Women who post 'fitspiration' images may be at risk of eating disorders

Though images tagged "fitspiration" are supposed to inspire fitness andhealthy living, young women who post them may be more likely to have unhealthy eating and exercise habits, researchers say.


Though images tagged "fitspiration" are supposed to inspire fitness andhealthy living, young women who post them may be more likely to have unhealthy eating and exercise habits, researchers say.

"Fitspiration" is a common social media trend on Instagram, an image sharing app, and there are currently 8 million images tagged with the hashtag #fitspiration, the study team writes in the International Journal of Eating Disorders.

These images often feature pictures of lean, muscular bodies or inspirational text, and positive messages like "strong beats skinny every time" or shaming ones like "do not reward yourself with food, you're not a dog."

"We know from research on other types of media that viewing attractive images of others can make people dissatisfied with their own appearance and motivate them to engage in unhealthy eating and exercise behavior," said Jasmine Fardouly, a researcher at Macquarie University in Sydney, Australia, who was not involved in the study.

Young women are particularly vulnerable to body image concerns and eating disorders, she added.


To explore links between fitspiration image posting and eating and exercise disorders, Grace Holland, a researcher at Flinders University in Adelaide, Australia, and a colleague recruited 203 women between 18 and 48 years old.

Among the participants, 101 women regularly posted fitspiration images on Instagram. The other 102 women posted travel images, another common Instagram theme, and were used as a comparison group.

The study team used the hashtags #fitspiration and #travel to find women posters and invited them to participate in a survey.

The fitspiration women tended to be younger, around 26 years old on average, compared with an average age of 30 years old in the travel image group.

Women in the two groups did not have significantly different body mass indexes (BMI), a measure of weight relative to height.

Based on the survey responses, the researchers assessed how strongly women from each group wanted to be thin or muscular, and whether they engaged in unhealthy eating and exercise habits.

Women posting fitspiration images had a significantly higher drive to be thin and drive to be muscular than women posting travel images.

The fitspiration group also scored higher on measures of bulimia and compulsive exercise, which was gauged by the amount of shame women felt after a missed exercise session rather than how often the women exercised.


The two groups had similar scores on a measure of body dissatisfaction.

About 18 percent, or nearly one in five fitspiration image posters were found to be at risk of an eating disorder. This was significantly higher than the travel image group, where 4 percent of women were at risk.

In both groups, there was a link between disordered eating and compulsive exercise, but the link was stronger in the fitspiration group.

"Despite being promoted within our society, having an obsession with dieting and exercise can be harmful to a person's physical and mental health," Fardouly said.

Pamela Keel, a psychology professor at Florida State University, noted that it may be useful to give more context to these images, so that girls are less likely to compare themselves to the pictures they see.

For example, she said by email, "Instagram users may benefit from understanding that the images do not necessarily represent healthy behaviors and attitudes.

"Viewers should use judgment in determining which images and messages encourage a healthy lifestyle and which represent pro-eating disorder messages in disguise," said Keel, who was not involved in the study.

Fardouly advised parents of teens who post fitspiration images to be aware that this might be a symptom of issues with food and exercise.


"Given that there is research suggesting that viewing these images can negatively impact women's body image, people could avoid viewing fitspiration images on Instagram," Fardouly said by email.

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