Social Media and Body Image – Part 2
What do you turn to when you need to be motivated? What inspires you, what drives you forward? What makes you want to improve professionally, reach a fitness milestone, lose ten pounds, or improve your foreign language skills? Each of us is motivated by different incentives and we are all driven by different forces. My goals will be different from yours, but even if we share a common goal, we will both live with different circumstances and conditions, different challenges and obstacles, different ways of looking at things, and probably also differences in the speed at which we will decide to go forward. Some of us like to wade into things slowly, while others like to approach things by diving into them head-first. When I quit smoking, I did it cold turkey, but for my father, this didn’t work when he wanted to ditch nicotine; he had to slowly cut back on the number of cigarettes until he finally reached zero. Our reasons were different too. He quit when I was 12 years old, because I asked him to (and then I started three years later, duh) and I quit when I was 25 because I wanted to be healthy. The source of motivation was different for both of us.
TYPES OF MOTIVATION
There are generally two types of motivation – extrinsic and intrinsic. How they work is pretty self-explanatory: my dad was driven by an extrinsic motivation (somebody else made/encouraged him to quit, he did it mostly because of an external stimuli), while my decision was based on an internal drive, I did it for myself, to get healthier, to live longer and with a higher quality of life, the idea came from my own mind. Neither of these types of motivation is wrong per se, even though being motivated intrinsically is ultimately the better option, and I will explain why in a second. What matters the most with external motivation is the source and the reasoning behind it. Sometimes extrinsic motivation can literally save us. For example, when our lifestyle related behavior is damaging our health and well being, we very often take it very lightly, until a doctor shocks us with some bad news. Unfortunately, very often this type of warning from the outside comes when it already is too late. We feel unstoppable when we are young, not giving a thought to how our actions today will impact our life tomorrow (or some ten or twenty years later).
Many of us realize that how we treat our bodies today will determine how our bodies will treat us in return in the future. We obviously know and understand the importance of eating a healthy, balanced diet, smart movement, and certain lifestyle changes, but many of us lack the intrinsic motivation to actually apply these obvious truths to our lives. We are either too busy, too overwhelmed with information, or simply not inspired. And it is natural that in cases like this we seek inspiration and motivation from somewhere else, because we can’t find it within ourselves. There is nothing wrong with that, the problem comes when we stumble upon the wrong source of external motivation. Unfortunately, social media channels are interlaced with profiles that are meant to motivate and inspire us, but in reality most of them are harmful to our minds and bodies.
FITSPO AND CO.
It is normal and perfectly healthy to have an idol, at least in the sense of someone we can look up to. Problems appear when instead of being inspired and motivated by the actions of that individual, we focus strictly on their looks. I admire one of my friends for her dedication and strength, and I know that if I was training as consistently as her, I could achieve the same level of fitness. But I know I will never have her body; my hips are way wider, my shoulders not broad enough, and I am not willing to sacrifice my health and menstrual cycle to lower my bodyfat low enough to get a visible six pack that yes, looks pretty badass, but has no functional purpose. Of course, sometimes I can’t help but imagine myself walking around in cropped t-shirt with sculpted abs for everyone to see and the words I want those long legs run through my mind, but I realize there is a difference between being inspired by and comparing myself with someone else, which is unfortunately what most of us do with our idols.
In the last few years, many people have become obsessed with fitness and pursuing the perfect body. But this new fitness culture has a very distorted image, where the goal is being thin and shredded, but not necessarily healthy and functionally strong. People are advised to do chronic cardio exercises or very intense crossfit workouts in order to get physically perfect, because in their eyes, physical perfection means being good enough to succeed in this society. People who train hard every day, spend hours in the gym, get up very early in the morning to squeeze a workout in before breakfast, these people are glorified and seen as heroes. And we tend to compare ourselves with these real life heroes – we want to be like them, we want those abs, those slender legs, that perfect hair, and size 0 jeans. We feel like seeing these perfect people is a great reminder of what we want to achieve, so we start collecting photos of perfectly shaped men and women, because we see them as inspiration. And based on this behavior, FITSPO, short for fitness inspiration, was born with the rise of social media, followed by THINSPO (thinspiration) and nonsensical hashtags like #thighgap, #bikinibridge, or quotes similar to “Nothing tastes as good as skinny feels”, accompanied by an image of an emaciated, unhealthy looking model with an empty expression on her face that always makes me want to scream “somebody, give that girl a donut!”
Sometimes you see a nice looking inspirational picture on Facebook and you might think: “This sounds pretty reasonable,” and you click the Follow button without even thinking about it. If you do this multiple times, you later find your feed full of pictures you never intentionally subscribed to. For these fitspo boards, follow us on Facebook actually means let us invade your social media feed (and thereby your mind). There were times when my own Facebook wall was covered with quotes like Unless you faint, puke or die, keep pushing! or Sweat is the fat crying. When I think about it now, those were also the times when I was doing chronic cardio sessions every day, followed by a very restrictive, low carb and low fat diet. I had a picture of my favorite fitness model as the desktop wallpaper on my computer, damn, I even printed that picture at work and posted it to my fridge door to remind myself not to eat! My self esteem was so low, and I was chasing that unrealistic image of looking like somebody else, because in my head, I was not good enough. The mirror and the scale were my best friends and worst enemies at the same time (because the number was not decreasing fast enough and my abs were still nowhere to be seen) and I organized my whole day around my workouts. I was a mess – in both my body and mindset.
INSPIRATION VS. COMPARISON
Sometimes, when we think about getting better at something, our brains translate it into something like: “you are not good enough and you have to change that.” The inspirational pictures we are looking at show us someone who is, in our minds, better than us and this motivates us to chase that unrealistic image. And if we constantly surround ourselves (both physically and through our social media feeds, which is where we tend to spend way too much time) with photos of perfect bodies, our self-esteem suffers, and our health suffers. The worst case scenario is when you don’t feel particularly good about your body in the first place. For you, these sources of external motivation actually turn you into an unhappy person with low self-esteem, who can easily fall into the trap of starvation, chronic excessive exercise that leads to injury or chronic stress and gland damage, self loathing and negative self talk, chasing an unrealistic body by chasing endorphins in the gym instead of health and well being – all that for the sake of a lower percentage of body fat?! We mistake unhealthy obsession for dedication and discipline and we admire those who train hard every day, who deprive themselves of food, who sacrifice their sleep only to get more hours in the gym every day, and then we watch them post inspirational pictures on Instagram of their showing collar bones and ribs along with hashtags like #whatisyourexcuse. There is actually a study proving that “more time on Facebook was associated with higher levels of disordered eating. Women who placed greater importance on receiving comments and “likes” on their status updates and were more likely to untag photos of themselves and compare their own photos to friends’ posted photos reported the highest levels of disordered eating.”
The fitness models you see online, and maybe even look up to, have very different lives, goals, and challenges. Probably none of them have a regular nine-to-five job, three kids to take care of, or certain medical restrictions. Just like regular models or actors, they look good for a living. If a supermodel gained twenty pounds, she would probably not get booked ever again, because her career is basically built on her skinny physique, almost childlike figure, and hollow cheeks. This morning, I saw an article about Jessica Alba stating that she doesn’t need diets to get skinny, all she needs is chronic stress, so she simply forgets to eat. Hugh Jackman would never have gotten the role of Wolverine if he wasn’t willing to train for hours every day, along with following a super strict diet. In reality, he doesn’t look like Wolverine outside filming – that body shape is just not sustainable long term, just like extreme leanness you can see on female fitness models. It is not realistic, and deep down in our hearts, we know this. What is very often blocking our way to accepting these facts is a lack of healthy self love.
Drastic changes in body shape, quick muscle gains, and rapid body fat drops are possible, but only via unhealthy and unsustainable shortcuts that only bring short term results and they come with a price. When a bikini model needs to get ready for a competition in just a few weeks, she does it via extreme dieting and a training schedule. It is very hard work, there is no doubt about it. Bodybuilders, fitness models, and actors work very hard to get where they need to be, but it is still their job. In general, they are not the healthiest people on the planet. Big muscles don’t always mean big strength and a slim waist doesn’t necessarily mean good metabolic health. Many of us dislike or even hate at least one thing about our bodies and we focus on that one little thing so much that we tend to ignore the rest, the more important and invisible things like our character, values, personality, spirituality, creativity, and capacity to love. Sacrificing mental and physical health in order to look a certain way, only to get approval from other people is not motivational or inspirational behavior, and you can never escape the consequences of sabotaging your health.
When I started to have big problems with my sugar addiction, I decided to unfollow all the Facebook feeds that often share dessert recipes and content that further provoked my sugar cravings. When I stopped seeing cupcakes and cookies all over my social media feeds, it was strangely liberating. You know the saying, out of sight, out of mind? It worked exactly like that. Before I clicked unfollow on each profile, I asked myself a question: Does this page provide any real value to my everyday life and my goals? And just like when I was evaluating my list of virtual friends, when the answer was not immediately YES, I unsubscribed. I completely agree that not all fitness sites are a bad influence or cause self-loathing, but ask yourself the following question: Is it making me more fit or is it making me feel less good about myself? Real inspiration should give you power, and a desire to become a better version of who you already are, not to turn yourself into someone else, into somebody who in your eyes is more worthy of love and attention. A good source of inspiration should never bring your down, it should never tell you to push through the pain, or make you feel not good enough. You are ultimately perfect the way you are right now. Each of us is so incredibly unique; there is nobody else in the world that is like you, so why would you want to be like somebody else? There are already plenty of Angelina Jolie wannabes walking around, but there is only one YOU. Amazing, wonderful, and beautiful you. Yes, with those hips.