Sexy, air-brushed fitness model photos: inspirational or disheartening?

Last week, I waded into a Facebook discussion about the potential negative effects of the sexy, glamourous fitness model photos now seen daily in fitness magazines and websites.

Are they inspirational or disheartening?

Motivating or spirit-crushing?

Positive or negative?

Do ‘ordinary’ people (I count myself in this group), look at them and think “Hey, I want to look like that; if she can do it, I can too”? Or do they quickly click away, feeling defeated and inadequate and even less inspired to head to the gym and bypass the dessert menu?

Lots of interesting points of view were raised. I’ve paraphrased some of them below (and added my own thoughts in parentheses).

  • nobody is forcing anyone to look at the images (true, but hard to avoid and even a glimpse can subconsciously affect some)
  • who defines the word ‘fitness’? (it means different things to different people and is not necessarily the same as ‘skinny’ or ‘sexy’)
  • we’re all looking through different lenses, defined by how we feel about our own bodies (body image is personal and can be changed)
  • not just women are affected; young, ripped male bodies are the example older men have to gaze upon
  • seeing ‘before’ photos can make the ‘after’ pics more inspirational (I love ‘before’ and ‘after’ shots)
  • many of the digital images we see are altered and everybody knows it (but do they really?)
  • the fitness industry relies on new recruits to sell products and services; we need to be easy to approach to those who most need us (how do we get plus sized participants into our gyms if everybody working out there is a size 0?)
I, myself, love to see progress pics of people on fitness journeys.
I like to see their abs appearing and their muscles becoming more defined. I’ve posted progress pictures of myself and hope that they haven’t deterred anyone from starting or continuing to improve their own physique. I promise that I’ve never air-brushed my abs or photo-shopped my butt (not that I would even know how to!).
But I draw the line at fitness model photos that reveal too much. I don’t believe in sexualizing my body to sell videos (heck, nobody would buy them!) or promote blog posts (my husband thinks that taking the pictures is fine, but publicizing them on Facebook is not; for his eyes only please!)

I would love to continue this discussion with you. 

Sexy, air-brushed fitness model photos: love ’em or  hate ’em? Comments below please!


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  1. so much for me is different now that Im older (I assume EVERYONE IN PRINT IS PHOTOSHOPPED…I meet people from online IRL and learn most of them are ‘shopped too :-)) and so much for me has changed now that I have an impressionable little one around.
    There is too much sexualization in the fitness mags.
    the airbrushing etc Ill take on explaining to her.
    MIzMiz recently posted…You’re lovely, amazing, and wise. Smart, strong, and supportive.My Profile

  2. I agree that some of my thoughts on this have changed as I have gotten older. I have a better idea of what a happy me can realistically look and feel like. However, I do still see some photos and have envy of them. Photoshopped or not, the models are fit and beautiful to begin with! I know my body is my own and I am learning to be okay with that.
    Talia @ Bite Size Wellness recently posted…Summer Health MakeoverMy Profile

  3. I don’t find them inspirational or relevant to my life. I much prefer to see regular people my age – those I can relate to!
    AlexandraFunFit recently posted…4 Stages to Healthier HabitsMy Profile

    • Me too! Although you and Kymberly inspire me and I don’t think of either of you as ‘regular’ people at all!

  4. I used to dwell on the fit model pictures SO much and it was at a time that I was in a very unhealthy relationship with how I treated and viewed my body. I now can see them (how can you not on Pinterest, right?) and can find them inspiring…but more the words of a motivational quote or thought inspire me. And I’m way more interested in REAL people and their REAL journeys over something I’m sure has been digitally altered. I guess I don’t pay as close attention to them as I used to. I think they CAN motivate, but they can also harm. I also prefer focusing on what a body can DO over what it looks like and don’t care that the images take away from that a lot of times.
    Tina @ Best Body Fitness recently posted…Move It Monday: Rest WeeksMy Profile

  5. Pictures can be motivating when you see a regular person like yourself achieving the body you want. It’s the airbrushed professional fitness models that I find elicit feelings of inadequacy. I’m guessing about 95% of the population will never look like them, yet they are held up as the ideals. It’s sad. As far as sexualizing our own bodies for our blogs or to promote our own products, I have no problem with that. We are sexual beings, and to deny that is somewhat Puritan in my view. I’m proud of what I’ve accomplished at my ripe age while acknowledging I’m not perfect. I think it motivates others, but if not they certainly don’t have to look.
    Suzanne @WorkoutNirvana recently posted…Restaurant Recipes Exposed: Healthier and Tastier Versions of Your Favorite MealsMy Profile

  6. Airbrushed, no! Real people making progress, yes! Not everyone is going to be an 18 year old size 2. I’m a 30 year old, marathon runner, who still wears a double digit size. Real people making progress are what I can relate to because that is what I am, I could go bat crud fitness crazy and never be a size 2 so I like seeing normal sized girls who have gotten healthy.
    Abby @ BackAtSquareZero recently posted…Guest Post – Jen – Motherhood & RunningMy Profile

  7. i usually find them inspiring if they have a motivational quote to go along with them…but then again i’m usually focusing more on the words. the image is motivating but not because i expect myself to look just like them.
    Lindsay @ The Lean Green Bean recently posted…Get Your Good GoingMy Profile

  8. As an adult and someone who feels pretty confident with my own body, I don’t feel defeated when looking at these pics. I also realize that everything is airbrushed and it’s not possible to look that perfect. But, for young girls and women who are wanting to start out on their fitness journey, I can see how these photos might be discouraging. I would hope that everyone knew about the airbrushing, but I realize not everyone does.
    hikermom recently posted…I Found Me!My Profile

  9. I agree that my view on this has changed as I’ve gotten older and now that I have young kids. I do look at and find some of the photos inspiring, especially the before/after pics and one showing strong, healthy women. I do assume that they are all photoshopped and I really don’t need to see the very sexualized images. Someone tweeted (I think) that if athletes can’t use steroids than models shouldn’t have photoshop which was an interesting thought.
    Christine @ Love, Life, Surf recently posted…Scenes from my weekend – MusicMy Profile

  10. I am neither inspired nor disheartened. I see pictures of airbrushed model (fitness or otherwise) and my first thought is “well that’s not real”. I don’t put any stock in magazine photos of celebrities. I think the way we idolize the size 0 figure is shameful and bloggers are the worst offenders! Commenting on other bloggers photos about amazing they look yet no one seems to have issues with that.

  11. I think it’s up to us as the consumers to be educated and know that these models are both airbrushed and very dieted down for the day of the photo. Personally, when I see a photo of someone I would like to look like, whether it is attainable or not, it motivates me to push a little harder. I try not to compare with other people, and instead only compare to myself… the model photos are simply that extra push 🙂
    Brittany @ Little b’s healthy habits recently posted…Yam Protein MuffinsMy Profile

  12. Real people, real progress, that inspires me!
    Kierston recently posted…The WonderFUl World of Egg Whites and Oats!My Profile

  13. I love all of your comments! I’ve decided not to respond to each and every one, since I’m no expert on this topic (and don’t want to be seen as having to have the last word!). Thanks to all for participating in the discussion. You’ve given me a lot to think about! (Both for my daughter’s sake and that of my clients and class participants!)

  14. I am a little annoyed when I see very sexual images displayed.. there have even been a few on the FF posts lately that have gone too far, in my opinion. I think that fitness shouldn’t be about sex. Period. I know it gets attention, but not the kind I would want for myself. And I am suspect of people who use that kind of lure to draw attention to their business activities… if you have to flaunt yourself, how good a trainer can you actually be, for example. You have likely seen the couple of pictures I am talking about, very recently.

    I think it must be very confusing for youngsters – what is real, what isn’t and how do ‘I’ fit into all of that.

    Good discussion topic.
    Elle recently posted…My Monday RunMy Profile

  15. When i was younger i loved the way models looked. Now when i look at the photos the models seem too young and too perfect. I like much more realistic photos, laugh lines, stretch marks and all. Women in every stage of becoming fit – are beautiful.
    getfitchick recently posted…Meet Kyra – The Get In Shape GirlMy Profile

  16. HI! Late to this. Family left – :-(. I am trying to catch up on all the backlogged mail! 🙂

    I saw this discussion & just did not want to get into it.. I have mixed feelings. I love the more true to life & not so photoshopped ones that are NOT overtly sexual which I think sends out the wrong message. I do progress pics but I am not some hot babe in outfits like they where. I understand the money behind this & companies want to tell but that is what also gets me too. It is about looks & age & all that other stuff. I have tried to be a reader model since my late 20’s – not get paid, just be in a mag as a reader model I I was never the look. Even now at almost 55, no, I am not cute still BUT I do show other aspects yet still get turned down so… mixed feelings on what they are doing & also how sexual some of it is getting…

    Mixed feelings….
    Jody – Fit at 54 recently posted…Gratitude Monday & Pictures Tell It all!My Profile

  17. I grew up with People magazine in the house, along with Teen Beat, Seventeen, Vogue, Elle, etc…I was naive about what could be done with photography tricks, and I still tend to forget that virtually every single photo is touched up. I like to see those perfect photos for their artistic beauty, but they do nothing for my self-esteem. I still can’t figure out how to get the itty bitty lower half and natural B cups!
    TriGirl recently posted…Some Michiganders and a Californian-My Rock ‘n’ Roll WeekendMy Profile

  18. This is tricky, because not “all” of those fitness models are actually airbrushed. And I give credit where credit is due. If you look like that, good for you! At the same time, it’s up to me to be realistic and not beat myself up by comparison. I know I will probably never look like that, but do I get excited when I see muscle definition and want to show it off? Definitely. It’s kind of a catch 22 thing, I think.


    • You are right, Sarah, there does have to be something there to airbrush! You can’t fake muscle (very easily).

  19. Has anyone seen the picture of Helen Mirin in the red bathing suite. I don’t believe it is photoshopped and is very inspiring she looks great but also real for her age. Currently there is a mag cover of Jane Fonda and she looks amazing but you can tell it has been touched up which is unfortunate because I think she looks great and would like to see a pic of her without the touchups. It is important to remember we all have flaws, fortunately most of the time other people don’t notice them, just we do!

    • Yes, I love that photo of Helen Mirin. I haven’t seen that Jane Fonda cover; which magazine is it?

  20. I am inspired by photos of women who look really good and I also love before and afters. I don’t like it when women show their butts in thongs or pull their pants all the way down above their crotch line. I also don’t want to see you in your bra and panties. Women aren’t taken seriously anymore b/c we are always posting naked pics of ourselves and then wonder why we aren’t taken seriously in some circles. I believe in being fit and I am okay with pics of females that are tasteful. But when they begin to look like porn photos then I don’t want to see them.

    • Bridgette, I’m with you (and you’ll never see a photo of me posed like that!). I’ve had three children and three years of breastfeeding too. No way mine will ever sit high again. Thankfully they’re not large; less for gravity to pull on 😉

  21. Another thing: it seems like so many of the women these days have boob jobs. I’m not against boob jobs, but it makes me feel weird that I don’t have huge breasts that stand at attention all the time. Mine were sucked off by 3 little monkeys and I am okay with them. So I never look as voluptuous as some of these women do.
    Bridgette Ralph recently posted…jukeboxcardio updateMy Profile


  1. […] Sexy, air-brushed fitness model photos: inspirational or disheartening? Tamara over at fitknitchick talks about an interesting topic. Images of sexy, glamourous fitness models have been popping up all over the internet, especially with the rise of Pinterest. While some find these images positive and motivational, others find them disheartening. What do you think? Go over the join the discussion! […]

  2. […] a good discussion to hop in on – Are photos of fitness models (like on Pinterest of in magazines) inspirational or disheartening to y… I shared my thoughts in the comments of Tamara’s post and would love to know […]