You’ve probably gathered by now that another “no excuses” fitspo meme has generated a lot of controversy. I’m not going to lie – I’m really disappointed that this is happening again. I had hoped after all the furor over Maria Kang’s photo that other aspiring fitness celebrities would have decided to take a different tactic, but apparently the real lesson learned has been that a photo of one’s abs juxtaposed with the words “no excuses” is a really effective way to become famous.
I don’t really want to talk too much specifically about Abby “Superabs” Pell, because frankly, the internet smashed its fist into my “let’s get outraged!” button one too many times last year and so my field of fucks on this subject is now barren. So instead I’ll just leave this post by Jen Sinkler and and this one by Mama Lion Strong and this one by James Fell. There’s nothing I could say that they haven’t already said better.
My issues with the whole thing go beyond just one or two specific images. Frankly, I’m pretty fucking bored with the whole genre of so-called motivational imagery altogether. A photo of a nearly-naked woman + in-yo-face text + a bunch of Insta filters = zzzzz. It doesn’t work for me at all.
I suspect that a large part of my indifference is that my standards for what I consider to be inspirational are a bit higher than what I commonly see. For instance, a lot of people defend “The Biggest Loser” on the grounds that it is inspirational and motivational, but if “The Biggest Loser” truly was inspiring its audience to make big lifestyle changes, then we’d have a whole nation of fit and active people who love to eat their veggies. That this isn’t actually the case makes me think that, for many people, “inspirational” means “made me feel a thing.”
That’s not enough for me, dudes. For me to feel truly inspired by something, I not only have to feel a thing, but I have to be motivated to actually act on that feeling. And then not just act, but do so with consistency over a period of time. The vast majority of fitness-oriented media that I’ve come across just hasn’t done this for me. The big exception tends to be videos like the #ThisGirlCan campaign, which gets me all excited to get out and get sweaty every time I see it. Seeing people actually doing things gets me all fired up in a way that passive posing doesn’t.
(It appears as though there’s room to question whether it’s actually working among those to whom it is targeted. According to a recent study from Flinders University in Australia, teenage girls who spend a lot of time on fitspo sites are actually less motivated to be active, because they feel as though their bodies don’t measure up. You had one job, fitspo…one job. Could this be the end of fitspo? Goodness, I hope so.)
So now that I’ve told you what doesn’t work for me, let me tell you what I’ve found does work. What does inspire me are the people I know in real life. The people I train with, the people I race with, the people I’m friends with, the people whose blogs I read – those are my primary sources of fitspo. Those people are the ones who legitimately inspire me in a way that actually means something. They are my real life fitspo.
That photo I posted at the top of this post is a good example of what I’m talking about when I talk about real life fitspo. In that photo, I (the woman on the far right, in case you didn’t know) am taking part in a Computrainer ride with three of my biggest sources of real life fitspo: my husband Brian, and two of my racing team’s female elites, Katie and Corrie.
If you’ve read this blog for any amount of time, you know that Brian has played an enormous role in helping me embrace a more active, healthy lifestyle. He initially got me interested in running and eating better, and now we basically operate a two-person motivational feedback loop. It’s a splendid little system that works wonderfully for us.
And then there’s Katie and Corrie. Like I said, Katie and Corrie are two of the elite racers on my team. But in addition to being formidable competitors on the race course, they also happen to be a pair of hilarious, supportive, generous, kind women who juggle serious training schedules with the demands of motherhood. Just being around these women – as well as several others with whom I race and train – has encouraged me to take myself more seriously as an athlete and to not be afraid to dream really, really fucking big.
The contrast between the blah indifference I feel in the face of traditional fitspo and the frisson of excitement I get when being around friends and teammates I admire is dramatic. My suspicion is that the discrepancy is related to the fact that the majority of fitspo is designed specifically to be shared on social media (and on social media platforms like Instagram and Pinterest that are predominantly used by women and girls, no less). Obviously I’m no Luddite who longs for the day when all communication was held via carrier pigeon – it would be hypocritical for someone who spends as much time farting around on Facebook as I do to say such things. But as much as I like social media and the way it’s allowed me to cultivate relationships with people who live far away from me, I also recognize social media has its share of problems. Researchers have drawn connections between decreased self-esteem and heavy Facebook usage, which can basically be summarized as “comparing your insides to others’ outsides.”
A lot of people – myself included – have a tendency to curate their lives on social media as to highlight the awesome things. Like, if you were to look at my Facebook feed, you’d see race photos and training log updates, links I found interesting, status updates about funny things, and the occasional bit of self-promotion. Facebook Caitlin looks really productive and active and on top of things! What a go-getter, that Facebook Caitlin!
But what I don’t post about are all the hours I’ve wasted clicking and scrolling mindlessly, the times I got so stressed out by work that I cried in the bathroom, or the existential crises that have become a fairly regular part of my life. And because I have a lot of friends, coworkers and families with diverse viewpoints – and because I hate arguing on the internet – I don’t post a lot of political stuff. I used to but I don’t anymore, because it’s not worth the stress.
The closest you might get to seeing the more complicated sides of me is when I post while having a meltdown because I’ve spent the last hour sitting in traffic, but for the most part, I make a conscious effort to keep my Facebook account pretty sanitized and positive. Anyone who compares themselves against me based on what they see of me on social media is only getting a carefully curated version of me. A flattened version of me, really, with all my edges sanded off just enough so I can be as palatable as possible to as many people as possible.
That’s how I feel about most fitspo meme-ry, that they are basically carefully edited, flattened versions of the people depicted in the images. Yeah, there’s a lot of talk about sweat and sacrifice and hard work, but it’s all boilerplate rhetoric that doesn’t fully convey what is actually meant by those things. They doesn’t show what the person in the image actually had to do and how they truly feel. You don’t get the complexity and vulnerability that comes when you actually get to know a person and you see how they conduct their lives. It’s difficult to find the common humanity between you and the person in those glossy, filtered photos, whereas it’s a hell of a lot easier to find common humanity with someone you actually know.
So yeah, I’ve got no more time for fitspo imagery. I want to be inspired in my life, but I’m gonna need something more substantial than a filtered photo slapped with some word to make that happen.