- Research article
- Open Access
Fitspiration and thinspiration: a comparison across three social networking sites
© The Author(s). 2018
- Received: 28 July 2018
- Accepted: 25 October 2018
- Published: 26 November 2018
Fitspiration, or images and text promoting health and fitness, and thinspiration, or images and text promoting thinness, have both received criticism for their negative effects on body image and dieting behaviors. In this study, we critically examined and compared the content of fitspiration and thinspiration on three social networking sites (SNS).
Fitspiration and thinspiration posts (N = 360) from three photo-sharing SNS (Instagram, Tumblr, and Twitter) were collected quasi-randomly on four days over two weeks. Image and associated text content were coded for variables related to weight and shape, muscularity, thin ideal, and eating. Chi-square and Fisher’s exact tests compared content of fitspiration and thinspiration posts overall and among the three SNS.
Thinspiration images portrayed body parts more frequently than fitspiration (69.8% vs. 30.2%). Similarly, posts highlighting bony body features and references to mental illness appeared only in thinspiration. No differences were found between fitspiration and thinspiration posts with regard to sexual suggestiveness, appearance comparison, and messages encouraging restrictive eating. Fitspiration and thinspiration posts included similar images across the three SNS—focusing on appearance, sexually suggestive images, and restrictive eating—with three exceptions. Fitspiration posts exhibiting body positivity were found only on Tumblr. In thinspiration posts, references to mental illness were more frequent on Tumblr and Instagram than on Twitter, and bone emphasis was coded more frequently on Twitter than on Instagram.
Although fitspiration posts were less extreme than thinspiration posts on the whole, notable similarities in their content support that fitspiration endorses problematic attitudes towards fitness, body image, and restrictive eating in pursuit of a fit-and-thin body ideal.
- Social media
- Body image
- Eating disorders
We analyzed images from three social media sites (Instagram, Tumblr and Twitter) to describe and compare the content of fitspiration (images and text promoting health and fitness) and thinspiration (images and text promoting thinness) posts. Overall, the fitspiration and thinspiration content of posts was similar across the three social media sites studied, with three exceptions. Thinspiration posts showed more images showcasing bony body parts and mental illness. Both thinspiration and fitspiration images reinforced body image issues and restrictive eating. Thinspiration posts included mention of mental illness more often on Tumblr and Instagram than on Twitter. We conclude that fitspiration showed problematic image content similar to thinspiration in emphasizing a fit-and-thin body ideal.
Selection of websites
Hashtags searched for each social networking site
Social media site
Hashtag searches were performed over a two-week period on Instagram, Tumblr, and Twitter in March 2016. Images were collected quasi-randomly, i.e. on Tuesdays and Fridays at similar times of day (11 am to 2 pm). We chose Tuesday and Friday as there are popular hashtags specific to those days (e.g., #TransformationTuesday and #FitnessFriday), which we speculated might increase the volume of new posts. For each hashtag searched, we took a screenshot with a timestamp for each of the most recent fifteen posts with images on each day (30 images total for Tuesday and Friday). Instagram would not display the most recent images for #thinspoooo, and so only the most popular posts were collected for that hashtag.
Content analysis and ratings of SNS posts
Descriptions of Coded Variables and Inter-Rater Reliability
Cohen’s Kappa (κ)
Presence of inspirational quote or message on the image
Text on or below image, or in hashtags contains all or partly English
Image contains women and/or men, an object or a graphic
Entire body is visible in the image
Head is visible and unobscured in image
Eyes are visible and unobscured in image
Torso is visible in image
Pelvis is visible in image
Legs are visible in image
Arms are visible in image
Comparing body pre- and post-weight loss
Pose emphasizing sex characteristics
Explicitness of attire worn in image
Expresses guilt for having gained weight, not meeting weight or fitness goals or ideal body type
Emphasizes losing fat or weight
At least one element of image or text is body positive
Flexing, posing to appear more muscular
Person engaged in exercise or physical activity
Prominent focus on muscular features
Posing or positioning camera to appear thinner or smaller
Complements for thin bodies, thinness as a marker of success
Prominent focus on bony features such as hip and collarbone protrusions with the absence of defined muscle
Messages encouraging reduction of eating
Guilt for eating certain foods
Mentions eating disorder, self-harm, anxiety, suicide or depression
We collected and coded a total of 360 posts containing images. Not all hashtags were available on all SNS, resulting in 120 posts from each SNS. Thirty posts were collected from four hashtags on each SNS (#thinspiration, #thinspo, #fitspiration, and #fitspo on Tumblr and Twitter; #fitspiration, #fitspo, and the alternative hashtags #thinstagram and #thinspoooo on Instagram). Posts were excluded if they were not in English or French (analysts were fluent in only these two languages), if they were pornographic (i.e. if the person was nude and/or portrayed engaging in sexual activity), or if they included more than two images from the same account (to limit the potential impact of spam accounts). Any excluded post was immediately replaced. We analyzed all the content of the post, including any graphic, picture or text, as well as hashtags and text that appeared immediately below the image in the user’s caption. We did not analyze comments from other users.
We coded each variable as present, absent, or unable to code (e.g., no person or food in image to code). To assess the reliability of coding, a second coder analyzed half of all images, recording any text, additional hashtags, and the number of likes for every image. Cohen’s Kappas ranged from 0.67 to 0.98 for the variables identified (see Table 2). One author coded all 360 posts, which were then analysed.
Statistical significance was set at p < 0.01 to diminish the risk of Type I error resulting from multiple analyses in this exploratory study. Chi-square analyses (or Fisher’s exact tests when expected cell sizes were five or lower) were conducted to compare the content of thinspiration versus fitspiration posts, and to compare the three SNS.
Overall sample characteristics
Variable Characteristics Overall and in Each of Three Social Network Sites
Total N = 360
Instagram n = 120
Tumblr n = 120
Twitter n = 120
Male and Female
Whole Body Visible
Body parts shown
Partial (vs. whole) body shown
Fitspiration versus thinspiration posts
Comparison of thin vs. fit images across all three social media sites
Thin n (%)
Fit n (%)
Female & Male
Whole Body Visible
Body Parts Shown
Partial vs. Whole Body Shown
29.2% no body
70.8% no body
73.3% 1 part
Number of Body Parts Shown
78.3% 2 parts
26.7% 1 part
84.6% 3 parts
21.7% 2 parts
70.8% 4 parts
15.4% 3 parts
48.5% 5 parts
29.2% 4 parts
51.5% 5 parts
Coded variables Appearance Comparison (p = 0.172), Suggestive Pose (p = 0.688) and Revealing Clothing (p = 0.023) did not significantly differ between fitspiration and thinspiration posts. Frequency of messages promoting reduction of food intake (p = 0.117) also did not significantly differ between fitspiration and thinspiration posts. Body Positivity (p = 0.03), which was infrequently coded, did not significantly differ between thinspiration and fitspiration posts.
Thinspiration posts included more women in the image description than fitspiration, whereas fitspiration included more men, objects, and graphics than thinspiration (p < 0.001). The variables Body Guilt, Muscular Pose, Physical Activity and Muscle Emphasis were coded more frequently in fitspiration posts, whereas Thin Pose, Thin Praise, Bone Emphasis, and Mental Illness were coded significantly more frequently in thinspiration posts (all p < 0.001). The variable Muscular Pose occurred only in fitspiration images, whereas Bone Emphasis and Mental Illness occurred only in thinspiration images.
Fitspiration posts included more images of the entire body than thinspiration. In images that included a person, the head was visible and unobscured significantly more frequently among fitspiration posts than thinspiration posts (all p < 0.001). These results suggest that thinspiration posts more frequently focused on specific parts of the body, i.e., they were more objectifying.
Fitspiration posts on Instagram vs. Tumblr vs. Twitter
There were no significant differences in fitspiration posts among Instagram, Tumblr, and Twitter on all coded variables except Body Positivity. Specifically, fitspiration posts exhibiting Body Positivity (n = 6) were found only on Tumblr.
Thinspiration posts on Instagram vs. Tumblr vs. Twitter
There were no significant differences in thinspiration posts among Instagram, Tumblr, and Twitter on coded variables, except Bone Emphasis and Mental Illness (p < 0.001). Post hoc analyses revealed that Bone Emphasis was coded more frequently on Twitter than Instagram (p = 0.010). Mental Illness was coded more frequently on Tumblr than Twitter (p = 0.001), and on Instagram more than Twitter (p = 0.007), but we identified no differences between Tumblr and Instagram on any posts.
The present results suggest that fitspiration and thinspiration share a focus on appearance, sexually suggestive images, and restrictive eating. Although relative to fitspiration, thinspiration posts promoted thinness to a greater degree, explicitly encouraged weight loss more frequently, included more objectifying content, and made more references to eating disorders, fitspiration tended to include more messages of guilt about body shape and weight than thinspiration. When comparing fitspiration and thinspiration content between SNS, Instagram and Tumblr displayed pathological content related to eating disorders more often than Twitter.
Our study showed that fitspiration and thinspiration posts both emphasized appearance-related ideals, sexual suggestiveness (i.e., suggestive poses and revealing clothing), and restrictive eating. Similarly, Boepple & Thompson’s  study showed that both thinspiration and fitspiration websites showcased weight stigmatization, objectification, guilt-inducing messages about weight/body and dieting/eating restraint. Although Simpson et al.  looked only at fitspiration posts and included no comparison group, their study also found that most fitspiration pins on Pinterest promoted appearance-related as opposed to health-related behaviours to achieve body image standards. Another study by Boepple and colleagues  also showed through content analysis that fitspiration websites focused on physical appearance, eating concerns, and excessive exercise. In the current study, fitspiration displayed more messages of guilt about body shape and weight than thinspiration. This focus on appearance in fitspiration content is particularly concerning because exercising for appearance-related reasons previously has been linked to disordered eating , depressive symptoms , and negative body image [32, 33]. These problematic similarities between thinspiration and fitspiration may reflect larger changes in social conceptualizations of health and fitness, which may include mainstreaming harmful thinspiration sensibilities such as extreme food restriction and self-discipline . Future qualitative research should explore people’s perceptions of differences and similarities between these two concepts, especially among SNS users.
Our findings also showed that variables related to muscularity were featured in fitspiration posts more often than in thinspiration posts. Consistent with previous research, fitspiration images in this study more frequently involved posing that emphasized muscularity, as opposed to posting pictures of people actually engaged in physical activity [16, 17, 19]. Fitspiration posts also featured images of men more frequently than thinspiration posts. Perhaps this finding is not surprising, in that male body ideals typically emphasize a muscular body shape whereas body ideals for women place greater emphasis on thinness . A meta-analysis has shown that exposure to muscular ideals worsens men’s body image ; the relationship between muscularity and body image, however, may be more complex for women . In light of previous research findings, it is plausible that fitspiration posts focusing on muscular ideals for men could contribute to body dissatisfaction, although more research is needed to understand its effects in men versus women. The increasing popularity of fitspiration and the fit-ideal messages like “Strong is the new skinny” suggest that the thin-ideal for women is shifting to incorporate a fit-ideal similar to men’s association of muscularity with physical attractiveness. Given the rapid pace of change in social media trends, it seems important to track and monitor these ideal body shape trends for both men and women further, in the event that the fit-ideal becomes a pathological concern like the thin-ideal has been for women in recent decades.
The current study showed that thinspiration posts promoted thinness, explicit encouragement of weight loss, objectifying content, and made references to eating disorders more often than fitspiration, similar to previous  findings. Notably, emphases on bony features and mental illness were present only in thinspiration posts. Fitspiration posts tended to be less objectifying (i.e., they depicted more whole-body images) than thinspiration posts, which displayed more objectifying content (i.e., they depicted more specific body parts).
We detected no systematic differences in fitspiration content among the three SNS, other than body positivity being found only on Tumblr. On the other hand, thinspiration content differed among the three SNS. References to mental illness (i.e., related to eating disorders) were more frequent on Tumblr and Instagram than on Twitter, and bone emphasis in thinspiration posts was coded more frequently on Twitter than on Instagram. Note that both Tumblr and Instagram included warning displays with information on eating disorder resources when the hashtags #thinspiration and #thinspoooo were searched on either site. Perhaps there were fewer references to mental illness on Twitter because of its character limit on text posts, whereas Instagram and Tumblr do not have such limits. These differences may also reflect the popularity of certain SNS among thinspiration or pro-eating disorder communities; Twitter places the least emphasis on photo content of the three SNS and may therefore be less popular for these users.
The following study limitations should be considered when interpreting our results. As content on these sites is quite fluid, it is unclear how stable our study findings would be in future research, although it may be important to assess. We did not capture images that promoted thinspiration and/or fitspiration if they did not use any of the six hashtags we searched for. Furthermore, we searched for only two fitspiration hashtags (#fitspiration and #fitspo) and two thinspiration hashtags (#thinspiration and #thinspo on Tumblr and Twitter, #thinspoooo and #thinstagram on Instagram) on each SNS. We limited our hashtag searches to the most commonly used hashtag variations of #thinspiration and #fitspiration and did not analyze other hashtag variations, such as #fitspirational, #fitspirations and #fitspirationfriday. Our search was additionally restricted to posts drawn from just four days in total. Given these limitations, our analysis provides only a snapshot of a broad and continuously updated body of content across social media. We chose Instagram, Tumblr and Twitter primarily for their emphasis on photo sharing; previous research has examined other SNS, such as Pinterest and WeHeartIt [7, 24, 26]. The content of dedicated pro-eating disorder groups has also been examined on Facebook , which can also be used to share images. However, the Facebook interface does not emphasize public photo sharing in the same way as the SNS we studied. Although Facebook is the most widely used SNS , other sites such as Instagram are approaching the same level of use among teens, and were recently ranked as more preferred by teens . Instagram displayed a warning page when #thinspoooo was searched, and displayed the most popular images, rather than the most recent. For all other hashtag searches, however, we collected the most recent posts. Thus, the Instagram posts we captured may have systematically differed from the other two SNS. Future research would benefit from the use of external search engines such as Google Advanced Search or Social Searcher to avoid these limitations.
Given the evolving nature of social media usage, future research is needed to continue monitoring its content and investigate experimentally its potential effects on body image, body dissatisfaction, eating and exercising patterns, and other symptoms of mental illness. Fitspiration is a relatively new phenomenon, and future research should monitor changes in fitspiration content, especially given the emphasis on fitness in mainstream culture. If thinspiration and fitspiration are deemed harmful, it would be important to create ways to discourage such posts, similar to the thinspiration warning messages found on Instagram and Tumblr. Moreover, we do not know the long-term effects of creating, viewing, and using SNS content displayed in fitspiration messages. It would be useful to conduct experimental research on the effects of creation of, and exposure to, fitspiration posts on the mental health of social media creators and users, in all genders, in the short and long term.
The present results suggest that fitspiration and thinspiration display many similarities, especially a focus on appearance, sexual suggestiveness, and restrictive eating. Thinspiration and fitspiration found on different SNS should continue to be monitored. Future experimental studies should examine the effects of creation, viewing, and usage of thinspiration and fitspiration content on the mental health of their creators, viewers, and users.
ASA has support from a Chercheur Boursier Junior 1 Award (#35277) funded by les Fonds de Recherche du Québec- Santé at Concordia University and was previously supported by a Banting Postdoctoral Fellowship from the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR) at the University of Calgary.
Availability of data and materials
The datasets analysed for the current study are available from the corresponding author on reasonable request.
AA and KvR conceived the study idea; AA, SW and KvR designed the study. SW collected the social media data from the three SNS. ASA coded all the data, and to determine inter-rater reliability, SW coded 50% of the data. KvR conducted the statistical analyses. All authors interpreted the findings. SW and AA drafted the first version of the manuscript. All authors contributed writing, editing, and approval of the final draft submitted.
Data collection and analysis were done while all authors were at the University of Calgary. AA’s manuscript writing was done while at Concordia University.
Ethics approval and consent to participate
Not applicable. Our study did not require ethical approval because we analyzed publicly accessible posts on social networking sites.
Consent for publication
Not applicable because our manuscript does not contain data from any individual person; data was publicly accessible from social networking sites.
The authors declare that they have no competing interests.
Springer Nature remains neutral with regard to jurisdictional claims in published maps and institutional affiliations.
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