Sexy fitness photos celebrate strong bodies — but to what end? (Photo [edited]: Scitec Nutrition)
Wet, parted lips; gleaming legs straddling a barbell; hands tugging at damp, clinging scraps of clothing; a sly, suggestive gaze from under heavy lids and thick lashes.
X-rated fitness pics have arrived as a scantily clad form of fitness inspiration, or “fitspo.” Whereas standard fitspo includes motivational messages about hustling and grinding and working hard enough to make your fat cry (that is, sweat) alongside photos of exceptionally fit people — especially women — working out, this sultrier subcategory is on the rise.
Images of ripped, nearly naked women in provocative poses inside the gym are now ubiquitous on Facebook and Instagram, as well as on many male-dominated fitness websites (note: links may be NSFW). These photographs may inspire you to hit the gym, or they may just inspire you to more vigorously wipe down fitness equipment before you use it. We may feel attracted or repelled, or even both — in succession or simultaneously.
Just like more conventional porn, these images can be hot — so hot! But also like conventional porn, they tend to portray unrealistic imagery that can skew our perceptions of what makes for an attainable goal. These visuals may also dramatically color our thinking about what our fitness and our bodies are worth — both to ourselves and others.
On one hand, hard work and confidence should be celebrated, but on the other, is the cost of doing it in this manner too great on the whole community of fitness enthusiasts? Regardless of your stance on the topic, it’s worth taking the time to, um, peel back the layers.
The Subjectivity of Seduction
What qualifies as fitness porn? As is the case in the legal definition of porn, it can be argued that fitness porn “appeals to prurient interests” (in other words, they inspire super-lusty thoughts), and that “you know it when you see it.” (Side note: I discovered, in researching this story, that there is a much more literal category of fitness porn than the one I’m referring to here, and most of the storylines center around naughty trainers named Derek or Chad. Sometimes they center around both Derek and Chad.)
Sultry fitness pics are especially popular on Instagram. (Photo [edited]: Instagram/jojo_babie)
But the topic is a complicated one, and it’s totally feasible that two women could wear the very same outfit with different enough attitudes, facial expressions, and body language that one reads as porny and the other doesn’t. (Consider that swimmers’ and gymnasts’ attire would never make the “clean” cut.)
In fact, viewer interpretation matters so much that even the very same photo could be viewed as obscene to one person and inspiring to another. In other words, our viewpoint (and hang-ups) greatly affects our experience. Like any other topic, it’s BYO baggage.
Do you consider this photo inspiring, offensive, or titillating? What may be fitspiration to some can be too provocative to others. (Photo: Getty Images)
That said, I believe there is a certain je ne sais quoi when it is a genuine celebration of self versus when it is a painful straining to be found sexy by an external source. One is embodied joy. The other is faltering, unsure, (still) asking, “Am I enough?” One way liberates, while the other confines.
The Core Problem
To be clear, I’m not anti-pornography — there is an ever-growing body of work that celebrates rather than objectifies women. And I am very much pro-celebration. Of our bodies, our beauty, our sensuality, our joy. Our sexuality, too. Full disclosure: I work in the fitness industry as a personal trainer, and I have a penchant for not wearing pants in pictures myself.
Hi. This is me, Jen Sinkler. Wanna come to my no-pants party? It’s a comfy place to be. (Photo: Jason Albus)
But messaging matters. Context matters. Women have been told, directly or indirectly, for a long while now how we ought to look — and what our body-fat percentage needs to be — in order to be acceptable, attractive, and sexy. And frankly, it’s bringing us down rather than lifting us up.
Early research on fitspo points to it often being damaging to viewers’ body image and self-confidence. According to a recent survey out of the University of the Sunshine Coast in Australia, an “overwhelming number” of women felt unsatisfied with their own bodies after viewing images of so-called inspirational images. This survey echoes the results of a 2014 study out of Flinders University, also in Australia.
Butting up against these images at every turn can be discouraging in a number of ways — from starting a fitness program to begin with, to continuing one if you can’t seem to achieve the level of leanness and muscularity of those portrayed in the photos, no matter how hard you run and how much you lift.
Context matters, exhibit A: This model is showing some skin, but the message is clearly one of empowerment — not objectification. (Photo: fitspoholic.tumblr.com)
Inspiration In Many Forms
It’s a downright feminist act to not mention body fat and sex appeal in the context of women’s fitness. Recently, I published a full-body strength program by fellow trainer Jennifer Vogelgesang Blake (or JVB) called Unapologetically Powerful. Prior to publication, we decided to base our marketing efforts solely around the ideas of increased strength, capability, and empowerment, and to skip entirely fat loss as a focus; plus, of course, all of the bogus plays on insecurity that often accompany that message. Essentially, we decided to see if we could sell strength over sex. And the response to that decision was overwhelming, once we pointed out what we were doing.
Don’t get me wrong, feeling fit can absolutely mean feeling sexy. Pretending otherwise is just another way of not being allowed to show up completely. Then again, forced sexiness never is. For many, the gym is a safe haven, a place to simply show up and work, to not worry about preening, posing, and exposing.
And, as is the problem with other types of fitspo, when the same body type is featured over and over in every image, the implication is that there is just one way to be sexy and inspired.
And we all know that’s not true.
Jen Sinkler is a longtime fitness writer and personal trainer based in Minneapolis. She writes at her website, UnapologeticallyStrong.com.
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