Anyone who scrolls through social media fora has surely stumbled across memes of hard-bodied women encouraging onlookers to “do it for the thigh gap you always wanted,” “keep calm and go to the gym,” and of course that “nothing tastes as good as being fit feels.” There have been a bevy of critiques of these “fitspo” memes, most among them rightfully pointing out that these pervasive images perpetuate body dysmorphia, fat-phobia, ableism, and are just generally not great for women’s (and yes, it’s usually women) self-esteem.
Fitspo began as an ostensibly positive rebuttal to “thinspo” (short for “thinspiration”), the name for the disturbing internet culture that promotes anorexia and bulimia through pictures of thin women and intentionally-triggering quotes. In theory, fitspo challenges these troubling trends by promoting working out and eating (as long as it’s “clean,” and not too much) rather than starving. Because being “fit” is problematically equated with “health,” it would seem that this trend is somehow more morally sound than it’s thinspo counterpart. But, as blogger Nattily writes, “It’s the same damn thing.” Why these memes are bad for women and bad for feminism is pretty clear.
But these memes are more than just anti-feminist–they are also disturbing mediums for circulating an appropriated, depoliticized, and decontextualized version of history. These memes often take words spoken by radical (and bad-ass) political figures and turn them into words about the gym or advancing in yoga postures. For example, take this quote by Frederick Douglass, one of the most important figures in the US abolitionist movement:
Here, Douglass is referring to the importance of struggling for justice, and “progress” refers to taking power away from the “haves” and claiming it for the masses of “have-nots.” The first line of this quote, in particular, is used by activists and organizers who, to this day, are fighting for racial and economic justice.
Now look what fitspo does with this powerful quote:
I was equally dismayed to discover a Nelson Mandela quote being used for reasons that were not related to, oh, you know, apartheid. Mandela famously said–during his battle against racial segregation in South Africa–that, “It always seems impossible until it’s done.” Here’s how fitspo decided to apply that:
Oh, and clearly growing this dude’s beard was probably an impossibility Mandela could not have imagined:
It’s not just “fitspo” that practices this re-writing of history. “Healthy living” memes are culprit to the same tendency. Here is a quote by Audre Lorde, a Black lesbian, civil rights activist, and womanist who said the following words because of her position in the world as a Black lesbian.
Lorde suggested that self-care is political warfare because a hetero-patriarchal white supremacist nation tries to destroy anyone who isn’t a white, straight, cisgender, male. Although I recognize that because these memes are largely female-based, that there might be some legitimate overlap here, I find it troubling that the last part of the quote has been erased, and that Lorde rarely gets credit.
Or if she is given credit, it’s juxtaposed to….self-care through fancy lattes?
Or they’ll just do a little tweaking and give credit to someone else entirely:
Not surprisingly, “political warfare” didn’t quite match the tone of these neoliberal versions of health and self-care.
Certainly this trend appears innocuous enough. What could be so bad about encouraging exercise, or determination, or leisure through pretty pictures and words that sound nice?…What could be so bad is that this is a classic example of appropriation–the act of taking something that doesn’t belong to you and using it for purposes counter to it’s original intent. In some instances that process can be used for liberatory ends–(and in those cases it’s not appropriation as much as it is reclaiming or repurposing)–but in this instance, it’s not liberatory. At best, it’s bad history; at worst, it’s further fodder that works to depoliticize an entire generation of people.
I feel lucky that a combination of my education (undoubtedly an experience of privilege) and my involvement in activism (which is rooted in my lack of class privilege and wanting to fix conditions for other working class people like my mom) taught me these quotes in their appropriate forms. And I realize that it’s not particularly progressive to judge a phenomenon that may be caused by internet users’ general lack of access to this type of historical education (be it formal or informal).
But my critique is not about those individuals who are generating the content. Like most bad things in the world, individual intent is not really the issue. This is about the systemic erasure of politics and movements. It’s about the ways in which our society teaches women to spend more time educating themselves about how to get six-pack abs than educating themselves about Black lesbian womanists, (for example). It’s not that these memes detach us from politics, it’s that these memes reveal that so many have never been attached in the first place.