The popular “#fitspiration” hashtag on Instagram is purportedly intended to motivate individuals toward a healthier lifestyle. But new research suggests that such images have a dark side. The study, published in Psychology of Popular Media, provides evidence that viewing fitspiration photos can harm women’s body satisfaction and mood.
“My interest in researching the impacts of fitspiration on college women’s psychological factors stems from my personal experience as a woman on a college campus. Particularly as a first-year student, I was struck by my female peer’s constant discussions about diets, the ‘Freshman 15,’ and workouts that they were following on Instagram; the desire to look a certain way, rather than to feel healthy, is very prevalent,” said Emily Rounds, a senior at Davidson College and the first author of the study.
“On Davidson College’s campus, I am a peer leader for a body positivity group, The Body Project, which hosts workshops for women on campus to discuss societal and cultural expectations for women’s physical appearances in an effort to improve body satisfaction and reduce disordered eating behaviors. Through my work with this organization, it became clear that many women base their ideas of a perfect appearance from Instagram content.”
“I became increasingly interested in the quantitative impacts that social media content, particularly on Instagram, have on college women’s psychological well-being. Dr. Lauren Stutts, my mentor for this research and co-author, is a faculty mentor for The Body Project, and we were able to collaborate to create the research proposal based off of my curiosity from these experiences,” Rounds explained.
For their study, the researchers had 283 female college students complete assessments of body satisfaction and other factors before and after viewing a series of Instagram images. The average body mass index of the participants was approximately 23, which is in the normal range.
The participants were randomly assigned to one of three groups. One group viewed 20 fitspiration images, a second group viewed 10 fitspiration images and 10 travel images, and a third group viewed 20 travel images.
The students tended to report increased negative mood and body dissatisfaction after viewing 10 or 20 Instagram fitspiration images compared to before viewing the images. Their body satisfaction and mood were also worse compared to those who had only viewed travel images.
“One of my principal goals of this research was to provide readers with the opportunity to understand how their everyday Instagram use can impact their psychological well-being. From my personal experience, I know that I often scroll through Instagram when I am bored, and I frequently spend at least an hour on the app per day without realizing it,” Rounds told PsyPost.
“In addition to not recognizing the amount of time that I spend on Instagram, I, personally, never considered the ways in which Instagram was impacting my mental health. The results from our study show that viewing a few Instagram fitspiration images have statistically significant impacts on the body satisfaction and mood of the viewers.”
“My hope is that this study allows individuals to consider how the simple, daily action of looking at Instagram content can potentially impact one’s mental health. Moreover, I hope that it encourages individuals to make more conscious, intentional decisions about their Instagram use,” Rounds said.
Surprisingly, the number of fitspiration accounts the students reported following on Instagram was not associated with their body satisfaction. However, following more fitspiration accounts was associated with higher endorsement of disordered eating behaviors.
The researchers focused on women for the current study because women tend to experience greater levels of body dissatisfaction and disordered eating compared to men. But a similar dynamic could be at play among the male population.
“This study specifically looked at the impact that fitspiration content (which consisted of images of individuals of women) has on individuals who identify as women. While conducting this study, I found that the Instagram fitspiration community consists of a variety of content, and it is not just targeted at an audience of women,” Rounds noted. “Therefore, future research should examine the psychological impact that fitspiration targeted for men has on individuals who identify as men, and the effects that Instagram fitspiration content has on gender non-binary or gender non-conforming individuals.”
“In addition, future research should examine the impact of exposure to diverse body types in fitness situations (e.g., women of various sizes and women with disabilities) on Instagram on women’s body image and psychological health. Ultimately, this research can inform how social media can promote health in a diverse, realistic way,” added Stutts.
The study, “The Impact of Fitspiration Content on Body Satisfaction and Negative Mood: An Experimental Study“, was authored by Emilia G. Rounds and Lauren A. Stutts.