Out of the Fire and into the Furnace: How the Discourse of Skinny has taken new form in the Fitness Revolution

In 2013, over 1.7 billion people were in some way connected to social media (Pew, 2013). This startling data demonstrates the vast involvement people have in the online realm. When users enter the online sphere, they open their minds to all that is out there. One of the most prevailing themes in social media is centered around body image. This essay would argue that as everyday citizens we internalize the world that we see around us. In fact, studies have shown that the media influences issues that people find most important to them (McCombs and Shaw, 1972). It will be pointed out that previously in our cultural history that very thin was perpetuated as desirable. However, with the genesis of the fitness movement, it would appear that this is no longer the ideal. This paper is interested in discussing how the “fit” movement has not fully abandoned factors that were present in the thin ideal. Specifically, unattainable beauty is still presented to observers. Initially, pin-thin models graced all the pages of magazines with emaciated bodies conveyed their possession of “the good life”. Today, media is deluged with extremely fit models sculpted and chiseled with ironically less body fat (but more muscle mass) than their pin-thin predecessors. This paper will also explore how racism permeates the fitness movement by under and misrepresenting women of color.

The idea of attaining a body that is physically impossible is an idea that has been around for centuries. From the Imperial Chinese foot binding to the Victorian era corsets, it is clear that demands have been placed on women to alter their body to conform to the prevailing fashion ideal. Not surprisingly, the fashion industry dictates what women perceive as desirable, and it is a male dominated field. Most of the fashion houses are run by men who control our body-image indoctrination.

This body-image propaganda begins at a very young age. Children’s toys and advertisements are subtly training young girls about ideal physical attributes. For example, the doll, Barbie, sets up girls to desire something that is simply impossible. Just for starters, the body configuration of a Barbie doll would actually require a woman to be over seven feet tall to achieve her proportions. Dolls like Barbie are present in a young girls lives, but, in all fairness, we see this type of doll in a young boys’ lives as well. For example, a Ken doll is manufactured with bulging muscles and perfectly coiffed hair. These dolls as marketed as the ideal male and female. Because these ideals are impossible to achieve, self-loathing and disappointment become the normative psychological state of adults of all ages. The video below explains more thoroughly the inaccuracy of Barbie’s proportions, and how these dimensions are not humanly attainable.

Dolls and toys are an early influence in a person’s life, but Barbie et al, of course, is not the only influence on young girls. The fashion industry has historically perpetuated the image of nearly anorexic models, and these models are getting younger and younger. In fact, the industry is currently promoting their youngest super-model who is barely 9 years-old. In alignment with her older colleagues she looks gaunt and skeletal. She, like Barbie, is a model for very young girls to attempt to emulate. Since these plastic or rare genetic combinations cannot be replicated, the self-hate begins at an extraordinarily young age.


The industry has always infused society with impracticable expectations about body image. Although not entirely eliminated, society has rebelled against the idea of pin-thin models and impossible representations of a woman. People, albeit mostly women, have banded together to combat this unhealthy brainwashing. Whether they are being called too fat or too skinny, women are never perfect. As seen in the article below, there has been many campaigns against this body dymorphism. More precisely, the article below documents the outrage over an advertisement that was created by GAP. The model looked completely emaciated and scrawny. Consequently, people were outraged that GAP would have a model look like this. Fortunately, this backlash demonstrates that people now realize that the look of a super thin model is not desirable or healthy.


Unfortunately, this revulsion didn’t morph into an archetype of body image that is attainable and forgiving. Instead, as previously mentioned, body image culture has jumped out of the fire and into the furnace, with its transition from extreme skinny to extreme fit. In the article below, fitness is seen as a way to replace a formerly unhealthy lifestyle. The man is lauded for overcoming anorexia, which is a positive shift in our society, yet what is not being realized is that his cure…bodybuilding is just another approach to obsessively think about body image.


Body image in the media is a no-win battle. Women (and men-but the focus of this essay will be on pressures geared towards women) are expected to be perfect. Accordingly, women must somehow be healthy, count every calorie and work-out every day. The standards that are placed upon women are unbearable and unrealistic. As seen in the article the “healthy” lifestyle is one that is as unhealthy as an eating disorder. Clearly, the mandates are not achievable for most body types.

Healthism is a potential explanation how these body image movements originate. Healthism is a term-coined by Robert Crawford in 1980. Crawford later updated his definition in 2006 by stating that healthism is the individual duty of a citizen to help himself and others achieve health (Crawford 2006). He further suggested that healthism persuaded people to associate healthy with morality; people who were seen as fit were good and those who were unfit were bad (Crawford 2006). As Susan Greenhalgh describes, “to be fat in America is to be “ugly,” “disgusting,” “inferior,” and “unworthy” of friendship or romance” (Greenhalgh, 2014). The reason for this is that our society has turned into a health-crazed world that seems to shun those who are overweight. Susan Greenhalgh believes that the reason for this panic is that pharmaceutical companies have exaggerated the problem to cause people to take action (Greenhalgh, 2014). Citizens everywhere have been alerted that obesity is on the rise, depriving the nation of precious lives, and, as Greenhalgh explains, provoked the United States Surgeon General to launch a nationwide campaign to promote healthier living in 2001.             Consequently, the Bio-Citizen was born. As described by Christine Halse, “the bio-citizen is a product of an era of escalating anxiety in the public imagination about an international pandemic of overweight and obesity” (Halse, 2006, p. 45).    This panic has caused a new measurement system to arise, namely BMI. Body Mass Index (BMI) gives bio-citizens a scale in which to rate their fellow citizens. This scale is especially problematic for the discourses that occur if one does not fit into the “normal range.” BMI is used as a system in which members of the national community can declare “who is fat and who is not” (Wann, 2009, p. xiv) As Halse describes, BMI does not just represent a number range, it brings into light rhetoric surrounding the idea of being outside the norm (2007, p. 47). Halse posits that these discourses have translated into certain “virtue discourses.” These discourses explain what is good and moral; and what it means to be a true and just citizen (2007, p. 47).This idea that people somehow lose their virtue because of their weight is simply preposterous and reveals the damage that this “obesity panic” has produced. People who are overweight are looked down upon and seen as unworthy of love or respect.

Parents, specifically mothers, have been criminalized for the escalation of obesity in the nation. The advertisements below expose the parental target in regard to childhood obesity. The striking ad was part of a Strong4Life campaign that had the goal of stopping parents from overfeeding their children. This campaign criminalizes children who are seen as overweight. The ad series promotes the idea that there is something wrong with these children without examining their genetic constitution nor their dietary habits.

obese             This preoccupation with fitness, perfect body image and healthism is reflective online. Media is a mirror of our interests as well as our obsessions. The sole function of social media experts is to ensure they have a pulse on the consumers. Upon examination of all popular media including facebook, twitter, instagram, etc., fitness and body-image are the most prevailing themes. Consequently, it is apparent how society influences people. On these platforms, citizens are not only shaming those who lack “motivation” but also shunning women of color as part of the movement. Images that are projected in the fitness movement reflect one body type, and furthermore one skin color. It is rare to come across a woman of color on fitness Instagram pages. A woman of color not only has to achieve the perfect body of the model but also a skin color that is not her own.


As described in the book Body Panic, “Women’s health and fitness magazines covers ‘flesh out’ this being [female fitness trope] in detail. She is ‘perky’ and inviting with a coy smile, she leans… or languishes displaying a lean, tight and tones, but lacks visible rips or cut. Her muscles are long and lean, and certainly not ‘too big,’ while her body possesses a subtle dote of curvaceousness” (Dworkin & Wachs, p1). This image is produced in mass to represent a new norm in society.

In the above picture, several things are noteworthy. As Dworkin & Wachs point out, a popular female fit requirement is that the woman is obligated to not be “too big.” This woman is perfectly toned, yet still has the “curvaceousness” that would make her desirable (large chest and backside). The particular Instagram account that this image is taken from is called fitness food_motivation. The account has over one million followers and 607 posts. This account is reflective of the fitness movement of Instagram: it has lifestyle tips, and countless pictures of the dream body to be motivated by. Just the name of this account reveals a problem with this fitness obsession movement, namely “motivation.” The usage of the word motivation implies that we can control whether we look like the models posted. Truthfully, ninety-nine percent of women could work-out, fast, lift weights, take supplements and never achieve any resemblance to these genetic creations which are likely to have been filtered or photo shopped, as well.

This media bombardment of body image remedies definitely reveal that white women are preoccupied with attempting to conform to the ever-evolving societal female standard. The overt message is that they just lack the “motivation” to get the body they desire. Upon close examination, it becomes apparent that Instagram accounts are primarily directed at white women. In this six hundred plus post, only four show a person of color.

Women of color battle many facets of the fitness movement. They are not depicted as often and when they are it is undeniably in a different light than their white counterparts. In the “fitness video” below, the image is alarmingly degrading and racist. The primary image viewers get is that of this woman’s bottom. Her fitness goals are not underscored, but her sexuality is. This emphasis on sexuality of women of color is rampant in all forms of media.

Another example of this phenomenon (sexualizing woman of color) can be seen in the popular campaign “Got Milk? In the “Got Milk” advertisement shown below, tennis player, Venus Williams, takes center stage. Unfortunately, it is not Venus Williams, athlete, strong businesswoman, Wimbledon winner; it is Venus Williams… black, sexual woman. The most visible part of the ad says “lean machine.” This brings up the stereotype that women must be thin, yet also operate with the efficiency of a machine which is emphasized again with the slogan “milk your diet, lose weight.” This implies that with the help of a certain product a woman can almost cheat her diet.


Even more startling than the emphasis on dieting and weight is that, at its core, the ad implies women are never good enough. Although Venus Williams is a champion athlete, she still not quite perfect. More specifically, her athletic accomplishments are not enough; she still needs to lose weight and diet to attempt to reach the archetype of body perfection.

So what exactly is this ideal? We can clearly identify this ideal by comparing Venus Williams’ got milk advertisement with some of the other got milk ads with a corresponding female white lead. In another got milk ad (see below), the tone is completely different. While Venus is depicted as stormy, fierce, and sexy, the white model is happy light and has a very “girl next door” feel to her. The contrasting advertisements are so striking as the white model’s ad has a background that is bright yellow, while Venus’s ad is a very dark and stormy black. Venus is also much more scantily clothed than the white woman. Venus is the erotic woman. She veers away from the norm. The white woman represents the ideal. She is happy, carefree, and not flaunting her sexuality with most of her body concealed.


The words on the white model’s ad also provide a stark contrast to Venus’s ad. Venus’s ad reads “lean machine” while the other reads “all smiles.” As aforementioned, the phrasing “lean machine” implies that women need to change themselves in the hopes of becoming thinner. Hence, the ad implies that the African-American woman has more improvement to do to help herself be as content as the smiling white woman. Subliminally, this hints that she needs to become lighter and leaner in order to achieve “all smiles”.

Also it is interesting to examine the contrasting body language of the two women. Firstly, Venus’s ad displays her full body. Her hips thrust out to one side with a net over her back and glass of milk in the other hand gives the ad a very erotic feel. This oversexualization of the African-American female athlete is a common theme. Scholars have found that in the media, African-American women are depicted as a hunter with the white female as her prey (McKay and Johnson, 2008). In contrast the white woman’s got milk is from the mid-section up with her arms surrounding her face. In the white woman’s ad, the emphasis is on her face and the milk product. Her arms circle around her face and the cup of milk is resting on top of her head connotating intelligence. In Venus’s ad, the glass of milk is around her hips, thus implying her most valued trait is her sexuality.

Even more interesting is the glass of milk itself. The glasses seem to play on body stereotypes in different cultures. In Venus’s ad, the glass is created to mimic the shape of a woman’s body. It is often stereotyped that women in African American cultures are comfortable with their more curvaceous bodies, and in fact this is something that they hope to achieve. This puts a lot of pressure on women who don’t have this physique naturally, so perhaps the advertisers are attempting to persuade women that by consuming their product this body type can be achieved.

In contrast, the white woman’s glass is shaped as a normal glass. The white woman is confident, “all smiles” about her straight figure. Curves are not important to a white woman as seen by her glass and by the woman’s frame. She is very thin and seems to have an almost boyish physique.

Below are some more examples of this contrast. Once again, African-American women are portrayed in a different light. This portrays the troubling chasm white and woman of color are depicted in the media.

rihanna Lauren-Conrad-Got-Milk

This chasm is perpetuated in the fitness movement whereby woman of color are again not given the same representation. In the images below, one can see how severely contrasted depictions of women can be in the fitness movement. As one can see these images represent completely different ideas. The image on the left, the woman of color, is most likely in the gym, she is lifting weights and wearing sports gear. Her muscles are ripping through her skin, an image that is rarely copied by white women. The woman is more similar to the male fitness troupes. Additionally, the woman on the left is also much more curvaceous than her white counterpart.

In opposition, the white woman is not even depicted as in the gym. She has no clear muscle definition and is primarily just skinny. Surprisingly, she is well-endowed in her breasts and bottom which is an anomaly given that those areas are comprised of fat tissue. This again sets up woman to be unable to achieve this impossible combination…skinny and buxom. She encapsulates what Dworkin and Wachs identify in their book as this competing dichotomy of skinny and voluptuous.

Upon close scrutiny, she is not defined at all, yet somehow she still looks perfectly toned. She is on the beach in a bikini. This suggests that she is enjoying the “final product” of her labors. The woman of color has to continue working on her body as she is still strenuously working out. Like the image of Serena Williams, fitness Instagram accounts imply that women of color can never achieve the archetype. The caption of the white woman says “tag someone with a nice tummy.” In contrast, the image on left is captioned “Don’t just look like an athlete, train like one!” Again this if further implying that the white woman is the desirable person and the woman of color has an entire year’s worth of work to get the ideal body.

As one can see from these various examples, the depiction of health and of women is a very complex topic. It is important to realize that what we see in the media is not always the most accurate portrayal of true health. While the fitness movement does have positive message such as working out and eating healthy, it can quickly turn into a dangerous obsession. It is important that all media users are aware of the implications of their daily exposure to this propaganda. It is easy to fall into the trap of obsessing over one’s body to get that perfect abdominal muscle or the one bulging bicep.

These accounts are also dangerous because they only show a one-dimensional look at these fitness fanatics. Most of the people who create these sites dedicate their professional life to working out and eating healthy. But a viewer only sees one stretch or one meal which can consequently lead to disappointed when a dream body does not suddenly appear after a short-term concerted effort. Since we spend so much time in the online world, we must be educated. Whether it is called marketing, brainwashing or cultural enlightenment, it the responsibility of the online media user to decipher what is physically and psychologically healthy information. Furthermore, it is important for viewers of this content to modulate change for a positive body image representation. As demonstrated, media is enormously influential in all of our lives. With proper “crowdsourcing”, a new platform with an accurate depiction of female body images is just a click away.

Works Cited

Crawford, Robert. “Healthism and the Medicalization of Everyday Life.”International Journal of Health Services 10.3 (1980): 365-88. Pub Med. Web.

Dworkin, Shari L., and Faye Linda. Wachs. Body Panic: Gender, Health,and the Selling of Fitness. New York: New York UP, 2009. Print.

Greenhalgh, Susan (2014). A Biocitizen Society to Fight Fat. Making War on Fat: The  Human Story of America’s Anti-Obesity Campaign (Manuscript in Process).

Halse, C. (2009). Bio-Citizenship: Virtue Discourses and the Birth of the Bio-Citizen. Biopolitics and the ‘Obesity Epidemic’: Governing Bodies (pp. 45-59).

Mckay, James, and Helen Johnson. “Pornographic Eroticism and SexualGrotesquerie in Representations of African American Sportswomen.”Social Identities 14.4 (2008): 491-504. Social Identities. Web.

Shaw, D. L., and S. E. Martin. “The Function of Mass Media Agenda            Setting.” Journalism & Mass Communication Quarterly 69.4 (1992): 902-20. The Public Opinion Quarterly.

“Social Networking Fact Sheet.” Pew Research Centers Internet American Life Project RSS. Pew Research Center, Web. 08 Dec. 2014

Wann, M. (2009). Forward. Fat Studies: An Invitation to Revolution (pp. ix-xxv). New   York: NYU Press.


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