There Are Two Ways to Say “Keep Going”; or, How to Spot Toxic Fitspiration

There Are Two Ways to Say “Keep Going”; or, How to Spot Toxic Fitspiration

This morning, I posted a link to a brilliant Buzzfeed piece on “Corrected Fitspiration Photos” on my Twitter feed, because frankly, it elicited a big cheer and a “hell yeah” from yours truly.

Now, I’ll be honest: I do find myself having mixed feelings about the whole “fitspiration” business. I dislike pretty much everything about it – the images of “perfection” unattainable to people who aren’t fitness models, the idea that perfection is even a thing, the horrific grammatical errors that seem to crop up everywhere – there’s a lot not to like. A lot to take issue with, in fact.

Case in point:

Hateful Hateful Fitspo Crap

But from time to time, when I need a bit of a kick up the butt, I’ll have a look on a few health and fitness boards on Pinterest, and try to track down something I can bear in mind for the day until I can run on my own steam again. I know it’s wrong, in much the same way as I know my not-so-secret excitement about my Mum’s Christmas cake – despite it being October – is wrong (although if you tasted it, you’d totally get it. No joke.)

After all, everyone needs some encouragement from time to time, and when you’re trying to do something that takes a long term commitment – like losing weight – external sources of motivation can make all the difference. For me personally, I like to read health blogs, find delicious recipes and track down new exercises I can do when I’m on track, because immersing myself in it really helps me to stay focused on whatever it is I’m trying to get done.

So I get the point of fitspo, within reason.

However, I do think it’s absolutely essential to be more than a little discerning when you’re taking encouragement from anything that’s outside your own skull. Like I said with the whole celeb weights affair, I think you’ve gotta be hella careful about the kind of stuff you let into your head without critically assessing it, because there are some amazingly twisted ideas out there acting like they’re the truth.

And with this in mind, there’s a very important distinction to be made when assessing types of fitspiration, or indeed anything you’re using to keep on track towards your goals – health-related or otherwise.

The idea that you should “keep going” is one of the most powerful things you can put in your head when you’re on a mission, especially to fitness. But those two words tend to come with one of two implied meanings attached – which can immediately change their message from positive and helpful, to toxic and potentially damaging.

On the one hand, you’ve got “Keep Going, Because You Are Awesome.”

That is a sentiment I am fully behind, because it’s pretty much always true. By even starting, you’re making a positive change, and reinforcing the idea that every minute you continue backs up the awesomeness of you, is no bad thing. This is an example of goodspiration, and I’d like to see more of it.

However, there’s also the much more insidious asshattery of the other version of the keep going mantra, which – from my experience – the majority of fitspo, and all versions of it’s evil cousin thinspo, relies upon. That goes a lil’ something like this:

“Keep Going, Because You’re Not Good Enough.”

Now, I get why this would be encouraging, in the same way as I get why being punched in the jaw every time you think about cake could potentially stop you thinking about cake. Kind of. In all honesty, nothing stops me thinking about cake, so this comparison kinda sucks – but you get my drift.

But more than being encouraging, it’s damaging, because it’s setting you up in pursuit of a perfection that you’ll unlikely ever be able to achieve. And also, I take issue with any bullshit quote-on-a-photo that tells me I’m not pretty freakin’ awesome already. YOU DON’T KNOW ME. QUIT JUDGING.

I don’t think it’s a coincidence, either, that this version of “keep going” is a heck of a lot more common attached to the idea that you should – for instance – push yourself ’til you vomit (before doing ten more burpees) or exercise beyond the point of pain and injury. This shit right here is damaging both physically and psychologically, and yet it’s acceptable by virtue of being about “health.”

‘Scuse me while I choke on the irony.

Let’s be very clear here: I don’t think there’s anything wrong with the idea of self-improvement, just so long as it’s coming from a place of positivity – where you’re looking to change because it’ll improve your ability to live your life, rather than because it’ll make you a “better person” in a world where success is measured on the size of your butt.

And I don’t think there’s anything wrong with using motivational tools to get you where you want to go – ’cause you’ve got to do what works for you. But I do think it’s hella important to take these kind of things with a pinch of salt – because even though they’re made, generally, by people at home rather than big ol’ publishing corporations, there’s a pretty clear comparison to be made to the world of women’s magazines, and snark culture.

These are things we take in and absorb because they’re everywhere, and their messages are pretty much accepted as fact, regardless of their wider implications. Just because ‘strong is the new skinny,’ doesn’t mean that ‘skinny’ ever went away. It also doesn’t mean that skinny is bad. Nor is strong. Nor is fat, or curvy, or chubby, or whatever. These are just words we can choose to either adopt, reject, or just plain ignore.

But the key point is that we get to make that choice, so long as we’re paying attention to the context. Those words that tell you to ‘keep going,’ the phrases like ‘get off your ass,’ and ‘don’t stop,’ are all well and good, just so long as they’re hanging out in a context that reminds you that you’ve already got awesomeness nailed. If it’s telling you anything to the contrary, it’s toxic fitspo, and is best left ignored, or possibly set alight, stuffed into a barrel of dead crabs and thrown headlong off a mountaintop.

What you let in your head, and what you accept as being ‘good for you’ is entirely your choice, just so long as you’re thinking about it. Pay attention to what you’re reading, and make sure that any changes you ever, ever decide to make are for you – not for any sad-sack with an iPhone and a cheesy quote.

And finally: keep going. ‘Cause you are awesome.

2 thoughts on “There Are Two Ways to Say “Keep Going”; or, How to Spot Toxic Fitspiration”

  • What I dislike about this is, it’s not about health. Or at least people push it far beyond the point where there’s any discernible health-benefits.

    Take me. 15 months ago I weighed 102kg. At my height, that made me obese with a BMI just north of 31. I was also sedentary – I loved hiking, but hadn’t deliberately done anything to raise my pulse for 2 decades.

    Today I’m 90 kg. And over the last 15 months I’ve run somewhat over 1000km. I’m capable of running a half-marathon, and of carrying 90 lbs of water up a mountain. (I know the latter because I did, for reasons that are irrelevant here)

    At this point my doctor says, and I agree with him, that it’s unlikely I’ll see any statistical meaningful improvements to my health from doing even more. Yes, my BMI is still 27 — but the risk from that for a person who is both fit and strong with good blood-pressure and ideal colesterol-values is down in the noise.

    And the truth is, I don’t *want* to get any fitter. Because fitness like all other things in life is a trade-off. I’ve got a full time job. I’ve got a wife that I love. I’ve got 3 children that I love. I’ve got a dozen other hobbies that I enjoy spending time on. I also need sleep.

    And the *cost* of getting fitter would be to dedicate more time to exercise (or to do less pleasant forms of exercise which are more efficient – but I *HATE* tabatas)

    For me, 2 or 3 runs a week is the optimal amount of fitness. Doing more than that would cost me more than it would gain me.

    “Keep going!” they say. But what if I’m already where I want to be ?

    “Be the best that you can be!” they say. But I don’t want to do that. To reach your potential in any one thing, you have to sacrifice all the other things, and that’s a STUPID choice for most of us.

    If my workouts where somehow more efficient in making me fit, but made me puke – that’d not be improvement, that’d be horrible. In fact I’m pretty sure that’d make me stop doing them alltogether in short order. To me, the best workout is the one I’ll keep doing. The one where I can say: “I’ll keep doing this for the next 40 years, and that sounds pleasant and fine.”

    Fitspiration never shows any signs of balance. Of awareness that fitness is just one *part* of life — and not the most important part.

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