If you regularly use social media such as Facebook and Instagram, you will have noticed posts plugging fitness by way of body-conscious photos and memes meant to get people moving. For example: a picture of a gorgeous bikini-clad woman with the caption, Today I will love myself enough to exercise.

However, evidence that this type of messaging actually works is anecdotal. Does the sight of a ripped body on social media motivate people to pursue health? Does it help clients feel great about their bodies? New research suggests the opposite: Spending time on Facebook could lead to negative body image and even disordered eating (Eckler, Kalyango & Paasch 2014; Mabe, Forney & Keel 2014; Smith, Hames & Joiner 2013).

Through expert commentary and the latest research findings, this article sheds light on the complicated relationship between social media and body image, particularly as it pertains to health and fitness promotion. Read on to gain a deeper understanding of how social media may influence a client’s body image—and perhaps your own.

“Fitspo”: The Good, the Bad and the Beautiful

The stream of fitness-related content on social media is constant, and it comes from both the fitness industry and consumers. Search #fitspo on Tagboard.com—a website hub that collects posts sharing a common hashtag across major social networks—and you’ll find numerous fitspo-tagged posts every hour.

You’ll see body-positive posts, inspiring images, questionable memes, average-looking folks and beautiful bodies. The exact same image or message about health and fitness might be motivating to some and a turnoff for others. For example, consider this often-shared meme: “Sweat is fat crying.” Is it funny? Harmless? Harmful? Motivating? Ignorant? Fitness professionals already know that you can’t please everyone all the time. But you can have an acute sense of your own values and be attuned to what your target market likes.

Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, says Lisa Johnson, a personal trainer, fitness blogger and owner of Modern Pilates™ in Brookline, Massachusetts, who writes about fitspo and dispels fitness myths on her blog. “A message that resonates with one person won’t resonate with another,” she says. “I’m a 40-something fitness pro. If I did a fitspo, I doubt a 20-something would care much. But my own peers might find it inspiring. I think as long as the words are positive and not extreme, it can have a purpose. When phrases start supporting disordered thinking, there’s a real problem.”

Bri Wilson, a certified strength and conditioning specialist and owner of Koru Personal Training in Victoria, British Columbia, believes that fitspo can be positive when done in a nonobjectifying way. “I don’t feel particularly inspired to hit the gym when I see a picture of someone’s abs next to an inspirational quote about fitness,” she says. “I feel inspired when I see action shots of trail runners during an ultramarathon or women deadlifting 300 pounds, unfiltered and unposed.”

Sometimes the fitspo issue is less about showing off an attractive, fit body and more about how it’s done. “While I’m no prude, I think that pictures of individuals wearing supertight, revealing clothing can send the wrong message,” says Ryan Halvorson, contributing editor for IDEA publications and director of team training at Bird Rock Fit in La Jolla, California. “Fitspo doesn’t have to be sexualized to be inspiring. I believe those images that promote the other benefits of fitness, like improvements in strength and endurance, are most helpful.”

Think of your audience and the reactions you hope to elicit. For example, female trainers and instructors from the Millennial generation who market their products and services on social media to peers and teens may want to consider the results of an Oregon State University study published in Psychology of Popular Media Culture. Fifty-eight adolescent girls, aged 13–18, and 60 young adult women, aged 17–25, were randomly assigned to look at one of two mock Facebook profiles of the same 20-year-old woman, “Amanda Johnson.” One showed a sexualized profile photo—Amanda wearing a low-cut dress with a slit up one leg and a visible garter belt—while the other presented a nonsexualized photo—Amanda in jeans, T-shirt and scarf. All other content on the profile was the same. Subjects rated the sexualized version of Amanda as less physically and socially attractive, and less competent to perform tasks (Daniels & Zurbriggen 2014). Not exactly the perception you’d want if you were combing social media for clients.

These results bring up a salient point about body image for men and women of all ages: Pushing bare-all, body-conscious imagery on social media has the potential to negatively affect both the viewer and the poster.

Positive Body Image Posting Guide

If you’d like to publish some positive fitness inspiration on social media, ask yourself these questions before hitting tweet, share, pin it or post.

  • Why am I posting this message, meme or photo? Is it for my own gratification or to inspire, help and connect with my network?
  • Will the majority of my followers and/or target audience perceive this post as postiive or negative? Motivating or discouraging? Neutral or sexualized? What’s the intention?

To read much more on this topic (including more questions to consider before posting), and to gain insights from a male perspective, please see “Social Media And Body Image: A Complicated Relationship” in the online IDEA Library or in the January 2015 print issue of IDEA Fitness Journal. If you cannot access the full article and would like to, please contact the IDEA Inspired Service Team at (800) 999-4332, ext. 7.