Friday, April 12, 2013

The inspirational gaze

I just read an interesting post at The Peach about 'thinspo' and 'fitspo'. These are genres of images that are circulated through image-centric blogs and social networks including Tumblr, Instagram and Pinterest. But the line between these and 'pro-ana' (pro-anorexia) imagery is very blurred. Basically I see the terms 'thinspo' and 'fitspo' as interchangeable.

The idea of the images is to inspire women to become thin ('thinspiration') or fit ('fitspiration'). Some have superimposed aphorisms, like motivational posters, about the value of self-discipline and the deferral of pleasure.

Here are a few pics I found via a 'fitspo' search on Pinterest:

The point Holly Curtis is making at The Peach is that historically, women's magazines have controlled the production of aspirational imagery of women's bodies, but now women are photographing themselves. And they're accessing and circulating these images in much greater volumes than before, and in ways are much more pervasive.

It's no longer the responsibility of magazine gatekeepers to promote 'positive body image', Curtis argues – it's now up to us (the producer/consumers) to develop our own visual literacy so we can separate the 'healthy' from the 'non-healthy' images.

Some feminist fitness fans are seeking to do just that. Virginia Sole-Smith teases out the relationship of fitspo to its eating disorder-fostering antecedent, thinspo. Charlotte Anderson points out that "compulsive over exercise can be just as deadly as other eating disorders and yet it [is] so socially sanctioned that it’s often promoted as inspiring." At Fit and Feminist, Caitlin explains that she's inspired by images of women in action, rather than women posing passively for the viewer's gaze.

The first thing I'll say about thinspo and fitspo images is that they are an obvious example of what I call 'orthovestia'. They dramatise the idea that we're only entitled to appear in public if we continuously 'work on' our bodies through diet, exercise and judiciously chosen clothing.

These images divide people into 'winners' and 'losers'. Winners are those who train hard, deny their appetites, and are rewarded by being the objects – sometimes the headless objects – of the thinspo and fitspo gaze. Losers are those who 'give up', 'never try' or 'make excuses' and are relegated to longingly gazing at images they don't have the self-discipline to resemble.

What's striking about a lot of fitspo is the pitiless sameness of the bodies: they're very lean and slender, with flat, toned stomachs, protruding hipbones and large gaps between the thighs, yet still with plump breasts. Some images are closer to what we'd understand as bodybuilding or 'body-sculpting' images: the women have defined abdominal muscles, bulging shoulders, arms and thighs.

Traditionally, 'positive body image' campaigns have argued we should promote imagery of a diversity of body shapes and sizes. People who ascribe to the body image doctrine might argue that the antidote to thinspo and fitspo is circulating similar semi-clad images of other body types – pudgier ones; stockier ones; ones with bigger hips, or broader shoulders.

However, I take a more radical view. I believe that a gaze-based culture is inherently tyrannical, turning its citizens into objects to be surveilled and judged on their outer appearances. We erase the subtleties of being embodied when we place so much value on how a body looks. And we lose empathy for other people when we're taught to obsessively focus our energies on 'improving' our own bodies.

It is truly alarming that some women can only feel 'inspired' by gazing at pictures of other people's bodies. Any circulation of images of bodies is damaging; instead we need to cultivate ways of being in and talking about our bodies that aren't dependent on displaying them for other people's approval.

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