Why “Fitspiration” is a Problem

There are some topics that I consider writing about in my blog and then shudder. Imagining the backlash, imagining the logical loopholes I’d have to navigate trying to argue my way towards some sort of defense–this usually is enough for me to decide I’ll just write about some smaller aspect of my lifting experience and therefore not have to deal with the consequences of voicing an opinion on more charged matter.

Today, I choose to write about one of these topics. I choose to write a short word about images of “women in fitness” and how I have navigated them as a female lifter.

About a year ago, I became aware of how much of a reception there was online for collections of photos of women who appear to strength train/compete in physique competitions/participate in a strength sport. I ran across blog after blog that posted picture after picture of women with considerable amounts of musculature developed. Sometimes they were posing. Sometimes they were engaged in activity. Often, the pictures focused on one component of the subject’s physique, such as her abdomen. As a woman who was highly enthusiastic about these pursuits but not surrounded by many other women of a like mind, I was fascinated and, at least at first, somewhat inspired by these images.

For a year, I think I remained inspired by them. I continued to strength train and I continued to learn about how to do so correctly. It wasn’t until I started powerlifting–now roughly six months ago–that my body really started to shift and develop more in the direction of the women in some of the images I have come across. As an aside, I am proof that lifting heavy correctly is going to go a long way towards making significant changes in physique. That said, the more my body has made this shift, the less enamored I am with the idea of posting and re-posting the types of images of muscularly developed women in massive quantities as seems to be so popular in the blogging realm, on Facebook, etc.

Here’s a disclaimer I don’t really feel I should have to make, but I will anyway: I do not have an issue with taking pride in one’s body, in posting progress images–indeed, I do this periodically myself, because the way my obliques has developed is kind of nuts and I like to share things that happen to my body as a consequence of powerlifting that are nuts–or appreciating the physique of a woman who has strength-trained to a point at which the pursuit has left its signs on her body. I admit that I have less of an objection to images of women of this aesthetic being used in advertising than I do with those who look like many of their muscles go completely unused to the point of atrophy.

But I do have an issue with the sentiment that seems to lurk behind collections of images of women in whatever physical condition. It suggests an emphasis, a preoccupation with considering the woman in the photograph based on her looks. I don’t care if she’s lifting or running or jumping in said photographs. When collections of such images are posted, often accompanied by appreciative or wistful commentary, they signal a disconnect between appreciation of action and appreciation of aesthetic. If you have any concept of the history of the female body as a subject of art, advertising–visual expression of whatever kind–you know that this is a charged subject.

My relationship with my body as it relates to strength-training is almost completely empty of any concern for my physical appearance. I am not a physique competitor. When I compete, I perform certain actions for which I train. I care for and utilize my body in such a way that I will perform as well as I a capable of performing. I am so psychologically focused on this process and this experience of dealing with my body that other preoccupations with it seem frivolous, trivial. I am troubled that the idea of women and strength training   as it is often represented on the internet is so strongly tied to appearance when appearance is one of the last, if not the last thing I am considering when I am physically engaged in the act of strength training.  I feel as if I participate in a world in which my interests and ideas run counter to those of the majority.

Perhaps all of this means that I am not cut out for physique competition–indeed, it probably does. Perhaps the preceding paragraphs all amount to evidence that I should just “not look at” the types of images in question–I contest this. I am writing this in effort to ask that those who come across “fitspiration” photos to reconsider them.

Women in strength sports do something with their bodies. Ultimately, it is what they do that most concerns me, not how their performance changes their physique. In whatever arena, be it strength training or not, the more we are able to unplug a woman’s image from her actions, the more we will progress towards a culture in which fewer women suffer eating disorders and overwhelming preoccupation with their appearance.

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6 thoughts on “Why “Fitspiration” is a Problem

  1. Now, you know I usually refrain from posting on your blog—I feel your occasional mention of me is enough to sate the specter of my presence—but this is a ‘meaty’ topic, and one that’s perhaps a bit more complicated than you let on here. Though I agree in principle with your position, I’d like to add a few quips of my own; you can stew over these later if you’d like to debate them with me, dear.

    For men, ‘powerlifting’ and ‘bodybuilding’ are Houses Montague and Capulet, besides notable exceptions like Stan Efferding and Johnny Jackson, never the twain shall meet. Both conceptualize a contemporary definition of masculinity in a very particular fashion: for powerlifting, it’s the bearded, barrel-chested, beefy beacon of brawniness; for bodybuilding, it’s Ahnold, and the Ronnie Coleman of his second Olympia crown, before “he took it too far and got all bloated and shit” (every bodybuilding fan ever, Youtube comment section). Some men lift things up and put them down; others take the bronzer from the basket and put it on their skin (or else they get hosed by the judges again). Unless you’re a Planet Fitness commercial, the two are easily distinguished.

    These two testosterone-laden camps evolved in time—the ‘powerbuilder’ was never the circus oddity it is now—and now represent two warring ideologies of masculinity, two different ontologies of strength: one’s based in looking strong, and the other’s based in being strong. You either train ‘like a powerlifter’ or ‘like a bodybuilder.’

    …Or, you train like the majority of gym neophytes, which is to say you train ‘like a dolt.’ That, however, is another conversation.

    Anywhoo, this could be blind guesswork on my part, but this ideological chasm does not exist for many women, who self-identify as both powerlifters and bodybuilders. That’s not to say that male powerlifters don’t want to look good, or that male bodybuilders don’t want to be strong, but those that exemplify this dual raison d’etre are scarcer than Matt Kroc’s hairline (he’s another exception to the rule, except that he’s a powerlifter turned bodybuilder).

    Many women live veritable double lives as both powerlifters and fitness models. For women, any iron sport is seen as transgressive of gender norms; there exists little incentive to ‘pick a side’ because both are positively un-feminine and thus are leered at equally by sexually insecure men across the U.S.

    Therefore, it’s my belief that many women simply see themselves as powerlifters-cum-bodybuilders, or as ex-bodybuilders now dipping a chiseled toe into the powerlifting pool.

    The issue, then, is how to represent a woman’s body when she ascribes to it multiple purposes as the product of weight training. You mentioned privileging “action” of “aesthetics,” but such is the rift separating powerlifting from bodybuilding. Powerlifting is a sport of action, or of bodies in movement; the bar moves, and so too much the competitor. Bodybuilding, however, is a sport of stasis. As an aesthetics-based sport, competitors are judged when they are static, and any motility that is present in a routine serves the purpose of limning together disparate poses in a seamless fashion. Motion, as suture, is superfluous, and unless you’re Kai Greene, nobody gives a damn how you move.

    So, how do you represent a woman’s body when she wants to be seen, simultaneously, as mobile/immobile? It’s a difficult question to answer, and I don’t have a ready-made response.

    I will say that there are other bones to pick here, namely the hyper-sexualization of ‘action’ photographs of female lifters. On this front, I think your point’s a good one. I do, however, think that you can’t look at the visual representation of female weight-trainees through the optics of masculine ideology, because ‘powerlifting’ and ‘bodybuilding’ bleed into one another more for a lot of female competitors than they do for a lot of male ones.

    1. Mr Keough, I hope you got an appropriate offline response, dear.

      I disagree that “Many women live veritable double lives as both powerlifters and fitness models.”

      I think we need some examples and some definitions, because not all women who powerlift are powerlifters. They incorporate the 3 lifts into their training however they do not compete in powerlifting competitions, therefore most people would not classify them as powerlifters. Still others have started off as bodybuilders, try out powerlifting yet primarily remain bodybuilders. They were likely already a fitness model and are the exception rather than the rule. However, that’s not the point I took from the OP and I personally sense a disconnect between the original blog post and Mr Keough’s reply.

      While there are images of fitness models engaging in physical activity online, these are usually shots taken for a specific photo shoot or they are progress shots (physique) and they are only one slice of the pie chart of pictures I believe the OP is referring to.

      Many of the photos of women engaging in physical activity receive no recognition for the activity itself, regardless of whether they’ve posed as a fitness model or not. There are comments such as “you’re hot”, “you look great”, “I love your hair”, “ew your legs aren’t feminine”, “wouldn’t want to get into a fight with you”, “you scare me” – seldom are there any comments regarding the activity itself (except perhaps to say she looks great doing it). Sometimes the photo is judged on it’s aesthetic merit (“great photo, love the lighting/scenery”). If the subject of the photo is well known or respected, there are usually more comments in favour of the activity, yet often they too are also reduced to being judged on their aesthetic appeal rather than the activity in the photo. Yeah people may not know what to say and compliments are considered safe territory, or they are commenting on the part of the photo that appeals to them and aesthetic appeal is pretty high on everyone’s agenda.

      It mostly just reminds me of a comment I heard from a top powerlifter who said that people don’t want to go see women or smaller guys lifting – they go to comps to watch the freaks, the big guys shifting a lot of weight. Everything else is just visual fluff.

      1. Pat,

        I’m sensing that very same disconnect in my response and your rebuttal, and I find it surprising–nay, flat out shocking–that my comments remind you of your “top powerlifter,” considering, as a 148-lb. lifter, I consider myself a ‘smaller guy’ and have had to encounter this belief before. I wasn’t aware that I thought of myself as ‘visual fluff,’ so thanks for the alert! Had I continued on through life this way, who knows how many off-base blog posts my self-loathing ass might have started.

        You seem to be mired in some muddy definitionary terrain yourself here, so let me clarify my perspective: there are, both male and female, people who perform powerlifts, people who ‘powerlift,’ and ‘powerlifters,’ and the three are not the same; the former can extend out to bodybuilders performing compound movements, while the latter refers exclusively to competitive, active powerlifters. When I use the term ‘powerlifter,’ those are the women I’m referring to, because Babyeater and I are both powerlifters in the competitive sense, and that’s the circle that we exist within.

        Now, let me address your first counter-claim as best I can: I stand by my point that women who train with weights are less likely than men to differentiate between physique and strength development, and that many female competitive athletes in barbell-based sports (including bodybuilding) have histories both in physique and strength sports. In Babyeater’s weight class, a large percentage of the top female lifters in the country seem to have experience in physique shows. I know this, because we personally have researched a lot of these lifters. This is an observation with some measure of experience behind it, and believe it or not, though you’ve attempted to out my as a chauvinist by completely misinterpreting my post, I actually have spent considerable time watching female lifters compete, and I know the backgrounds of a lot of the lifters in Babyeater’s weight class.

        Finally, let me just say that Babyeater’s original post dealt with identity politics stemming from visual representation and how these negatively affect women. Her argument was that action shots of female lifters look different from their male counterparts, but my comment to her was that self-conceptions differ along gendered lines, and a lot of these photos are from women who wish to look strong and aesthetically pleasing.

        Your comment has nothing to do with either and instead has to do with the reception of said images. Do I really need to be alerted to the fact that there exists a masculine collective out there that responds en toto to the photos of female lifters on facebook with sexist diatribe? Do you not think I’m familiar with the internet, or with men? Are you seriously trying to read my post in such a way as to link me with these voices?

        And when I made my post, the response I got was one of intelligent discussion. You seem to hope it was otherwise, but my advice would be a.) to actually read my post and b.) not to project onto me the fantasy of scolding a chauvinist pig whilst calling him “dear.”

      2. No, it was not your response that reminded me of the top powerlifter, I did not say it was. I did say it mostly, meaning all of it, and yes I could have phrased that better, just as you migh have phrased parts of your post better. Alas I was hurrying to get to the gym to train and was not able to ‘complete’ my response and hit ‘post’ anyway. When I returned from the gym I looked for a way to email the blog (rather than post) to request my post not be posted – there was none.

        I also neglected to mention that whilst people post these comments in response to photos, it mostly appears to be exactly the response that women are seeking. As long as women seek external validation of said characteristics, then we are stuck on a visual fluff roundabout.

        As for linking you with the posters? No I wasnt. If you think that then I think you have read more into it than is there.

        I knew I sould have put a smiley face after “dear” >_<

  2. I see what both you and Kyle are trying to say here, but as you point out, it is a loaded issue. I share Kyle’s beef in the sexed-up photos of female lifters and athletes in general: why is that woman’s ass clad in minute booty shorts the primary focus for the photo of her squatting?! It’s not just that the appreciation is directed towards the look, rather than the strength, but it’s that almost rabid need to sell the woman as still fuckable despite her being jacked. (You know how my thoughts on this worked out: I commented to Feminist Figure Girl, she wrote an entry, you commented and were invited to do a guest post…)

    I think ultimately, regardless of the values many people have and their appreciation (or lack thereof) for impressive power lifting, we have still been trained to look at and judge women’s bodies, and as such it’s still an automated response when we’re presented with images of women in fitness. It doesn’t help that these women are typically presented as image first, and accomplishments later. The booty shorts really don’t help.

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