The 6 Most Shockingly Irresponsible “Fitspiration” Photos

The Reembody blog, up to this point, has been a thoughtful exploration of human movement, a subject about which I am extremely passionate.

Today, however, I’m mad and I’m going to tell you why.

I have been planning a blog post for a while on fitness misinformation, and it was originally going to be the same kind of thoughtful deconstruction found in my other installments. But then I read this and it was one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever found in my newsfeed: so beautiful, in fact, that the rest of the health and fitness propaganda floating around Facebook like turds in a pool started to really, really piss me off.

So thoughtful deconstruction has been postponed for another day. Instead, we’re going to take a good look at a few of those turds and get pissed off together because, when someone preys upon your insecurities in an effort to manipulate or even harm you, “f*ck straight off” is a totally appropriate response.

Join me now, as we stare in shocked incredulity at the worst of the worst:

#1. Your Body is the Enemy

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What They Think They’re Saying:

“Don’t give up! You may think you’ve given all you have, but you have so much more! You can make it if you just grit your teeth and push!”

Why It’s Bullshit:

Getting mad at your own limbs sounds less like the behavior of an Olympian and more like the crazy-eyed hobo who lives behind my building’s dumpster.

It is absolutely true that, if your muscles finally reach the point of failure, an emotional response like fear or anger triggers the release of adrenaline, which can keep you going. It’s called the fight-or-flight response, and it’s been attributed to everything from moms lifting cars off kids to soldiers who refuse to lay down and die.

It’s also not something to f*ck around with.

Pushing your body’s limits just because you want bigger biceps is sort of like setting your house on fire because you’re cold.

Central heating is for quitters! FITNESS!!

Central heating is for quitters! FITNESS!!

Routinely stressing your body’s physical capacity is called overtraining, and it’s a massive problem in the fitness industry. It is linked to everything from joint degeneration, ligament tears and bone spurs to depression and—no joke—post-traumatic stress disorder.

The fight-or-flight response only kicks in during moments of impending danger precisely because the response itself is potentially dangerous. It’s a calculated risk on the part of your own biochemistry: turn it up to 11 and risk the joint damage or become food for a cave bear. When invoking that kind of biochemical gambit becomes less of a do-or-die, last-ditch effort to survive and more of a Tuesday-at-the-gym-is-chest-day scenario, you’re inviting in a whole mess of future problems.

#2. You Should be Ashamed

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What They Think They’re Saying:

“Aren’t you tired of not being as pretty as you deserve? Well all it takes is perseverance to be everything you’ve ever wanted to be!”

Why It’s Bullshit:

First of all, speaking as the father of a little girl, f*ck whoever made this.

This is an expertly lit, no doubt digitally enhanced image of a girl in her mid-twenties presented here as the definition of what a woman is allowed to be proud of; “until you are proud” seems to mean “until you have six-pack abs, perky, squeezable breasts and the terrible burden of finding size 0 jeans with a 34 inch inseam”. If there were a male equivalent of this photo, it would have to be Iron Man to really capture the shocking lack of realism. It’s the “don’t stop” part, however, that earns this photo its place on my shit list. The message here is that it’s excusable, nay, it is advisable that the ladies in the audience disregard whatever else they were doing, you know, like having some self-esteem, and do whatever it takes to be f*ckable. If it was explicit that “don’t stop” meant “hire a professional lighting crew and a makeup artist and maybe a wizard” it would be one thing, but it’s not. “Don’t stop” just ends up meaning “nope, you’re not up to these heinously unrealistic standards yet; keep running, fatty!”

Oh, and speaking of not stopping . . .

#3. Fitness as Socially Acceptable Neurosis

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What They Think They’re Saying:

“Commitment is important! People who lack the ability to commit will always try to bring you down.”

Why It’s Bullshit:

So there’s this thing called anorexia nervosa. It’s kind of a big deal. As a matter of fact, it and other eating disorders collectively have the highest mortality rate of any psychiatric illness, killing 5%–10% of those afflicted within 10 years and a bone-chilling 18%-20% within 20 years. Oh, and it affects between 1% and 5% of women in the US … so, like I was saying, kind of a big deal.

But with better public education and awareness, it’s getting harder and harder to starve to death without anyone noticing—and, as it turns out, not wanting to be noticed is a key component in the anorexic’s psychological profile. As a result, with the kind of nuance and ingenuity that is horrifyingly common among the mentally ill, exercise anorexia, or hypergymnasia, was born.

It works just like anorexia and is caused by the same factors, only instead of restricting calories going in, hypergymnasiacs dramatically increase the calories going out. The benefit—if you can look at it from the self-abusive perspective of the afflicted—is that, instead of frequent, attention-grabbing trips to the bathroom, all they have to do is go exercise a lot! Oh man, easy! People LOVE exercise! Friends and family will just think they’re getting in shape, taking care of themselves, self-improving. The culturally accepted language associated with working out is moderately self-abusive anyway, so all the self-deprecation won’t raise any red flags and obsessing over exercise will blend right in to the normal cultural fabric of fitness.

And if someone does start to question the wisdom of a 10k run after CrossFit and two hot yoga classes? Well, the hypergymnasiac can just high five their fellow gym-goers and say, “I’m not obsessed, you’re just lazy!” … and, to a soundtrack of enthusiastic support, go right back to killing themselves.

So, no, obsession is not the same as dedication, and creating a vocabulary that makes it easier for the mentally ill to cloak their illness in normalcy is not doing anyone any favors.

#4. Disregarding Your Limits

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What They Think They’re Saying:

“Do what you have to do to get the job done. Don’t be afraid to show your struggle, only be afraid to fail.”

Why It’s Bullshit:

I can’t believe I have to write this next sentence but, here goes: crawling on the floor weeping while you puke all over yourself is not healthy.

Your body has limits. Those limits are there so that daily function—up to and including heavy manual labor—requires a relatively small amount of physical stress and sacrifice. This means that, if you get into a spontaneous bar fight with a group of neo-Nazis and must defeat them to protect the beautiful tattooed bartender with the dark secret—I’m not the only one who has that fantasy, right?—well, it means that you’re not going into action with a bunch of used-up joints. Your back may look like a gunnysack full of angry pythons, but that won’t mean squat (ha!) when you herniate a disk.

The trick is to know your limits. Pain is helpful in this regard. Of course, there’s pain and there’s pain, but part of being healthy is knowing the difference. Training so hard as to induce vomiting and uncontrollable sobbing is to slowly undermine the basic human judgement of what constitutes challenge versus what causes injury; It’s a fundamental component of self-control. Toddlers learn it when they figure out that they don’t need to cry over a stubbed toe, but that a broken arm is a big deal.

Basically what I’m saying is: don’t let your training routine reduce your level of self-awareness to what it was when you still wore footy pajamas.

#5 Strong is the New Buzzword for Manipulating Women’s Body Image

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What They Think They’re Saying:

“Beauty used to be about getting thin—but not anymore, ladies! We’re not after waifish waistlines, we’re after strength!”

Why It’s Bullshit:

Quick! What do all three of the women pictured above have in common? If you said, “They’re all skinny,” you’re exactly right!

The fitness industry—from gyms to clothing manufacturers—collectively produces more propaganda than North Korea, a lot of it just as crazy. This particular class of ads is almost comically absurd because what’s written on the picture directly contradicts the picture. It would be like if Oscar Meyer produced an ad saying “vegetables are awesome, eat those instead of hot dogs!” printed over images of freckled Norman Rockwell kids happily stuffing their faces with hot dogs. It shows just how little credit advertisers give the public: they assume that if they tell you what you’re looking at you won’t actually see what you’re looking at.

“But Kevin,” you might argue, “the women in those images have great muscle tone! They’re totally strong!” They certainly are. So is she:

Kristin Rhodes, folks . . .

Kristin Rhodes, folks . . .

And you’re not going to find her in a Nike ad, even though she’s a stone-cold badass who probably deadlifts the combined body weight of those other three ladies as a goddamn warm up.

Now, before I get bombarded with angry comments from skinny people, I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with being skinny. I’m also not suggesting that being skinny and strong are mutually exclusive. I’m only pointing out that strength only sells when it’s sexy—and, make no mistake, advertisers want very badly to make you feel like you are currently failing at both.

Strong isn’t really replacing skinny; being skinny is no longer enough. Now, ladies, you need to be skinny and ripped. It’s an additional layer of self-loathing  (perfectly suited for hypergymnasiacs), just in case people had started to get desensitized to the omnipresent and psychologically crippling display of corpse-thin women in the media.

And what’s with the Playboy cover poses? The one on the bottom is basically a picture of an ass. The young lady on the top right is either confused about how to wear pants or the ad was meant to double as a promotion for whoever did her impressively thorough bikini wax. According to these photos, all this notable strength that is the new standard of beauty is only useful for the exact same thing being skinny was: sex appeal. Not adventure or longevity, or even ability. Nope, just for sexy times.

So I guess “strong is the new skinny” is, in fact, a totally accurate statement, just not so much in an inspiring way as in “the gears of modern culture crushing young women’s dreams” kinda way.

#6 Fitness Assault!

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What They Think They’re Saying:

“The part of you that wants to give up is the weak, lazy part; dominate it with the strong, committed part and work your way to success!”

Why It’s Bullshit:

Please tell me I’m not the only person made terribly uncomfortable by this. I mean, doesn’t that strike anyone else as a little, well…rapey? I think it’s safe to say that, if your inner monologue during a workout even slightly resembles the script from a poorly translated hentai comic (no I will not include a link) there might have been a little mix up somewhere regarding this whole exercise thing.

If your body or your mind says “it hurts” or “I need to stop”—and I’m going to be as clear as I can about this—FOR F*CK’S SAKE, STOP. It isn’t even a joint health thing at this point, it’s just creepy.

I get that lots and lots of people enter a gym wanting to change: weight, BMI, strength, performance, whatever. Change is great. Change is healthy. The desire to change stems from the admirable ability to introspect and to see that, currently, we are limited in ways that we want not to be. If that desire to change, however, becomes a desire to change at all costs, you will be sorely disappointed with what you end up paying. Work out, have fun, get tired, fail occasionally, wake up sore and set your next goal. Whatever you do, just don’t do it like these poor suckers.

Hey, does a sane approach to fitness get you fired up? Check out my piece in the upcoming media bundle: Superheroes of Health

Addendum

It has come to my attention that the guy in the first picture is Rich Froning, a three-time CrossFit champion and a generally respected athlete. It’s not clear whether the text is directly attributed to him. I mean no personal offense to Rich, but I stand by my observation that the text is silly. You can line up respected athletes all day long saying that they “get angry when [they're] tired” and I will still say it’s silly.

815 thoughts on “The 6 Most Shockingly Irresponsible “Fitspiration” Photos

  1. This is actually kinda insulting as the wife of a trainer, and as a woman who works out. Working out is hard, so is everything else worth having. You do have to push yourself beyond normal limits. If you never push yourself you will stay the same. I never thought I could run 5 miles, deadlift 200lbs, I grit my teeth and curse and listen to dubstep lol. Im not much of a yogi. I like to work out aggressively, and I love the results. You are in total, 100% control of what you look like, don’t make excuses, don’t blame society’s standards.

    • It’s a question of goals, Sky. Working hard is not unhealthy; the body is perfectly capable of working hard. Aggressive physical activity is not my concern. I’m a long-time competitive martial artist—I fully appreciate the value of physical aggression.

      However, working hard for a specious goal that stems from a superimposed dissatisfaction with one’s body is a net loss. “If you never push yourself you will stay the same” is not exactly true. I have nearly a decade of experience teaching everyone from crippled octogenarians to elite triathletes and I can safely say that non-harming use of the body in a positive, non-judgemental environment yields significantly more profound results than “what’s your excuse” type “encouragement.”

      I’m sorry for any insult you felt was levelled against you. I hope you can appreciate that my goal, first and foremost, is to lift people up, not tear them down.

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  3. How did a male get so cool (Are you Canadian)? Society certainly stacked the odds against you. Great post, and congratulations on being yourself.

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  5. Wow — this post is AWESOME. I’m a fairly skinny, fit girl AND I totally agree with your comments. You do have to push yourself in workouts, but not to the point of puking and crawling across the floor and not to look like someone in some ridiculous photo! I workout an hour every day, eat super clean, laugh a lot, do yoga and love my body (can I really say that as a woman in America?). Thanks for the insight!

  6. THANK YOU THANK YOU THANK YOU so much for this!!! I like to look for inspirational pictures and whenever I see ones with skinny model-types I pass them by. That will never, ever inspire me to do anything positive. I know they’re designed by men for men, obviously. If they want to inspire me, have regular people in them. I so love this blog, I’m following you, you rock.

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