Fitspiration and body image: A qualitative study


  • Zoe Bell


Fitspiration, Body image, Toned ideal, Extrinsic motivation


Background: Western society’s ‘toned’ body ideal is commonly found on Instagram’s ‘fitspiration’ pages, which aim to inspire healthy lifestyles through diet and exercise. Research suggests that these accounts have the potential to cause body dissatisfaction in women - a serious public health concern. Qualitative studies indicate that both positive and negative experiences of fitspiration are common, suggesting that further in-depth exploration is needed.

Methods: The current qualitative study explored the motivations for accessing the accounts and experiences of fitspiration, alongside its perceived positive and negative effects. Three focus groups (total of 19 women, aged 20-23) were conducted.

Results: Discussions revealed how the unrealistic ideal and extrinsic motivation presented by fitspiration pages is negatively received, with participants placing greater emphasis on the effect of the picture rather than the accompanying caption. Analysis showed how individuals were easily overwhelmed by seeing too much fitspiration; this was commonly attributed to the design of Instagram and the algorithm, and suggested users had to actively avoid dysfunctional content. Participants reflected on periods of vulnerability to the negative effects of fitspiration, including during school-age years and the COVID-19 lockdown, when pressure to get fit intensified. This sample of women were critical viewers of fitspiration; they displayed advanced media literacy skills throughout and considered the influence of the body positive movement on Instagram. The findings can also be explained using the social comparison theory as participants negatively compared themselves to unrealistic ideals and preferred to follow more relatable accounts.

Conclusions: Overall, this study reflected on the societal changes needed to eliminate the pressure on women to use diet and exercise as a beauty product. This study also made feasible recommendations for Instagram, corporate companies, and media literacy programmes to improve and co-ordinate their efforts to alleviate and tackle pressures on their users from the content they are consuming. Changes to the algorithm and the promotion of media literacy through body positive activists are likely to prevent distressing fitspiration experiences.