Social Media’s Grip on Fitness Culture – When #Fitspo Hurts More Than Helps


If you spend loads of time on social media then you will probably have noticed a new type of culture springing up – fitness culture. Thanks to social media ‘Fitness Culture’ has rapidly become one of today’s most dominant global health narratives. Fitness inspiration or #fitspo, which includes a myriad of other #fit hashtags, has proliferated across social media channels with hundreds of thousands of dedicated, daily users creating and consuming fitness content every day. But are these messages at complete odds with the movement’s stated goals? We take a look at where #fitspo hurts more than helps.

Proponents of fitness culture on social media are clear that the aim of this content is for fitness lovers to support and encourage each other in achieving their fitness and healthy lifestyle goals. The plethora of images of sleek, toned bodies is there to inspire and encourage, not to boast and make others feel bad about themselves, they say. With the shift from skinny to strong as the representation of body-perfection and the new height of sexual attractiveness for women, content creators on the internet have been quick to praise the worthiness of the fitspo hashtag. However, the critics are quick to point out that a different ‘ideal body image’ entrenched in all the same damaging gender norms is hardly a revolution when you consider that #fitspo can be seen to simply reinforce the same objectification of women’s bodies and enables all the same gender normative behaviour.

So, with the immense power of social media driving it, is this fitness culture movement promoting physical activity and healthy lifestyles actually socially negligent and lacking in integrity?


“#fitspo espouses values that seem healthy on the surface,” says Mental Health Counsellor, Gayle Bowey, who is speaking at the upcoming SACAP Festival of Learning. “Yet it takes just a little scratch of critical thinking for it to be evident that these fitness images and narratives that have exploded across social media ignite even more social comparison and body objectification while reinforcing gender bias and asserting the dominant heteronormative values.”

Many academic studies have highlighted that social media adds significantly to the already unattainable standards of physical perfection that exclude a vast proportion of men and women.  Gayle points out that: “While #fitspo wants to support a physically active, healthy lifestyle and promotes attaining a positive body image; the reality is that many unfit or even fit men and women don’t go to the gym or sports clubs due to immense feelings of insecurity and body-image dissatisfaction created by society and social media.”


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But it’s not all doom and gloom says Bowey. On the positive side, what #fitspo is inspiring are the conversations we so need to have about our Western cultural obsession with physical appearance and sexual attractiveness, as well as our deeply inculcated and relentless drive to compare ourselves with others. “We need a greater understanding of the impact of ideal standards of beauty and social comparison on self-worth and mental health,” Gayle says. “Body image dissatisfaction, eating disorders, mental health consequences and self-harm are all trajectories of poor self-image.”

Want to hear more? Gayle Bowey will be addressing the impact of social media’s fitness obsession on perceptions of self, body-image dissatisfaction, objectification, gender and cultural norms at the SACAP Festival of Learning in Cape Town from 13:20 to 14:20pm on 26th May 2017.

The SACAP Festival of Learning will take place atV SACAP Campus, 1st Floor, Sunclare Building, 21 Dreyer Street, Claremont, Cape Town. Ticket prices for this talk and others are R200 per person for the Short Talk Programme in the evening, R200 per person for the full day programme. Student tickets for each event are R80 per person. For more information on the event or ticket queries, please contact

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