How Fitness Accounts and Advertising Campaigns Shape Women’s Ideas on Body Image

By Julie O’Melia

Brands have invaded social media as the newest platform to encourage users to remain obsessed with appearances through hyper commercialism. There are an increasing number of “fitsperation” accounts on social media dedicated to making users exercise or purchase a product that will help them achieve the “ideal” figure. Although the majority of these accounts are dedicated to men, women are particularly at risk. As we know, women are the target of most advertising campaigns as they are under constant scrutiny and pressure to “improve” themselves. Although brands have migrated to newer forms of social media, gender stereotypes surrounding the way men and women care for themselves persist. Boys and men can eat whatever they want, wear what they want, and use no cosmetic products at all to be deemed “manly.” However, girls and women who don’t care what they wear, eat what they like, and refrain from cosmetics are  considered “tom boys.” Therefore, girls and women are most affected by social media’s influence on body image. On the forefront of this issue are fitness accounts, or “fitspiration” brands. These brands include Victoria’s Secret, Lulu Lemon and Women’s Best to name a few. All of these brands have Instagram accounts boasting over millions of followers. Victoria’s Secret alone has 62.8 million followers on the Instagram, most of them women.

According to Campbell, “In contemporary society, we derive our sense of self and place through social interactions, as well as our experiences with mass media. Understanding who we are and how we make sense of the world requires an exploration of the media’s creative influence, as well as a critical analysis of how media are dominated by powerful industries that influence identity, experience, and events” (Campbell, Jensen, Gomery, Fabos and Frechette, 2014, p. 221). What this means is that if you are consistently fed a belief, ideology, or image, you begin to accept it. According to EMarketer, the average United States adult spends an average of three hours and 35 minutes per day on their phones. This number is expected to increase by 11 minutes in 2019. Furthermore, the use of apps make up 90% of this time (Wurmser, 2018). Given these growing trends, it’s no wonder that people are directly affected by what they consume online because they never log out. Across media, if women are predominantly shown one body type, they will be cultivated to accept it as the “ideal” figure. To further explain this, Campbell et al. write, “Social discourses reflect the values, beliefs, and ideas that are part of our culture, including the work of those who produce media content” (2014, p. 222). When analyzing the new “fistpiration” ideal, the ideologies created by those that own fitness brands affect our minds with dysmorphic body images that cause us to create judgment about those who do not share those beliefs or desire to conform. This is the result of the hegemonic power brought on by the media, meaning that corporate media reflect the “established mainstream values” (Campbell, et al., 2014, p. 223).

Victoria’s Secret, Lululemon and Women’s Best represent fitness brands that are popular on social media, with each having millions of followers, most of whom are women.  However, unlike the target audience of these brands, the owners of these companies are predominantly white heterosexual males.  For example, the American corporation LBrands that owns Victoria’s Secret is run by a male CEO named Leslie Wexner who founded the multi billion-dollar company in 1963.  Likewise, the owner of Lululemon, Chip Wilson, is a white male, and Women’s Best, a fitness and lifestyle brand, is also owned by three men: David Kurzmann, Lukas Kurzmann, and Thomas Mark. The social media giant Women’s Best is an Australian company whose influences made its way overseas thanks to its army of 2.3 million Instagram followers. This brand is particularly interesting because it is dedicated to weight loss. The models featured on their website are perfectly chiseled with a Barbie-sized waist, all scantily clad in vibrant, nylon leggings that cling to every muscle. The company is known for its powders that are allegedly created to provide consumers with the body type they portray in their advertisements.

Women’s Best is one of the brands thriving off of the “fitspiration” trend littering social media. On their social media pages, they have recordings of toned women performing workouts designed to target the gluteal muscles. The brand is enjoying massive success from their partnerships with other fitness Instagram stars. As seen in Douglas Rushkoff’s PBS documentary Generation Like, in the Digital Age, brand marketing transforms the consumer into the advertisement. For instance, the social media sensation Tammy Hembrow is an Australian mother of two who, at age 24, is revered amongst women worldwide for her washboard abdominals and sculpted backside. Her main sponsor is Women’s Best. The majority of Hembrow’s 8.9 million followers frequently use her fitness app. When she posts a picture of herself in a Women’s Best sports bra while holding a Women’s Best protein shake, she can gain up to 200,000 likes on one photo. After posting, she “tags” Women’s Best, which helps the brand spread its influence among her followers. Tammy Hembrow is just one of the social media users benefiting from this symbiotic relationship between brand and consumer.  Yet one can’t help but wonder, what effect does Hembrow have on her followers?

The term “fitspiration” is derived from phenomena on Instagram meant to inspire users to obtain a “fit” figure. The trend is seemingly harmless, as it promotes healthy lifestyles and offers an alternative view on the stereotypical “model-thin” body type that has plagued the culture for years. In contrast, the fitspiration trend does not encourage excessive exercise, weight loss and restricted eating. These facts aside, fitspiration has potential consequences for social media users. The images that Tammy Hembrow shares on her Instagram account have an emphasis on certain body parts, clearly “objectifying” her features” (Tiggemann and Zaccardo, 2018). The problem with these types of images is that they offer room for comparison. A study conducted by the Journal of Health Psychology in 2018 showed that while fitspiration images posted online encouraged women to be active, they only exposed audiences to one type of “fit” figure. The authors explain, “This suggestion is consistent with the results of an experimental study which showed that while exposure to fitspiration images led to increased feelings of inspiration to exercise and eat healthy in young women, it also resulted in increased body dissatisfaction, with this effect mediated by appearance comparison” (Tiggemann and Zaccardo, 2018). An interesting component of this study was that 30% of all images studied were of men whose bodies were buff, grisly and stereotypically “manly,” offering yet another reason why we can separate fitspiration from “thinspiration.” When it comes to fitspiration, the images repel the idea that anyone without a six-pack can be considered “fit”. The authors explain, “In addition to setting almost impossible standards for both men and women, the limited representation of body types displayed in fitspiration imagery likely has other consequences” (Tiggemann and Zarccardo, 2018).

Given these findings, Fitspiration’s mission to spread healthy lifestyles is overshadowed by women conforming to the thin ideal. These ideologies are not just coming from Instagram; they are derived from apps like Pinterest as well. Pinterest is an app designed for the sole purpose of inspiration pertaining to food, beauty, weddings, and health. Created in 2010 by Paul Sciarra, Evan Sharp and Ben Silbermann, the app is frequented by women in search of workouts and other fitspiration images. Interestingly enough, if a user searches “thinspiration” on the app, the following message appears: “Are you struggling with an eating disorder? Click here to get help.” Despite this warning, inspiration boards in which users “pin” photos of health-related information are amongst the most popular “pins.” With 87.5% of Pinterest users female (Mittal et al., 2013), several gender differences are apparent in the way men use social media compared to women. According to Lewallen and Behm-Morawitz  (2016), “Other critical/cultural scholars have also acknowledged that, traditionally, feminized media and popular culture have been perceived as threatening to hegemonic masculinity” (p. 2). Regarding this fact, women feel pressured to post suggestive photos of themselves, or photos of themselves promoting their figure’s for the approval of the men that follow them. While some scholars argue that feminized media platforms are the most profitable for marketers, others argue that they can be tools of empowerment. Notwithstanding, women compare themselves through the creation of “boards” on apps dedicated to fitness, leading to social comparisons that may lead to negative body image issues.

As defined by Julia Wood (1996), social comparison theory is “the process of thinking about information about one or more other people in relation to the self,” through upward and downward comparison. Both categories relate to a person’s self-esteem and can be examined by analyzing the way women use social media and how they are portrayed. Research shows that comparison is usually upward. Upward comparison is typically used to determine one’s self-worth, and downward comparison is used when one feels a threat to their own self-image. When a woman sees an advertisement on social media or in a magazine, two things occur: identification and comparison, meaning that she either identifies with the model’s appearance, or compares herself by asking, “why can’t I look like that?” (Wilcox and Laird, 2000). According to Wilcox and Laird, there is a major difference between identification and comparison, “Social comparison and identification differ in many ways, but one important difference is certainly in the salience and importance of one’s sense of self. In social comparison, one is actively aware of one’s own properties, which are compared to what is regarded as the standard. In contrast, during identification, one must be relatively unaware of how one really is in order to adopt the temporary identity of the other” (Wilcox et al., 2000).

In today’s society, most girls and women suffer from constant comparison, which may likely be the result of advertisements telling them that they need the next new product to improve their appearance. Competition is also a factor, as girls and women are constantly shown getting ahead of other woman, usually to get a man. For adolescent girls who grow up watching Disney Channel and Nickelodeon, the majority of female protagonists have some form of female rival. Such stereotypes teach girls to “watch out” for their female peers and to constantly question their self-worth and ability to make connections without making enemies. With the prominence of social media in today’s society, one has to wonder how girls and women are comparing themselves with those they see on their social media “feeds.” According to Wilcox and Laird, a woman who relies on personal cues will see a picture of a model, or in this case, a “fitspiraiton” account and compare her own feelings to what she is viewing. In contrast, a woman who relies on situational cues will merely keep scrolling (Wilcox et al., 2000).

Given these findings, what solutions can be enacted to help girls and women overcome the negative consequences of today’s fitspiration trend? Fortunately, research shows that implementing social media literacy has a powerful impact on young women. Social media literacy can be defined as, “critical thinking about social media which includes being empowered with the knowledge and skills to analyze, evaluate, produce, and participate in social media” (Tamplin, McLean, Paxton, 2018). According to an article in Body Image,an international journal of research, social media literacy skills help adolescents separate advertisement from reality. The authors also discovered that women who were exposed to social media literacy techniques had a significant decrease in body dissatisfaction. Since the study had no positive or negative implications on male test subjects, the findings may confirm the idea that social media’s affect on body image is a gender-specific issue. The common practice of objectifying the female body for sexualized purposes persists today with most fitspiration accounts featuring and targeting women. As reported in the Journal of Health and Psychology, 67% of fispiration images featured women, while only 29% featured men (Tiggemann and Zaccardo, 2018). Moreover, a study feature in the Journal of Medical Internet Research indicates that an overwhelming amount of fitspiration accounts not only featured women alone, but also put alarming emphasis on the sexuality of the female body (Carrotte, Prichard, & Cheng Lim, 2017). While fitness accounts can inspire women to live an active lifestyle, the new fitspiration campaign imposes an unrealistic social norm for lean and toned body types deemed “attractive,” with an emphasis on weight training over other activities and sports. Brands like Women’s Best make a profit off of claiming that weight lifting, combined with their protein shakes, will provide women with the perfectly-sculpted figures they portray in their advertisements. Meanwhile, Lululemon’s portrayal of yoga implies that unless women are a size 0 and can stand on their heads for an hour, they do not belong in a yoga class. Ultimately, by redefining the new “fit ideal” through thinness, Fitspiration provides girls and women with a dysmorphic view of their bodies, while reinforcing the wrong ideas about what fitness actually consists of.

Student Author: Julie O’Melia, Worcester State University

Faculty Evaluator & Editor: Julie Frechette, Ph.D., Professor & Chair, Department of Communication, Worcester State University



Carrotte, E. R., Prichard, I., & Cheng Lim, M. S. (2017). “Fitsperation” On Social Media: A Content Analysis of Gendered Images. Journal of Medical Internet Research. doi:10.2196/jmir.6368

Campbell, R., Jensen, J., Gomery, D., Fabos, B., & Frechette, J. (2014). Media in Society. New York: Bedford / St. Martin’s Press.

Lewallen, J., & Behm-Morawitz, E. (n.d.). Pinterest of Thinterest?: Social Comparison and Body Image on Social Media. Social Media and Society. doi:10.1177/2056305116640559

Perloff, R. M. (2014). Social Media Effects on Young Women’s Body Image Concerns:

Theoretical Perspectives and an Agenda for Research. Feminist Forum Review Article, 363-377. doi:10.1007/S1119-014-0384-6

Tamplin, N. C., McLean, S., & Paxton, S. J. (2018). Social media literacy protects against the negative impact of exposure to appearance ideal social media images in young adult women but not men. Body Image: An International Journal of Research. Retrieved December 1, 2018.

Tiggeman, M., & Zaccardo, M. (2018). “Strong is the new skinny”: A content analysis of #fitsperation images on Instagram. Journal of Health Psychology,63, 1003-1011. doi:10.177/1359105316639436

Wurmser, Y. (2018, June 18). Mobile Time Spent 2018 – eMarketer Trends, Forecasts & Statistics. Retrieved December 2, 2018, from https://www.emarketer.com/content/mobile-time-spent-2018

Wilcox, K., & Laird, J. D. (2000). The Impact of Media Images of Super-Slender Women on

Women’s Self-Esteem: Identification, Social Comparison, and Self-Perception. Journal of Research in Personality,278-286. doi:10.1006/jrpe.1999.2281


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Julie Frechette, PhD, is Professor and Chair of the Department of Communication at Worcester State University, Worcester, MA. She is the co-editor of the book Media Education for a Digital Generation, as well as the book, Developing Media Literacy in Cyberspace. She serves as co-president of the Action Coalition for Media Education (ACME).
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