Article Abstract

Extreme body messages: themes from Facebook posts in extreme fitness and nutrition online support groups

Authors: Sarah R. Blackstone, Lynn K. Herrmann


Background: Extreme fitness and nutrition programs, that are said to “jump start” a healthy lifestyle, are becoming more pervasive. While some research has explored the harmful impact of fitspiration, thinspiration, and pro-anorexia/bulimia websites, no studies have examined the content associated with these extreme programs that advertised as promoting a healthy lifestyle. The objective of this study was to analyze posts found on extreme fitness and nutrition program support pages on Facebook. As these programs have become more popular, along with Facebook platforms for their participants, examining online user-generated posts related to these programs can provide information about the types of messages being promoted, and whether these can contribute to disordered eating and other harmful health behaviors.
Methods: User data were selected from one month from public posts on two popular Facebook fitness groups. Both groups were short-term programs that set extreme guidelines for fitness and nutrition. Researchers examined the data for harmful health messages using an individual coding strategy with inter-rater reliability (Kappa =0.92).
Results: Majority (88.6%) of messages analyzed promoted harmful health messages. Common categories of messages included losing weight/fat, promoting dieting/restraint, and harmful body messages, which promoted unsafe ways to attain certain body types.
Conclusions: The data analyzed in this study represent overwhelmingly negative commentary relating to harmful health and body messages. Messages in this study normalized dysfunctional behaviors and promoted fixating on certain body parts and objectifying bodies. These Facebook groups, though intended to be a sort of online support forum, provide an open space for body negativity and promotion of extreme behaviors for the sake of thinness. Most concerning, participants of these programs, which are advertised as promoting health, are expressing unhealthy thoughts and behaviors surrounding food, exercise, and body image. Given the ease of accessibility to this content using online platforms, these harmful messages can reach large groups of people and continue adding to a culture that values physical appearance to the detriment of health.