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The Female Body on Instagram: Is Fit the New It?

Josie Anne Reade[1], School of Social and Political Sciences, University of Melbourne


This article examines how the female body is represented on Instagram. Instagram is a social media platform that allows its users to edit and share images and videos, follow other users, like content by way of a 'double tap', and hashtag posts by prefixing a '#' symbol to the beginning of text. Drawing on a content analysis of 50 images of women's bodies posted to the fitspiration hashtag page, this article considers whether representations of the 'fit' female body on Instagram mirror and/or transgress contemporary notions of the 'ideal' body. Consistent with the sociological and feminist theorisations of the body and gender drawn upon (Bordo, 2003; Dworkin and Wachs, 2009; Grogan, 2007; Young, 2005), the analysis revealed a prevalence of slender, youthful and white bodies in gender-typical poses and clothing. The visibility of muscle definition and strength, albeit subverted by sexualised poses and clothing, did, however, indicate an extension upon slenderness as the only ideal body shape criterion for women. This article thus claims that this new type of '(f)it' body snapped and shared for 'inspiration' both replicates and extends contemporary notions of the ideal female body.

Keywords: Instagram, ideal body, fit body, fitspiration, women's bodies, social media.


With the proliferation of fitness trainers, brands and bloggers on social media, inspiration for a fit and firm body is increasingly at the fingertips of users. On Instagram, a photo- and video-sharing social media platform with over 400 million users worldwide, the fitspiration hashtag has been established to signify content that serves as inspiration to attain fitness goals and conquer the body (Instagram, 2015). Cursory examination of the fitspiration hashtag on Instagram reveals over seven million posts that mostly capture 'fit' female bodies with motivational quotes like 'don't stop until you're proud', 'strong is the new skinny' and 'squats are a girl's best friend'. While the fitspiration phenomenon has been considered as a positive counterpart of hashtags used to promote eating disorders and self-harm (e.g. #thinspiration, #probulimia and #proanorexia), fitspiration's tendency to equate exercise with perfecting one's body has sparked concerns regarding negative body image, exercise compulsion and disordered eating (Adams, 2014; Mechielsen, 2013; Moore, 2013). The deputy editor-in-chief of Australia's Mamamia Women's Network, Kate Spies (2015), has even gone so far as to describe fitspo - an abbreviation of fitspiration - as an 'all-pervasive force' that triggers obsessive behaviour and promotes 'another impossible body standard for women to compare themselves to, and ultimately, fall short of'. In this context of concern, a detailed examination of the female body in fitspiration images is warranted. This article accordingly draws on a sample of publicly available fitspiration images to answer the following research questions: How is the female body[2] represented in fitspiration images on Instagram? Do these representations mirror and/or transgress contemporary notions of the 'ideal' body?

Theorising the body

Over the past three decades, the body has emerged as a core research paradigm in the social sciences. This has largely been driven by the publication of key texts such as Bryan Turner's The Body and Society (1984), Mike Featherstone et al.'s The Body: Social Processes and Cultural Theory (1991), Chris Shilling's The Body and Social Theory (1993), and Elizabeth Grosz's Volatile Bodies (1994). This literature multiplied sociological considerations of the body and resulted in different 'types' of bodies being analysed. These include the 'material' and 'medicalised' body (Turner, 2001); the 'socially constructed' and 'gendered' body (Shilling, 1993; Grosz, 1994); the 'commodified' and 'regulated' body (Lupton, 1995); and, most relevant to this research project, the 'ideal' and 'fit' body (Dworkin and Wachs, 2009; Savacool, 2009). These theorisations mapped the body as both an object of study, the subject that studies and the site of subjective experience.

The ideal female body

In contemporary western societies, the ideal female body is commonly considered to be slender, youthful, white and feminine (Grogan, 2007; Wykes and Gunter, 2005). While a 'plump, big-breasted and maternal' body was perceived as a symbol of 'wealth, health and youth' from the fifteenth to the eighteenth centuries, the mid-twentieth century saw the replacement of shapely cultural icons with skinny fashion models such as Twiggy (Wykes and Gunter, 2005: 36). Grogan (2007) explores this relatively recent idealisation of slenderness in her writings on culture and body image. She explains that in affluent western societies overweight bodies are generally linked to 'laziness, lack of willpower, and being out of control', while slender bodies are associated with 'happiness, success, youthfulness, and social acceptability' (Grogan, 2007: 9). Through critically evaluating the roles of culture and biology in promotion of the slim ideal, Grogan (2007: 16) argues that 'social pressures to be slender are based more on cultural aesthetic preferences than health concerns'. This preference has been supported widely in existing research on representations of the body in the media (Dworkin and Wachs, 2009; Silverstein et al., 1986; Zhang et al., 2010).

Sociologists have also theorised the ideal female body as one that is youthful (Featherstone and Hepworth, 2005; Gilman, 1999). Featherstone and Hepworth (2005) describe this adulation in their writings on cultural representations of the body. They argue that youthful bodies are idealised based on the presumption that ageing bodies inevitably encounter a loss of autonomy, mobility and independence (Featherstone and Hepworth, 2005). For Featherstone and Hepworth (2005: 354), this conceptualisation drives ageist stereotypes that render older bodies as frail, breaking down and 'on the edge of senility and death'. Gilman (1999: 295) supports this theorisation by describing the aged body as culturally and socially 'unaesthetic, unerotic, and pathological'. He argues that pursuits of the 'perfect' body are tied to an 'imagined peak of youth' (Gilman, 1999: 301). As such, attempts to 'pass' as young, even if one has aged, involve mimicking youthfulness through practices such as dyeing one's hair, exercising, wearing make-up or undergoing cosmetic surgery.

In addition to slenderness and youthfulness, scholars have documented the idealisation of a white skin aesthetic (Baker, 2005; Charles, 2003; Coltrane and Messineo, 2000). The historical and cultural constructions of this ideal are discussed in Fanon's (1967) book Black Skin, White Masks. He explains that skin colour is the most 'outward manifestation of race' and as such has become a criterion by which people judge others (Fanon, 1967: 118). For Fanon (1967: 110), the idealisation of whiteness is a result of colonisation processes and constructions of otherness which have largely encouraged a 'white world' that silences and devalues non-white bodies. The pervasiveness of a white skin aesthetic has since been recorded in several studies of the body in various forms media (Baker, 2005; Coltrane and Messineo, 2000; Dworkin and Wachs, 2009).

The ideal female body has also been conceptualised as one that possesses emphasised femininity (Connell, 1987). According to Connell (1987: 184), emphasised femininity is an exaggerated form of femininity defined around 'compliance and subordination' and an orientation towards confirming to the interests and desires of others, namely men. Young (2005) addresses historical notions of feminine body comportment, motility and spatiality in her renowned essay Throwing Like a Girl. In this essay, Young (2005: 40) observes feminine movement as characterised by 'timidity, immobility, and uncertainty'. This modality of femininity, she argues, is caused by a patriarchal society within which women are 'physically handicapped' and come to live their bodies through practices of constraint (Young, 2005: 42). Existing research has similarly discussed displays of emphasised femininity through documenting the prevalence of inactive body poses (Dworkin and Wachs, 2009; Hardin, Lynn and Walsdorf, 2005), the representation of 'just part of a woman's body' (Kilbourne, 1999: 258), and the use of cosmetics and clothing to 'make safe' one's femininity (Guthrie and Castelnuovo, 1992).

The fit female body

In recent times, scholars have also documented an emergence of the 'fit' body (Bordo, 2003; Dworkin and Wachs, 2009; Savacool, 2009). The fit body has been theorised as one that engages in bodywork practices, such as exercise and diet control, to attain a 'lean, tight, compact body' (Dworkin and Wachs, 2009: 1). For women, this body possesses monochromatic smooth skin, a perfect tan, toned muscles that are not 'too big', and is often featured wearing clothes that reveal and emphasise the abdominal muscles, cleavage and buttocks. As argued by Savacool (2009: 183), this type of body is fast becoming the 'body of tomorrow' as it is more difficult to attain than slenderness and thus is a marker of discipline, determination and success. In making this claim, Savacool (2009: 179) refers to the popular culture term 'skinny fat'. This term is used to shame individuals who are slender but lack lean body tissue, have low levels of fitness and fail to eat healthy food (Savacool, 2009). Savacool (2009: 180) explains that this conceptualisation of thin bodies presents a 'frustrating double standard' whereby being overweight is considered unhealthy and being skinny is no longer a marker of success, or in Bourdieu's (1986) terms, a signifier of cultural capital.

According to Bordo (2003: 190), the idealisation of this 'absolutely tight, contained, "bolted down" [and] firm' body is based on the premise that there are 'problem' areas of one's body that require extra attention and discipline, like the buttocks, abdominal muscles and thighs. In so doing, individuals become 'empowered only and always through fantasies of what [they] could be' and are rendered as 'ugly, unacceptable, [and] without a future' if they don't whip their bodies into the culturally prescribed shape (Bordo, 1997: 58). Bauman (1995) similarly addresses this notion in his writings on the postmodern body. He argues that this fitness ideal is premised on self-responsibility and a capacity to consume what consumer society has to offer. Under this lens, the body becomes a DIY creation and a reflection of one's ability (or inability) to consume. Bauman (1995: 121) further explains that the goal of bodily fitness is a 'life-long siege' which can be pursued through exercise and diet control, but never reached. As such, the fit body clutches at a temporary existence and is constantly measured by one's ability to 'keep fit'.

Despite the wide circulation of fitspiration images on social media, academic literature to date has primarily focused on representations of the fit body in print media and televised sports (Duncan, 1990; Duncan and Hasbrook, 1988; Dworkin and Wachs, 2009). While Boepple and Thompson (2016) have conducted a comparative study of 'messages' on fitspiration and thinspiration websites and Tiggemann and Zaccardo (2015) have analysed the 'effect' of fitspiration imagery on women's body image, their research questions and designs have not centred on an analysis of the fitspiration images themselves. Tiggemann and Zaccardo (2015: 66) suggest that 'future research should attempt to disentangle the effects of the thinness, fitness, pose, and setting of [fitspiration] image[s]'. This cannot be done without first canvassing how the female body is represented in these images, which is the purpose of this article.


Data collection

Data was collected through taking mobile phone screenshots of 50 images posted to the fitspiration hashtag over a one-hour duration. This hashtag page was accessed using the explore tab of the application to carry out a 'tags' search for fitspiration. While a longer data collection might have captured more dynamics, it was not within the scope of this research to conduct an exhaustive project accounting for a larger set of data.


To focus centrally on how women's bodies are represented in fitspiration images, purposive sampling was carried out. Purposive sampling involves selecting units of a sample based on the purpose of study and researcher's judgement (Maxfield and Babbie, 2011). This method was applied during data collection by selectively recording images of the female body and not that of other representations, such as that of men, text, food or exercise environments. It is important to note here that due to frequent false profiling practices on social media (Agger, 2015; Dijck, 2012; Kong, 2015; Syed-Abdul et al., 2013), there is no real way of knowing or accurately determining the demographics of Instagram users. Given that this research focuses on representations of bodies in images rather than the identities or profiling practices of users themselves, this was not considered problematic.

Data analysis

A content analysis of the images collected was performed. As explained by Leeuwen and Jewitt (2001), this method facilitates the establishment of categories that can easily be coded for their use and/or prevalence. To analyse whether representations of the female body in fitspiration images mirror and/or transgress contemporary notions of the ideal body, the following categories were coded: body type, age, ethnicity and emphasised femininity, which included body pose, body area captured and clothing worn. These codes were based on existing literature and research which has conceptualised the ideal female body as one that is slender (Grogan, 2007; Wykes and Gunter, 2005), youthful (Featherstone and Hepworth, 2005; Gilman, 1999), white (Fanon, 1967; Charles, 2003) and feminine (Connell, 1987; Guthrie and Castelnuovo, 1992). Hand placement and the exposure of breast cleavage, abdominal muscles and the buttocks were also coded; however, due to frequent image cropping, these categories became difficult to code accurately and hence were not included in this research.

Ethical considerations

Instagram offers its users varying degrees of account privacy, from completely private to completely public. As stated in Instagram's Privacy Policy (2013), 'any information or content that [users] voluntarily disclose for posting to the service becomes available to the public, as controlled by any applicable privacy settings'. Hence, if a user's account is set to public then any photos or videos posted with the fitspiration hashtag are publicly viewable on the fitspiration hashtag page. In the interests of mitigating ethical issues of privacy and consent often complicated by online research (Zimmer, 2010), only images posted publicly[3] to the fitspiration hashtag page were analysed. This approach adheres to the Association of Internet Researchers (2002: 5-7) ethical recommendations which state that analysing online content can be acceptable if the environment is public and there is a site policy notifying users of the technical limits to privacy in specific domains. Nevertheless, in the interests of protecting the identities of users, all dataset images included in this article have been de-identified by removing the username from the top and bottom of the screenshot.


Body type

The body types represented in fitspiration dataset images were coded using Swami et al.'s (2008) Photographic Figure Rating Scale (PFRS) shown in Figure 1. The process of coding involved matching the body type shown in each of the 50 dataset images to the closest figure on the scale. In cases where the body type was unclear or the image was cropped to contain an unrepresentative view of the body, the not determinable (ND) code was used.

Figure 1: Photographic Figure Rating Scale (PFRS).

Figure 1: Photographic Figure Rating Scale (PFRS).

As shown in Table 1, the majority of body types represented in this dataset were coded as number 2 or 3 on the scale. Body types larger than 3 on the PFRS were infrequent, with only three coded as number 4 and one coded as number 5. This finding is consistent with existing research on representations of women's bodies in the media and supports conceptualisations of the contemporary ideal body as thin (Dworkin and Wachs, 2009; Silverstein et al., 1986; Zhang et al., 2010). Qualitative comments regarding the visibility of muscle definition also revealed that many of the images coded as number 2 and 3 on the PFRS displayed visible arm, leg, back, or abdominal muscle definition (see for example Figure 2). Historically, muscularity has been a bodily ideal largely attributed to men (Mansfield and McGinn, 1993). However, the emergence of women's body-building competitions in 1970 began to challenge the 'status quo' (Mansfield and McGinn, 1993: 55). The tendency for slender women to be shown with visible muscle definition in fitspiration images indicates that muscularity is no longer exclusively confined to arenas of body-building or elite sports. This finding therefore extends upon the ideology of slenderness as the primary ideal body shape criterion for women.

1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 ND
0 28 14 3 1 0 0 0 0 0 4

Table 1: Distribution of female body type in the dataset images.

Figure 2: Visible muscle definition.

Figure 2: Visible muscle definition.


The perceived ages of the women represented in fitspiration dataset images were coded using Lauzen and Dozier's (2005) seven age cohorts: child (1-12), teen (13-19), 20s, 30s, 40s, 50s, and 60+. As detailed in Table 2, the majority of women captured in the dataset appeared to be in the 20s age cohort. Numbers tapered off dramatically after this, with only eight recorded in the 30s age cohort and zero recorded in the 40s and 50s age cohorts. While the demographics of Instagram users and advertising practices may be driving these effects (Bailey and Steeves, 2015; Ghaznavi and Taylor, 2015), the near-absence of older female bodies reasserts and underpins an ideology of youthfulness for women in the media and more generally. This finding largely aligns with sociological conceptualisations of old age as a period of marginalisation, devaluation and psychological and physical redundancy (Lafontaine, 2009; Shilling, 1993). The inspirational vein within which fitspiration images are posted and viewed, moreover, supports the neo-individualist notion that one can have mastery over one's body and ageing (Shilling, 2012). Aspiring to a youthful ideal is, however, 'doomed to failure' given that ageing is a process we are unable to opt out of (Inahara, 2009: 57). Albeit, Bordo (2003) explains that 'women are not "stupid" to fall in with these pressures, they are recognising that in the cultural milieu - or the field of play in Bourdieu's terms - these are the rules for "winning"' (Cregan, 2006: 173). Under this lens, Instagram users are not cultural dupes or passive victims of cultural forces, they are instead actively engaging with and shaping cultural forces.

Child (0-12) Teen (13-19) 20s 30s 40s 50s 60+ ND
0 0 34 8 0 0 1 7

Table 2: Distribution of female age in the dataset images.


The perceived ethnicity of female bodies represented in this study's dataset was coded using codes adopted from Dworkin and Wachs' (2009) study of the fit female body in magazines. These codes were: white, black/African American, Asian, Latino/Hispanic, and other. In cases where ethnicity could not be coded, the 'other' code was used. As shown in Table 3, 34 of the 50 images analysed captured a white female body. Despite ethnicity not being determinable in seven cases, this finding supports the pervasiveness of white bodies and marginalisation of non-white bodies documented in several studies of women's representations in the media (Baker, 2005; Coltrane and Messineo, 2000; Dworkin and Wachs, 2009). The limited presence of diverse ethnicities in this study's dataset, moreover, displaces intersectionality through presenting the fit body as one which is white. This leaves many bodies out of the frame and tacitly infers that non-white bodies are unfit or unworthy of being represented as fitspiration. Although six women in this study's dataset were coded as black/African American, Asian or Latino/Hispanic, their marginal inclusion arguably emphasises otherness and inadvertently produces whiteness as the norm for all women. As explained by Hooks (1992: 29), representations of 'a bit of the other' enhance and normalise the 'blank landscape of whiteness'. While it is acknowledged that ethnicity cannot always be read on the surface of one's body (Alcoff, 2000), the predominance of whiteness in the dataset does mirror contemporary notions of the ideal body as white. In doing so, this finding highlights how ethnicity is implicated in representations of the female body in fitspiration images on Instagram.

White Black/African American Asian Latino/Hispanic Other
34 4 2 2 8

Table 3: Distribution of female ethnicity in the dataset images.

Emphasised femininity
Body pose

Existing literature on portrayals of women in the media describes a propensity for femininity to be displayed through inactive and passive body poses (Dworkin and Wachs, 2009; Hardin et al., 2005; Leath and Lumpkin, 1992). As shown in Table 4, the trend for women to be portrayed in inactive body poses was also apparent in the fitspiration images. Of the 50 representations analysed, 27 were coded as inactive. These images did not capture or imply any fitness activity and were often taken in front of a mirror or against a background of water (see for example Figure 3). This finding is consistent with historical notions of women as passive objects who are encouraged to be 'on show' and unchallenging to the viewer gaze (Connell, 1987; Young, 2005). The prevalence of inactive body poses also mirrors the findings of Goffman's (1979) study of gender in advertisements. Here, Goffman (1979) noted that women were often depicted lying down, canting or in a state of 'licensed withdrawal' looking away from the viewer. While no women in the present study's fitspiration dataset were captured lying down, there were examples of women withdrawing from the frame by looking away (Figure 3) or covering their faces. For Goffman (1979), this type of body posture implies that women are psychologically removed and adrift from the social situation at large, while men are present and anchored.

Contrary to associations between femininity and passivity, this analysis also revealed a considerable number of active body poses. These images presented women engaging in a fitness activity, such as lifting weights (Figure 4), performing abdominal crunches or running. For Butler (1998), images of women performing such activities contest the limits of femininity and question 'what we take for granted as idealized feminine morphologies'. Butler (1998) and several other scholars do, however, suggest that active body poses are frequently 'offset' through a focus on aesthetics and beauty (Dworkin and Wachs, 2009; Guthrie and Castelnuovo, 1992; Hardin et al., 2005). This phenomenon was certainly mirrored in some active representations of women in fitspiration images where their clothing worn, or lack of (Figure 4), emphasised their sexuality more than their fitness. There were also a small number of action-implied body poses identified during data analysis. Here, women were shown with their hands on a prop as if they were about to begin or had just finished an exercise matching the prop (Figure 5). For Hardin et al. (2005: 114-15), such body poses invite a 'preferred reading' of fitness that serves a purely aesthetic end. They also leave room for resistance to more traditional gender norms given they position women participating in activities that were, until relatively recently, reserved for men. Action-implied body poses uploaded as fitspiration could therefore be interpreted as preserving dominant ideologies of femininity as inactive, while also remaining porous enough to be read as empowering for women.

Inactive Active Action-implied
27 18 5

Table 4: Distribution of female body pose in the dataset images.

Figure 3: Inactive body pose.

Figure 3: Inactive body pose.

Figure 4: Active body pose.

Figure 4: Active body pose.

Figure 5: Action-implied body pose.

Figure 5: Action-implied body pose.

Body area captured

As detailed in Table 5, the findings of this analysis indicate a trend towards total body shots, as well as highlighted body areas. This outcome is consistent with the findings of existing research on women's portrayals in fashion and fitness publications (Rudman and Hagiwara, 1992; Wasylkiw et al., 2009). The near-absence of images that exclusively feature the lower body is also symbolic of the problematic rendering of women's hips, thighs and rear end in the fitness industry and more generally. For Lupton (1995: 143), these 'problem' areas are often considered to require extra attention if they are 'too large and fleshy or because they are not well enough defined or toned'. She explains that this ideology is nowhere more evident than in fitness and body-building arenas, where specific exercises and machines are used to 'work' these areas of the body (Lupton, 1995: 143). The fact that only one fitspiration image in my dataset represented the lower body can thus be interpreted as mirroring the conceptualisation of women's lower bodies as problematic, and therefore something to be hidden.

A particularly interesting finding in my analysis was that fitspiration images often captured women with their heads purposefully cropped out of the frame (see for example Figure 6). While this framing may be used to provide anonymity in a very public space, it also reflects the age-old trend of women being represented as an unchallenging object for others (Young, 2005). In Kilbourne's (1999: 258) writings on the objectification of women in advertising, she notes that a common tactic used is to feature 'just a part of a woman's body - a derriere, a headless torso'. In a comparable study of female self-sexualisation in MySpace profile pictures, Hall et al. (2012) note that headless representations of women are the most extreme measure of sexual objectification. They state that this 'body-ism' works to 'eliminate all mental capacities and intellect from the individual, truly rendering her an object' (Hall et al., 2012: 11). It also appears that headless fitspiration shots exclusively focus on parts of one's body that can be changed through fitness regimes. As such, decapitated framing provides the opportunity for women to present their hard work without being distracted by parts of their body that are relatively fixed. The fitspiration hashtag page can therefore be considered as a contradictory space, whereby women hope to be inspired and empowered but are symbolically disempowered through their dismemberment.

Women also emphasised feminine bodily ideals in fitspiration images through the use of specific camera angles to frame and present their bodies. Holding the camera above the body, as shown in Figure 6, was common among self-taken images in the dataset. This angle forces the viewer 'to gaze down on them', luring focus to the breasts and dramatically reducing the appearance of waist size (Hardin et al., 2005: 108). For Duncan (1990), this particular camera angle sexualises women and positions them as subordinate in relation to the viewer. The tendency for fitspiration images to be framed in this manner can consequently be argued to reassert idealised displays of femininity, where the female body is an object to be 'looked at' (Young, 2005: 39). This finding in turn highlights how women are active agents in the preservation of socially constructed gender ideologies.

Total Body Upper Body Middle Body Lower Body Abdominals Only Head Cropped
21 14 10 1 4 16

Table 5: Distribution of female body area captured in the dataset images.

Figure 6: Head cropped from frame.

Figure 6: Head cropped from frame.


Research on women's participation in fitness, particularly body-building, has described the use of clothing to 'make safe' women's bodies (Guthrie and Castelnuovo, 1992). Here, to 'make safe' is to ensure that women entering a predominantly male domain of muscularity can also be feminine. The high number of female bodies in this dataset wearing gender-typical attire such as bras, bikini-tops and sports bras appears to be consistent with such research. As shown in Table 6, this type of feminised clothing was seen in 26 of the 50 images analysed (for example, Figures 2 and 5). For Schultz (2004: 185), such portrayals of women 'homogenize and normalize ideals of femininity […] and reproduce the traditional gender order'. As Schultz (2004: 196) further explains, 'the sports bra, like other bras, is concerned with promoting a sexuality that most appeals to the masculine gaze. As an object of consumption, the sports bra plays on and reinforces hegemonic notions of femininity'. Young's (1990) writings similarly discuss bras as an item of clothing that normalise and objectify women's breasts. She states that bras mould women's breasts to suit a sexualised ideal that is 'like the phallus: high, hard, and pointy' (Young, 1990: 190). In considering these conceptualisations of bras and sports bras it becomes apparent that the popularity of these gender-typical and culturally promoted clothing items in fitspiration images mirrors hegemonic ideals of attractiveness. This was made further apparent in this dataset through the portrayal of a near-naked woman performing a lat pulldown (Figure 4). Despite showing visible signs of a sweat-laden workout, this woman is featured wearing no clothing on her upper body and only tight, scanty underwear on her lower body. Her buttocks also appears to be purposefully tilted towards the camera and rested slightly above the equipment seat for visual enticement rather than for the purpose of the exercise. Aside from raising significant questions about who these images are for, portrayals like this subvert female power, strength and subjectivity through emphasising sexualised ideals of attractiveness.

In a space which is to a certain extent controlled by users themselves, the continued sexualisation of women in such images could be interpreted using Gill's (2008) notion of sexual subjectification. According to Gill (2008: 40), 'compulsory sexual agency' is now a 'required feature of contemporary postfeminist, neoliberal subjectivity'. She explains that this shift from objectification to subjectification has emphasised empowerment and pronounced a discourse of autonomy and choice (Gill, 2008). As a result, Gill (2008: 42) argues that sexual subjectification presents women as 'desiring sexual subjects who choose to present themselves in a seemingly objectified manner because it suits their implicitly "liberated" interests to do so'. The portrayal of women as sexual subjects in fitspiration images is, moreover, indicative of how easily sexuality is performed and viewed in arenas previously considered as 'non-sexual' (Cover, 2003: 67).

Fitted leggings 11
Short-shorts/Hot-pants 10
Underwear/Bikini-bottoms 14
Bra/Bikini-top/Sports bra 26
Singlet-top 13
T-shirt 4
Other 8

Table 6: Distribution of female clothing worn in the dataset images.


This research provides timely insight into how women's bodies are represented on Instagram's fitspiration hashtag. Consistent with contemporary notions of the ideal female body, the analysis revealed a prevalence of slender, youthful and white bodies in gender-typical poses and clothing. The visibility of arm, leg, back and abdominal muscle definition on slender body shapes did, however, indicate an extension upon the ideology of slenderness as the only ideal body shape criterion for women. Despite this, displays of muscularity and strength were often subverted by sexualised body poses, framing and clothing. Representations of the female body in fitspiration images thus appear to 'inspire' on the basis of specific aesthetic ideals that both replicate and, to a degree, extend contemporary notions of the ideal female body.

In a context where media images have been shown to have a direct impact on body satisfaction, which is a risk factor for body image disorders, this 'cookie cutter' display of the fit body is concerning (Bersaglio, 2012). It reinforces the idea that there is only one desirable and healthy body type and positions women as '"empowered" [and inspired] only and always through fantasies of what they could be' (Bordo, 1997: 51). This is particularly concerning, given knowledge of where one stands in relation to body ideals can indeed contribute to what Howson (2004: 21) refers to as 'our sense of being normal'. This article thereby claims that this new type of '(f)it' body snapped and shared for inspiration via the fitspiration hashtag promotes another problematic standard for women to compare themselves to and attempt to emulate. This could shape what women perceive as desirable or appropriate in relation to their bodies and in turn, could have negative implications on the mental, social and physical health of women viewing fitspiration images.

This article consequently opens up a myriad of possible directions for future research. A clear area for future research, and one that was beyond the scope of this study, is to address how women experience their bodies in fitspiration images. To do this would be to examine how knowledges and understandings of bodies are produced in digital spaces. Investigating the profiling practices of users and tracing the sociomaterial may also shed light on what work the fitspiration space does in terms of the enactment and production of bodies. Comparative analyses of representations of men and women, and of fitspiration datasets from diverse social media platforms, could, moreover, be useful in determining disparities that were beyond the scope of this research. A future large-scale longitudinal study of fitspiration images could also reveal the possible changes and patterns in portrayals of the fit body over time. The present article can therefore be read as one step forward in a new and emerging area of research.


With sincere thanks to Dr Lauren Rosewarne and Dr Liz Dean from the University of Melbourne for their guidance and assistance in the production of this research. Lauren, thank you for giving me the confidence to transform my early ideas into research and for always providing prompt feedback. Liz, thank you for awakening my sociological imagination in my first university lecture in 2010. I have not been able to look at society (or myself!) in the same way ever since. Thank you also for your tireless encouragement to get this article published. Last, but certainly not least, thank you to my family and friends for supporting my love of learning and burning desire to know.

List of illustrations

Figure 1: Photographic Figure Rating Scale (PFRS). Reprinted from Swami, V., N. Salem, A. Furnham and M. J. Tovée (2008), 'The influence of feminist ascription on judgements of women's physical attractiveness', Body Image, 5 (2), p. 228, with permission from Elsevier. doi:10.1016/j.bodyim.2007.10.003

Figure 2: Visible muscle definition. Author's data collection (2014)

Figure 3: Inactive body pose. Author's data collection (2014)

Figure 4: Active body pose. Author's data collection (2014)

Figure 5: Action-implied body pose. Author's data collection (2014)

Figure 6: Head cropped from frame. Author's data collection (2014)

List of tables

Table 1: Distribution of female body type in the dataset images.

Table 2: Distribution of female age in the dataset images.

Table 3: Distribution of female ethnicity in the dataset images.

Table 4: Distribution of female body pose in the dataset images.

Table 5: Distribution of female body area captured in the dataset images.

Table 6: Distribution of female clothing worn in the dataset images.


[1]Josie Anne Reade graduated with a Bachelor of Arts (Degree with Honours) from the University of Melbourne in 2014. She is now undertaking a Doctor of Philosophy at the Youth Research Centre in the Melbourne Graduate School of Education, University of Melbourne.

[2] While fitspiration images and videos do also feature men's bodies, this study was concerned with the representations of women's bodies given they appear to be in the majority of posts and their representations have been the main subject of fitspiration criticism.

[3] It is acknowledged that the type of content posted publicly and privately may vary due to advertising and audience building practices. While this may have impacted the findings reported in this article, and is a worthy direction for future research, it was not within the scope or ethical parameters of this study to follow private accounts or analyse the difference between public and private fitspiration images. The purpose of this research was to provide a snapshot of what is publicly posted to Instagram's fitspiration hashtag.


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To cite this paper please use the following details: Reade, J. A. (2016), 'The Female Body on Instagram: Is Fit the New It?', Reinvention: an International Journal of Undergraduate Research, Volume 9, Issue 1, Date accessed [insert date]. If you cite this article or use it in any teaching or other related activities please let us know by e-mailing us at Reinventionjournal at warwick dot ac dot uk.