Fitgirls: Motivation or Distraction?

strong girls

No, that’s not me.

fitgirl pic

Nope, that’s not me either.

I know, BIG surprise! *Cue laughter.

All jokes aside, these women have been haunting me. Okay, haunting is a bit dramatic. Let’s just say that I have been pretty fixated with these images ever since I joined the health and fitness world in a serious way last year.

I’m often asked how I stay motivated. In the beginning, I’d say that it was all about the weight loss and hitting a target number on the scale. Once I realized the scale was evil not the best gauge to measure my physical transformation, I focused on the big picture, that picture being a strong, kickass female who can lift as much as the boys and look awesome in the meantime.

I’d never heard of a “fitgirl” before then. I didn’t know anything about figure competitions or sponsorships, but I did see these women across pinterest boards and wondered who they were, and more importantly, how I could look exactly like them.

The wide-eyed naivete I brought with me into strength training has given way to a gritty fierceness underscored by the knowledge I’ve accumulated through conversations with my personal trainer, research, and my own trail and error. At the end of the day, I know that the woman featured behind the workout is just another marketing ploy. That circuit workout or pilates routine is guaranteed to give you that body– WRONG!


I know this. I tell this to other people when they ask me for advice. We’re all different genetically, and not everyone will look like her. I’m short with thicker thighs and wider hips. No matter how much I work out or lift. I won’t look like this girl:


So then why do I feel conflicted when I scroll through my Instagram feed and see picture after picture of these fitgirls?

There’s no single answer to that question.

As honest as I can be with myself, it’s hard to admit that my admiration for these strong women goes beyond the motivation to go to the gym and lift. They’re a departure from the idols of my teenage years who were more waif than fit. Even in the middle of the whole “grrl power” phenomenon in the mid-90s, I didn’t get the message that strong is sexy. Not physically strong anyway. But I idolized those women for having what I wanted and in some ways, I’m doing that all over again.

Before I started losing weight, my mantra was all about loving the person within and embracing all shapes and sizes of women because each person is uniquely beautiful. It didn’t matter that I had an impossible time of accepting this truth for myself since I hated the way I felt and looked. What mattered was that I defied whatever the media was telling me was the beauty standard that month to whoever would listen.

So, here I am staring at these images feeling like a bit of a hypocrite.

I could go into a sociological interpretation of the entire ‘fitgirl’ phenomenon starting with the very name (fitness girls not women, implying youth which is usually the preference) to the photos. I could point out how they tread a fine line between inspiration and soft core porn. I could point out that most often these women are pictured from the neck down or with a close up of certain body parts, taking away any identity of the person being photographed. I could take it a step further and say that these images don’t do much more than replace one beauty ideal for another and that they perpetuate stereotypes that place higher value on women’s bodies and sexual appeal above their intellect.

I could say all of those things. And in many ways they’re true. I mean, this photo may inspire me to go to the gym so that I can be “hot” but what does the stripper imagery and heavy sexual innuendo have to do with being healthy?


I suppose my issue is that I understand how important it is to stay motivated to reach your goals, especially when it comes to weight and health. We have a national crisis on our hands with obesity rates skyrocketing year after year.

But I also understand that the motivation has to come from within and it has to be sustainable. Working out to look “hot” and “sexy” can push you to get up and go to the gym once, maybe twice. And for some, that’s enough to keep them going. But is that enough for you?

It’s taken me a very long time to commit to fitness because I made the mistake time and again to focus on just one aspect of exercise. Sure, working out will make you leaner and whatever image you’ve idealized as the standard in your head will be in reach. My problem with that is that the ideal is just that, an ideal. An illusion. One that keeps me trapped in a self-defeating cycle where the emphasis is placed on reaching a goal that has nothing to do with me.

What got me to commit wholeheartedly was the way strength training made me feel. Each time I go back to the gym, what I’m really going for is that spark that comes more from accomplishing a difficult move or reaching a new PR. I’m hooked to that feeling of success and the impact it has on my mood and the way I approach challenges outside of the gym. That’s enough to keep me going back and trying. The changes in my body are important too, but they come in second. It’s different for everyone, but that has been the key to my motivation and its a reminder that keeps me from taking the fitgirl admiration too far.

I hesitate to dismiss this entirely. The “strong is sexy” message has weight. The fact that these photos portray women as capable of some truly spectacular physical feats is a great contrast to what’s out there. At the very least, it provides balance. I don’t criticize the women who are putting themselves out there. It takes a tremendous amount of time and hard work to build muscle and get lean. I have a lot of respect for that because I know what it takes. Also, they’re playing an important role in getting people to work out, which let’s face it, is a HUGE problem. According to a recent article in USA Today, almost 80% of American adults do not meet the physical activity guidelines. Women and Latinos make up a big chunk of that percentage. The fact is, most people will be motivated by physical changes brought on by exercise and there’s no greater selling point than sex. It’s classic marketing.

But my point is that we shouldn’t forget that fitness is also about health. It’s about long-term goals that incorporate our mental and emotional well-being. Working out like a maniac to look like Adriana Lima won’t make you a happier or a better person.

What’s the lesson here? You can have goals. You can use these images to inspire you to move and to challenge your idea of what a woman can do physically. You can celebrate the message of strong is sexy and reimagine your notions of beauty. You can do all of these things, but NOT at the expense of losing sight of what makes you unique. Not as a replacement of one impossible stereotype for another. Not as a way to keep yourself from looking into the mirror fully and loving each curve, each freckle, each dimple, each feature that makes you one of a kind.

Take the inspirational quotes attached to the photo and try to leave the rest behind. Focus on how your reflection is changing and create your own ideals around the body you’re shaping. Don’t let it distract you from your true purpose. Become you’re own version of a fitgirl. But please, no lucite heels.

What do you think about fitgirls and the ‘strong is sexy’ campaign? What motivates you to exercise? Do you workout for your looks or for your health? Share your thoughts by dropping me a line!! 🙂

5 Replies to “Fitgirls: Motivation or Distraction?”

  1. Great post : ) I love looking at these woman because I like that strong is the new sexy. I like that when I lift the boys will look sometimes like say what is that girl seriously rolling around with 50lb dumbbells. I also like that being strong does NOT equal a baby number on my scale. I have been having a small melt down because I am getting surgery next week (torn ACL) so I am freaking out about losing my fitness / gaining weight. But I realized I weigh about 10lbs more than I did when I graduated HS (2006) BUT I can do regular push ups now, squat a TON, and bench about a million times more than I used to be able to. So while I wish I was smaller I will take it. I will take the strong and the flub is coming off, slow and steady.


    1. That’s right Megan! I was nervous that some people would interpret what I wrote as a criticism of fitgirls, but I think people who believe in strength training and good health understand their reasons for doing it have less to do with looks and more to do with what you’re capable of. Kudos to you for all of your accomplishments! I hope your surgery goes well and I wish you a speedy recovery!! 🙂


  2. Oh, I soo agree with what you said! I think that yes, strong is sexy and is way better than trying to look emaciated and bone skinny. Though I do agree with you also that a lot of them border on being inappropriately clothed to me. I also think at times, we can get caught up in idolizing them in our minds (at least I do), but we rationalize it because they are healthy, not stick thin or starving themselves. So while the “fitsperation” is better than “thinsperation” for health reasons, I think it can be damaging to some mentally depending where you are in your journey. I do like a lot of them, though, so not saying they are bad, just need to make sure my head’s in the right place so I don’t begin to hold up an unrealistic expectation. (and I totally get you about body types – I’m on the shorter side with thighs and hips)



    1. I’m right there with you! I’ve read similar posts where some took offense to this argument, that these images may be a detriment to women trying to follow a healthy lifestyle under the glare of the ‘ideal’ in whatever form that takes on. I get where the other side is coming from. The women featured in the images aren’t to blame and really, we’re all adults that are capable of judging what’s right and wrong for ourselves. I can understand the logic there. But at the end of the day, we’re not all created equal, especially when it comes to body image issues, and I think most people agree that while the message is fantastic (hell yeah strong is awesome!), the delivery is lacking. I’m actually thinking of doing a follow-up piece to this soon, but I really do appreciate getting other women’s perspective on this issue, so thanks SO much for sharing yours!! 🙂 PS- also short and hippy, so I definitely fail to meet the ‘standards’ as per mass media. So lame.


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