An exploration of young females’ experiences of fitness culture on social networking sites

Author: Stephanie Jong

Jong, Stephanie, 2017 An exploration of young females’ experiences of fitness culture on social networking sites, Flinders University, School of Education

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While previous studies have investigated online health communities and health-seeking behaviours, less attention has been directed at the growing impact of the role of social networking site (SNS) online fitness accounts. Online fitness culture is created by a number of online communities that are focused on health and fitness. These include general health, fitness, and bodybuilding communities on various SNS, as well as wellbeing and healthy living blogs. Specifically, attention is provided to diet and food, inspiration, exercising, the body and body weight, and representations of fit bodies (Andreasson & Johansson, 2013a, 2013c; Hall, Grogan, & Gough, 2016; Smith & Stewart, 2012b).

Recent research indicates that elements of online fitness culture, fitness inspiration images and sites, tend to perpetuate unachievable ideals of the female body, resulting in body dissatisfaction and negative health outcomes (Boepple, Ata, Rum, & Thompson, 2016; Boepple & Thompson, 2015; Holland & Tiggemann, 2016a; Tiggemann & Zaccardo, 2015). This thesis makes an original contribution to knowledge through the analysis of online fitness culture from a socio-cultural perspective in order to gain a greater understanding of how these cultures impact young females’ health beliefs and health behaviours, such as diet and exercise.

This thesis draws on the theories of social constructionism and symbolic interactionism to explore experiences of involvement in online fitness culture on the SNSs Facebook and Instagram. To explore this, a blended netnography was conducted. This involved two methods: a netnography (online ethnography), and 22 semi-structured individual interviews with female participants aged 18 to 24 in Australia. The netnography allowed an examination of the messages circulated from SNS accounts dedicated to health, and their role as a channel for information about health and fitness. It further provided an understanding of the rituals, norms and language used within online fitness communities. The individual interviews supported deeper investigation into online fitness culture, including learned beliefs, values and customs guiding the actions of online fitness users.

The thesis suggests that online fitness on SNSs is a popular platform for sourcing information about health and fitness. Social networking sites are used to gather, and also teach, ideas of health and fitness, and the manner in which textual and photographic online communication facilitates the construction and transmission of this knowledge. Evidently, users of online fitness accounts were introduced to information related to various forms of health that resulted in motivation to implement physical activity into their everyday lives, and to consume ‘healthy’ foods. Further positive reflections of involvement with the culture aligned to feelings of belonging to a ‘like-minded’ community, attaining support from geographically dispersed community members. Findings indicated that users of fitness accounts on SNSs predominantly followed the normalised and dominant health discourses seen in traditional media. The onus of these messages is firmly placed on the individual to adhere to norms of ‘correct’ health practices and ‘choices’. This has connotations relevant to agency, critical media health literacy and exercise based on aesthetics, with links to poor body image.

Keywords: social media, social networking sites, fitspiration, netnography, health, females, Facebook

Subject: Education thesis

Thesis type: Doctor of Philosophy
Completed: 2017
School: School of Education
Supervisor: Murray Drummond