For this post, I want to discuss the topic of neoliberalism and its effect on the way the body is perceived, utilized, and exploited in contemporary society. The current political climate is largely influenced by neoliberal ideals and as such, has impacted the way citizens now approach personal health, fitness, and self-care. In an effort to satisfy the status quo, it has become popular for individuals to self-monitor their fitness progress by means of technological surveillance and social media platforms. The development of this behaviour is arguably reflective of hegemonic ideals of health, fitness, and the body. Historically, the body has been utilized as a site of control regarding sexuality, economic power, and accessibility. In this blog post, I will be exploring the root of these ideals in relation to the political economy and neoliberal citizenship.
It is currently popular for individuals to monitor their fitness and health by means of technology, such as various social media applications and devices, like Fitbit or Instagram. Current social frenzies such as “fitspo” have flooded digital platforms in an effort to encourage fitness and lifestyle changes amongst social media users. This can be viewed as a neoliberal attempt at commoditizing the personal autonomy of the human body. In this discussion, I hope to explore the implications of privatizing access to fitness plans. In addition, I would like to investigate the psychological effects of these fitness trends. Many social issues have risen in our current culture, such as anorexia, “fat phobia”, and various bodily stigmas. Perhaps there is a link between these media frenzies and the growing issues of personal health.
As a user of social media platforms myself, I have noticed an increasing trend in popularized content since the dawn of these applications. Image-based sites such as Instagram and Tumblr are quite flooded with generic photos of young, thin, muscular individuals, mainly women, captioned with hashtags such as #Fitspo, #Fitspiration, and the like. From my observations, these posts serve to encourage a community of fit, seemingly “healthy” followers to achieve their personal goals of successfully transforming their bodies to resemble these images.
These hegemonic body types seem to have become normalized within our society due to the circulation of ideal fitness behaviors and practices. These types of new media create an interactive form for the distribution of information, whereas in the past, information was received in a more passive method (Szto & Gray, 2015, p. 323). Now, any mobile device user has the ability to track their fitness journey and share it with other online consumers. The modern digital age has allowed for a substantial majority of the Westernized population to access such devices, making #Fitspiration quite the social frenzy. The problem with this trend, however, is rooted in the narrowly defined concept of what it means to be “fit”. These images consistently portray Westernized, youthful, unattainably thin women, in particular. As a result, this may mislead online users into believing that they need to look like this in order to come across as healthy, in shape, and “in tune” with contemporary social trends. Tiggemann & Zaccardo (2015) have investigated the effect of “fitspiration” imagery on women’s body image.
Source: Google Images
The Escalation of Fitspo
The rise of Fitspo has been linked to the growing concern in the United States over the obesity epidemic (Adams, 2014). Approximately 33% of Americans have been classified as medically obese, and as such, this has grown to become a branded public health issue. In an effort to counter the rise of obesity, “fitspiration” rose to popularity with the hope of encouraging healthy eating, dieting, and fitness plans. The nutrition and fitness industries, of course, sought to capitalize on this health crisis. According to the National Eating Disorders Association, diet advertisements are centered on, essentially, neoliberal ideals of health. This poses a problem because wellbeing cannot be directly measured through somebody’s weight, size, or physical appearance.
In the study entitled, Forgive me Father for I have Thinned, Szto & Gray (2015) refer to Foucault’s notion of the bio-citizen to further explore the ideals of neoliberal health. Halse (as cited in Szto & Gray, 2015, p. 323) suggests that the bio-citizen must be responsible in holding themselves accountable for their own health. The bio-citizen views their body as a constant work in progress, with no particular end goal in mind. In an effort to take back control over weight, health, and personal fitness, social media users created #Fitspiration. The mass amounts of content for this hashtag only prove how reliant our culture has become in such trends and sources of inspiration. Arguably, this also indicates a keen determination to appeal to the norm. People continue to participate in sharing their fitness and health journeys, perhaps, in order to feel apart of this online community.
The role that social comparison plays in media exposure is ultimately to the detriment of positive body imagery. According to their research, Tiggemann & Zaccardo (2015) have identified the social comparison theory as a central factor in the dissatisfaction of women in their own appearance and body. This is mediated when online users participate in socially comparing themselves to these interactive images of “thinspiring” women. Due to the availability of images in a largely digitized culture, a correlation can indeed be drawn between the phenomenon of obscured body image and the viewing of “fitspo” online photos. In their experimental research, these scholars have identified that there is typically an existing level of body dissatisfaction in these users, and it is only increased by the social comparison of these online trends. In Tiggemann & Slater (2013), a similar finding was yielded in the population of adolescent girls. In their correlational research, they found links that demonstrated the relationship between various forms of media consumption and body dissatisfaction or disorderly eating patterns. This research is especially relevant considering adolescent girls were referred to as “defining users” (p. 630) of the Internet and hence, social media platforms. The wide range of online sites, applications, and platforms that endorse images of thin, “fitspirational” women continues to perpetuate these hegemonic ideals within the female adolescent community, further disrupting the potential for these women to live positive and healthy lifestyles. Ultimately, these photos and messages hold the power to shame women who do not engage in this exact behaviour.
Women’s Bodies As Sites of Control
Through a critical examination of the existing neoliberal paradigm, one can observe the exploitation of the female body in many domains, particularly, in the marketing and advertising industries. Gurrieri, Previte, & Brace-Govan (2013) have examined the impacts of various social marketing campaigns that stem from government-defined agendas of “healthism”. These scholars examined in particular, the way in which these campaigns seek to manage the female body and how this has inadvertently rendered them as sites of control (specifically, from neoliberal influence). In their research, they found weight management and physical activity to be the top two leading topics covered in mainstream social marketing campaigns. The embodiment theory is central in understanding the societal effects of such campaigns. One can consider the neoliberal body project, and how this positions certain body types as “less acceptable”, leaving those women who do not engage in activities that pertain to prevailing health messages susceptible to stigma and social isolation. From a psychological perspective, the impact of this is detrimental to the mental wellbeing of the audience of these campaigns, similar to the effect of social comparison in online social forums.
While public forums for sharing these fitness journeys are typically free of charge (i.e. Facebook, Instagram, Tumblr), the devices that provide a large amount of these workout and dieting plans are not. Most fitness apps, nutrition plans, and workout guides that are available online require purchase from the consumer. In addition, they require access to a mobile device. Online applications can only be utilized on a smartphone or portable device, which in itself have their own cost and regular charges. The implication of privatizing fitness is such that it excludes those who do not have the financial assets to obtain such technology. The 2018 World Internet Statistics discloses that approximately 81% of the World’s Internet users live in a developed country. As such, these resources appear to be pretty much exclusive to those in the Western, dominate class. Another point to be considered in the discussion of privatization is that of consumer surveillance. In Millington’s (2014) research, it was discovered that mobile companies are given access to the personal information of users in exchange for using the service. This information is then utilized to create a more user-friendly experience tailored specifically to the consumer’s apparent interests and needs. Over time, consumers can become reliant upon these devices as the user experience becomes more convenient and personalized. Thus, users are positioned into believing that they want and need these technologies in their lives, to the sole benefit of the profit-makers behind the scenes.
From my personal observation, these fitness trends are related to the idea of the panoptic gaze. The availability of social media and the ongoing phenomenon of globalization create a widespread feeling of being watched or being under surveillance by others. By engaging in activities such as posting #Fitspirational photos online, people ultimately gain recognition, interaction, and feedback on their fitness journeys. The lure of social media is that users get to be apart of one another’s lives… that is, what they choose to expose. In my point of view, there are other positive outlets for encouraging healthy lifestyles. Instead of promoting a specific body type, advertisers and popular social media users should use their platform to promote happiness, acceptance, and positive body imagery. The main media channels have been scrutinized in the past for visual underrepresentation; social media is controlled by the masses, and I feel that we should use our power to circulate progressive, rather than misleading messages.
Adams, R. (2014, July 17). Why ‘Fitspo’ Should Come With a Warning Label. Retrieved from https://www.huffingtonpost.ca/entry/fitspo-fitspiration_n_5574150
Gurrieri, L., Previte, J. & Brace-Govan, J. (2013). Women’s bodies as sites of control: Inadvertent stigma and exclusion in social marketing. Journal of Macromarketing, 33(2), 128-143. Doi: 10.1177/0276146712469971
Millington, B. (2014). Smartphone apps and the mobile privatization of health and fitness. Critical Studies in Media Communication, 31(5), 479-493. Doi: 10.1080/15295036.2014.973429
Oksala, J. (2014, December 19). Neoliberalism and the feminine subject. Public Seminar. Retrieved from http://www.publicseminar.org/2014/12/neoliberalism-and-the-feminine-subject/
Szto, C. & Gray, S. (2015). Forgive me Father for I have Thinned: Surveilling the bio-citizen through Twitter. Qualitative Research in Sport, Exercise and Health, 7(3), 321-337.
The Span of My Hips. (2017, August 5). Selling wellness. [Neoliberalism and Health]. Retrieved from https://thespanofmyhips.wordpress.com/category/neoliberalism-and-health/
Tiggemann, M., & Slater, A. (2013). NetGirls: The Internet, Facebook, and body image concern in adolescent girls. International Journal of Eating Disorders, 46. 630-633. Doi: 10.1002/eat.22141.
Tiggemann, M., & Zaccardo, M. (2015). “Exercise to be fit, not skinny”: The effect of fitspiration imagery on women’s body image. Body image, 15, 61-67.