate more people to get active, there is a popular social media trend aimed at getting people moving.

But the so-called fitspo movement – short for fitspiration – is also coming under scrutiny about its potential health impacts.

Users generally post images of themselves in exercise clothes, or what they are eating to look their best – and how anyone else can do the same.

For sisters Diana Johnson and Felicia Oreb, health and fitness is a large part of their lives.

After Ms Oreb had her first baby, it prompted her to make adjustments to her lifestyle.

“It all evolved when Felicia had her baby and I was teaching at the time, so we decided that we’d run some outdoor boot camps for the mums,” said Ms Johnson.

“To help them get their post-baby bodies back in shape and I guess a lot of mums were coming to us and saying how did you do it, ‘how did you get back in shape after having your daughter?’. And they were kind of inspired by our healthy lifestyle and so we said we’d start some outdoor boot camps for the mums,” added Ms Oreb.

The Sydney-based duo said as a result, they were able to turn that passion into a personal training business.

Ms Johnson said that eventually led to a prominent online presence.

“About three years ago we started our Instagram account just by taking some nice pictures and ever since then, we’ve grown our social presence, we’ve been really consistent with taking beautiful images,” she said.

The sisters are the faces behind one of the top fitness profiles on social media – Base Body Babes.

Almost 600,000 people follow them on Instagram, Facebook and Twitter for health tips and advice.

It varies from exercises, to diet and even endorsing fitness products.

Ms Oreb said it is all part of empowering women to be more active.

“I guess the fitness industry has become a huge industry at the moment and we see it everyday.

“There’s lots of accounts out there, lots of fitspo accounts, trying to inspire girls and often we look at them and some of them aren’t doing it the right way. I guess for us it’s really important.

“We’ve grown up, we’re women and we understand what it is to be a woman and be influenced by other women. So for us it’s about educating our followers and really focussing on the positive side of living a healthy and fit lifestyle,” she added.

And they are not alone.

Thousands of people around the world are cashing in on this growing phenomenon of fitspo.

Proponents say it is meant to encourage users to incorporate exercise into their daily lives.

But despite the growing popularity of these fitness social media profiles, there are concerns about the health impact they can have on followers.

Fitspo devotees ‘more likely to have been bullied’

Megan Lim is a researcher at the Melbourne-based Burnet Institute.

Dr Lim recently conducted research looking into young people that followed or ‘liked’ these pages.

“We did a survey of about 1000 young people using social media and we asked them whether or not they were following sites like fitspiration sites, diet and detox plans and fitness plans. And what we found was it was very common, about 38 per cent of young people said that they did follow those pages and we found that it was much more common among young women. So among teenage girls, it was actually 57 per cent of teenage girls that reported that they liked those pages,” said Dr Lim.

Dr Lim said she observed a worrying trend amongst the teenage girls that reported to ‘liking’ the pages.

“We found that it was more common for people who liked the pages to having had been victims of bullying in the past and they were also much more likely to report having a self-reported eating disorder and they were more likely having used diet pills or detox teas and laxatives,” she added.

Twenty-one year-old actress Georgia Woodward spent several years struggling with Anorexia.

Ms Woodward said images online played a significant part in her downward spiral.

“We are bombarded with images daily and so much of what we see when you are in that headspace, because you are particularly vulnerable to the way you look and the way things feel, and all that kind of thing.

“Just seeing photos on Facebook and Instagram come up. You’re looking at it going ‘I should look like that and if I look like that, then I should be happier and if I look that then I’ll be happier and if I look like that then I’ll have more friends and you think that all your problems will be solved by looking like those people.

“But having it promoted in a way that it is, and so easily accessed is really dangerous I feel. Having been through that experience and in that mind space, you’re particularly vulnerable,” she added.

Experts too, agreed.

‘Too much focus on looking good can be dangerous’

Christine Morgan from Butterfly Foundation said “messages about healthy exercise and healthy diet are fantastic”.

But she said there are also concerns.

“Images which have scantily clad bodies where the focus is on ‘look how good I look’, is where you get into the dangerous territory.”

Ms Morgan said consumers need to ensure they do not confuse what is credible advice with social media popularity.

“I would always promote the fact that if we’re talking about someone’s health and wellbeing, it should be from a professional accredited source,” she said.

“That has to be the ideal. Because what we come back to here is this isn’t about playing with cosmetics or something like that. This is actually about what people are doing to their bodies in an attempt to better themselves and if somebody is giving them advice in that respect, I’d always come from the perspective that it should be as professional as possible, and accreditation is a good way of reflecting that.”

For Sydney sisters Felicia and Diana, they too agreed that perception may not always be reality on social media.

“Research the people that you’re following, it’s easy to be distracted by the pretty images and all of the inspirational photos that people are posting, but actually look into the people that you are following,” Ms Oreb added.