The problem with the inspiration industry.
I’m not interested in inspiring people anymore.
Being “inspirational” used to be a fundamental part of what I thought I was doing, as a writer and coach and business.
First I “inspired people” to get in shape just by being in shape and loving fitness, then later I “inspired people” to love themselves and accept their bodies just by loving myself and accepting my body.
I used to think this was a valuable job, and an important way of helping people.
After all, the rising influencer lifestyle thing would have you believe that inspiring people is an actual career– that by living a great life and sharing bits and pieces of it on the internet as a kind of aspirational bread-crumb trail, people will follow and end up with a better life themselves.
I don’t believe that anymore.
First of all, this concept assumes that everyone has equal access to any kind of life they want, if they try hard enough.
That’s problematic because it ignores systems of advantage and disadvantage that exist across class, race, ability, gender, and more.
We can’t all live like Kendall Jenner, no matter how much we focus on spreading positive vibes, so is she really “inspiring us” to something other than buying her products, or trying to look more desirable?
That’s another part of the issue.
People who are the most “inspirational” often have a vague message, like “I just want to spread positivity and love,” or “good vibes only,” which leads me to believe that the thing they think they’re inspiring is happiness, or maybe kindness? Either way, how they expect to inspire people to be happier or more kind is extremely unclear.
That said, it usually involves posting brightly colored, high quality images of their face and body in beautiful clothing and locations… and since the influencer culture’s ultimate goal is about selling stuff for companies, I have to assume what these people are really inspiring in their audience is the ability to get out their credit card.
In short, to monetize inspiration, one must be selling something. Despite it becoming a seemingly viable career path for millenials, people don’t actually pay to be inspired. And since the people leading the way as “inspirational influencers” on social media are often unskilled in anything than looking pretty and being rich/living a perfect-looking life, the only things they can sell are random products.
Also, have you ever noticed that the label “inspirational” is sort of gendered?
When’s the last time we valued a man for simply being “so inspiring?” I mean we’ve got the Tony Robbins etc of the world, but we call him “motivational.”
I don’t know if it’s just me, but “motivational” somehow feels a lot more active to me than “inspirational.”
Being motivational is about him telling you stuff that gets you to immediately take action and see results. Being inspirational feels kinda passive, like a woman can just live her life a certain way and people will see her doing so and try to get what she has by emulating her.
I’m not into that, because even if it was possible for them to do so, I wouldn’t want anyone else emulating me– I’d much rather they tune into their own internal guidance systems, and live life on their own terms.
Also, because I am really fucking good at helping people, and it feels disrespectful to me to sum up what I do into “living a good life that people watch and want to emulate” when I’ve worked really hard on my education and experience.
But people constantly tell me (in response to my emails and especially my social media posts) that I inspire them, and often what inspires them most is my personal confidence and self-acceptance, not my skill as a coach, speaker, or writer.
This is especially true when I expose some supposed “flaw” about my body, or something about me that diverges from the normal female beauty standard script, and then say that I love or accept it.
At these moments I’m often told that I’m inspiring people “with my bravery” for posting such things, which is tricky.
Such comments are intended to be supportive and kind of course, but by exploring them more deeply we can see that they’re actually something else.
When I was a personal trainer and I started posting photos of my “flaws” for the first time ever, people said I was brave. Hearing that felt amazing at the time, because I had previously felt a ton of pressure to look “perfect” in every photo up until that point, so it did take a lot of courage for me to hit post on photos of my cellulite, jiggle and squish, bloating, and sagging.
Every post felt like I was risking my credibility and reputation as “perfect trainer girl,” so it felt daring and brave to expose the fact that I was just a regular person, rather than a flawless fitness machine.
But then I got over it, because that’s how comfort zones work.
After a very short amount of time these kinds of “I’m a human!” posts no longer felt brave, or required courage. But nonetheless all these comments and DMs and responses came pouring in about how inspiring I was, so I felt like… welp, I guess this is helping people, so I better keep doing it!
It was also interesting to notice over the years that the less conventionally attractive I looked, the more such comments flooded in.
When I shaved my head, let my body hair grow out, and put on some weight for example, I was apparently the most inspiring I had ever been. Why? Because I still liked myself, and still felt worthy as a person, even though I was no longer conventionally hot.
I heard things like “OMG #selflovegoals” dozens of times per day during that time.
Essentially the message was: if someone who is as un-hot as you right now can feel good enough about herself, then maybe I can too!
Clearly, if those women looked like me back then they would have been embarrassed, ashamed, and self-critical. The “inspiration” came from me not hating myself or feeling embarrassed and ashamed, when clearly my appearance meant I should have.
It’s a weird back-handed insult.
It’s similar to how we often apply the term “inspirational” to disabled people doing pretty much anything. The problematic assumption is that a disabled person should basically feel completely worthless and defeated and sad, so then when we see a story about a disabled person climbing a mountain, getting married, being happy, or starting a business we’re all like WHOA SO INSPIRATIONAL!
In fact there is a whole term for the phenomenon where we find disabled people inspirational just for existing, which is the darkest: it’s called inspiration porn, and it’s super ablist and fucked up.
The same applies to fat people being “inspirational” when they take up space and rock their bodies proudly.
Let’s take Lizzo for example.
People fucking love Lizzo. People love watching her have a fat black body, and call herself “a whole damn meal.” People hurl the “inspirational” title at her and bow at her feet.
Now don’t get me wrong. I like Lizzo. I dig her vibe, and her music is fun. But what’s so inspirational about her being out there liking herself and feeling sexy, except for the expectation that due to how she looks, she “shouldn’t”?
The inspiration comes from looking at her and thinking “if I looked like that I would feel so ugly/fat/gross/bad, so… good for her for feeling confident instead!”
Again, isn’t that kind of a backhanded insult?
I’ve also noticed that a lot of the women most inspired by Lizzo are thin white women, because she gives them hope. If someone as “flawed” and unconventional-looking as Lizzo can feel good about herself, then surely they, in their much more conventionally acceptable bodies, can too!
Don’t get me wrong, I recognize that women in marginalized bodies going out there and rocking it confidently is good for us as a society, because it pokes holes in the idea that happiness and confidence are based on fitting conventional beauty standards.
Seeing people of all shapes and sizes (and colors and abilities and ages) thriving and confident is a big deal, because it breaks the stereotype that only thin hot young white women can be desirable, confident, or happy.
It’s kind of like how seeing women and people of color in leadership positions in business/technology/science/government helps us break the stereotype that only white men can be leaders.
I get it, and I’m here for it.
But this back-handed insult thing is tricky, because we don’t find it inspiring when a conventionally attractive woman goes out there and says things like “I love myself, I’m sexy, I’m a whole damn meal.”
If Gal Gadot posted a sexpot photo of her looking like a glammed up smokeshow with the caption “don’t say it cuz I know I’m cute” people would probably feel kinda grossed out. Like.. yeah duh Gal, we all get it, you’re hot, take it down a notch.
But when Lizzo says it, we’re like… WOW SHE MUST NOT KNOW WHAT SHE REALLY LOOKS LIKE OMG SO INSPIRING.
Do you see what I mean?
Anyway, these are just some of the reasons I want to opt out of the inspiration industry.
Also, as a thin young white able-bodied woman, it feels weird to know that the women I “inspire” most by just being myself are other thin young white able-bodied women.
Meaning, women who look like Lizzo would probably not feel very inspired by women who look like me publicly loving myself, while women who look like me feel inspired when women who look like Lizzo publicly love themselves every day.
Many of the body positivity leaders I follow live in marginalized bodies: most often fat, and sometimes transgender or as a person of color, or with a disability or something about their appearance going clearly against conventional beauty norms, like cutis laxa (saggy skin) or vitiligo.
When those humans post photos of themselves saying “I am worthy of love and happiness, I’m sexy, and I like myself” people following feel liberated and inspired. While I still think the inspiration industry is problematic and needs examination, I get it.
But it’s a very different situation for me.
Lately I look especially conventional. My hair has grown out long since shaving it a few years ago so I present as very feminine, and I’m leaner than I was a few years ago, which means I pretty much look exactly how society says women should look right now. (Barf.)
And I’m not gonna lie, sometimes I dream of looking more subversive again, just to prove a point. Just to be “inspirational,” and help liberate the people looking at me.
But then I remember the questions I’m asking here:
Is it patronizing and insulting to consider someone inspiring just for existing with a non-conventional appearance?
Why aren’t men valued for (or labeled as) as inspirational as often as women?
What’s so great about inspiring people anyway? Does it actually lead to something positive for the people being inspired? And how does it impact the inspire-er?
I’m open to your thoughts on this, as always.
Please follow and like us: