Fit Girl Culture and Orthorexia: When Healthy Becomes Unhealthy
The tradition of making New Year’s resolutions is a highly personal one. Even though most resolutions are not kept long enough to really resolve anything, the intention remains that they help to achieve goals or dreams that differ from individual to individual. Despite this personal orientation, there appears to be a constantly recurring theme among them: health. Whether the resolution is to win a bodybuilding competition or cut junk food from the daily menu, New Year’s resolutions have become a widely used tool to improve one’s lifestyle. Living in 2017, a time during which so-called ‘fit girls’ have taken over Instagram and skinny is the new pretty, what do we mean by ‘healthy’? When does a harmless New Year’s resolution turn into a dangerous obsession?
Beauty standards are of course culturally and time-dependent. Whereas in ancient Rome women were praised for their belly fat, six packs characterize today’s Western body ideals. Strong and slim appear to be the key words: a body that requires day to day sacrifice and dedication. These changing body ideals are natural. What’s not, is how in the 21st century these ideals have turned into an obsession perpetuated by a complete industry.
This industry is primarily based online. Social media platforms play a significant role in creating the ‘fit girl’ culture and keeping it alive. Accounts from fit girls and women from all over the globe share their tips and tricks on healthy eating and working out. These accounts often exclusively focus on the positive aspects of their lives: mid-night chocolate cravings or social sacrifices they need to make to maintain their healthy lifestyles are mostly left out.
Whereas these women claim to be here “to motivate & inspire”, they are actually propagating their healthy lifestyles in return for a lot of money. Promotion deals and sponsorships turn these fit girls into business women, their salary growing with every like they get. Altogether such social media accounts can cause a very incorrect and unreal image of what it is adopt a healthy lifestyle.
The exact social impact of this online fit girl community requires further research. It is however not unimaginable that increasing exposure to such accounts may work motivating on the one hand, but sets an unrealistically high bar on the other. The fit girl hype creates an environment that can trigger an obsession with health, a desire to be as fit as those girls appear to be. Whereas the majority of people sees no harm in adopting a healthy lifestyle, there are some serious physical and mental dangers in case it is taken too far.
Orthorexia is one of those dangers. Dr. Steven Bratman first introduced the term in 1997, but the fit girl hype seems to have given renewed relevance to his theory. In his 2004 book Health Food Junkies, Bratman describes orthorexia in more detail. However closely related to anorexia, there is a clear difference between the two: anorexia is focused on reducing weight, while orthorexia obsesses about purity. Bartman defines orthorexia as “an unhealthy obsession with healthy food.” Although orthorexia is not officially listed as a DSM diagnosis (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders), it can be characterized by a clearly disordered eating pattern. By cutting of many nutrition groups which are not considered as ‘pure’ (carbs, sugar, etc), orthorexic people risk severe malnutrition and even death.
As the obsession with a healthy lifestyle can interfere with other (social) activities, the fit girl hype can also cause social isolation. Orthorexic patients may be reluctant to go out for dinner, because they are not sure if the food that is served fits with their diet. And because so much time is spent in the gym and preparing meals that are as pure as possible, there is less room for social interaction with friends or family. The extent to which orthorexic patients seek control over their eating and exercising habits causes them to neglect other (social) aspects of a ‘healthy’ life.
Now please do not interpret this as an excuse to give up on your New Year’s resolutions. There is absolutely no harm in finally getting that gym subscription, nor is there in trying to stick to a vegan diet. There is only a very small group of people that loses control and becomes orthorexic because of such decisions. However, in order to fight it, we should be aware of the dangers of a healthy lifestyle and the role the whole fit girl industry plays in all this. Everybody should realize that there is nothing wrong with eating a Dutch cheese sandwich for breakfast or going out for dinner with friends every once in a while: in fact, these are perfectly healthy things to do.
Bratman, S., Knight, D. (2004) Health Food Junkies. New York: Broadway Books
– By Christine van der Horst