Fitspo and Healthy Living Memes: A problem of appropriation, decontextualization, & depoliticization

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:

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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:

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progress towards crunches in the wild!

And this:

progress towards juice feast-worthy skin! and poop, probably.

progress towards juice feast-worthy skin! and poop, probably.

And this:

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progress towards tight booty and back muscles. natch’.

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:

fancy backbends/apartheid. same difference.

fancy backbends/apartheid. same difference.

 

And this:

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splits on the roof feels equally if not more impossible than battling racial segregation, no?

Oh, and clearly growing this dude’s beard was probably an impossibility Mandela could not have imagined:

smdh.

smdh.

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.

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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.

For example:

no attribution to Lorde. self-care becomes equal to a white lady going to the gym.

no attribution to Lorde. self-care becomes equal to a white lady going to the gym.

Or if she is given credit, it’s juxtaposed to….self-care through fancy lattes?

#stuffwhitepeoplelike?

#stuffwhitepeoplelike

Or they’ll just do a little tweaking and give credit to someone else entirely:

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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.

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21 thoughts on “Fitspo and Healthy Living Memes: A problem of appropriation, decontextualization, & depoliticization

  1. rashelleb says:

    Raechel, I read most of this post thinking, “Oh, come on – using powerful words as a source of inspiration is not a bad thing, even if they are inspiring things totally different than they were originally intended for!” But your last paragraph makes a very good point, and I agree with you: The state of our society today suggests that there will never be a true activist crusade in America again. We are all too comfortable, or rather, just comfortable enough in our self-centered lives to risk the discomfort that comes with committing to a passionate struggle against political injustice. So much easier for us to focus on our abs and do battle in the safe environs of the gym.

    • raechel says:

      “do battle in the safe environs of the gym.” SO TRUE. I hope we’re able to be proven wrong, though, about the chances of real movements happening…I know there is a lot of good work happening in our country (Occupy, for example), and around the world (if the Arab spring taught us anything, it’s that organized rebellion is alive and well).

  2. Gabby @ the veggie nook says:

    WOW. Just wow. I am so glad you called these movements out on their bullshit and not just by saying they put too much emphasis on a person’s looks. There are wider social and political issues here and I think it’s important that people are made aware. People may not know where these “fitspos” are coming from, so I’m glad you told us!

  3. FoodFeud says:

    Wow, this is so crazy! I never really see fitspiration photos or the like, so I’m not sure I’d be aware of this either. And I’m probably not even as well versed in the quotations as I ought to be, so even if I saw them I might miss the connection.
    I like Rashelleb’s comment – being inspired to work out might not be the worst thing, but missing the connection can be. It’s similar to how so many feminists don’t focus on race issues, or why many vegans don’t make the connection to espouse queer issues. It’s dangerous and makes for precarious footing…

    • raechel says:

      Yes, it’s just the lack of connecting the dots that makes the world the way it is in the first place. If all the oppressed people of the world united and saw how their struggles were connected, things would look a lot different!

  4. notesoncrazy says:

    This is such a great post. There are so many things desperately wrong with fitspo and the culture that goes along with it, but I’m embarrassed to admit that in my personal vendetta against what I view as permission and encouragement of a lesser known type of eating disorder, I completely failed to notice the issues of decontextualization and appropriation going on. I’ve read quite a few anti-fitspiration articles and am thrilled to see that there is beginning to be an outcry against it, but this is the first piece I’ve seen calling attention to this particular side of the damage it can do. It really sheds a new light on things.

  5. Chantelle Rae says:

    Yes yes yes! This is why I spent hours trying to look for your blog again after completely forgetting its name. Just recently I’ve been making fitness a serious part of my life and it’s been hard to avoid fitspo, it seems to be everywhere in the virtual world, and it’s just another medium to misquote the most important people and promote seemingly unrealistic body standards. Yeah if you work hard enough you can get totally ripped but everyone’s bodies are still shaped and react to exercise differently. Personally, I find myself susceptible to such pandering whether I’m aware of it or not so it really feels like one of those things that tries to helps but ends up hurting.

    • raechel says:

      Thank you for the comment, Chantelle, I am flattered that I was worth the internet searching! ;)

      Yes, it is super hard to avoid buying into that stuff, for sure. As someone who *likes* fitness and working out it becomes even more difficult to not think I’m doing something *wrong* if I don’t look like the people in the fitspo pictures, despite my seemingly similar workout routines. And then to have the messed up appropriation on top of it…It’s just bad news.

      Thanks for reading. : )

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