Illustration by Beth Nicol
With celebrations cancelled outright for millions and the country’s morale at an all-time low, Christmas 2020 wasn’t exactly the most festive of festive periods. But, if you’re anything like me, the one thing that was still able to generate some kind of cheer amongst the chaos and gloom was delicious Christmas food. Parties, Christmas markets and the enjoyment of shopping on a busy high street without being filled with a sense of breathless panic may have been off the cards, but at least I was still able to scoff stollen, chocolate truffles, gingerbread and X-mas pud to the blissful point of semi-nausea in this bizarre time.
As we entered January (in my case, painfully hungover), I was pleasantly surprised to see anti-diet content being far more prevalent on social media than it was this time last year. Of course there are still individuals, organisations and companies that thrive - and profit - in the post-Christmas period by capitalising on the long-established concepts of “burning Christmas calories” and “getting in shape for the New Year”, but the tide definitely seems to be turning in the anti-diet culture movement’s favour, which can only be a positive thing. But whereas traditional diet culture tropes such as skinny teas, fad diets and slimming pills are finally starting to be shunned en-masse, the abundance of food and fitness content on Instagram is potentially creating a new wave of dangerous relationships with exercise and eating through the platform’s usual downfall: it’s ability to tap in to users’ comparison anxiety.
Out of all the main social media platforms, Instagram is most certainly the biggest culprit for creating a culture of comparison, due to the highly selective nature of what most individuals choose to share on their accounts. With the exception of the spontaneous and mildly embarrassing stories I share with my ‘close friends’ list, I know my Instagram profile is certainly not an accurate representation of my entire character, with my posts since March mainly comprising of pictures of myself (because if you can’t be vain in a time where there are so few other options when seeking an ego boost, when can you)? Unlike Twitter, where I am happy to share (most) of the deranged thoughts that pop into my head that I know 99% of my followers will not care about, Instagram is a much more carefully curated expression of self. Due to its visual-centric interface, it is understandable that we are less likely to share the aspects of our lives and selves that do not boast an aesthetic value, but it’s when we forget this crucial disclaimer whilst interacting with content creators and influencers that we offer ourselves up to the gnarled teeth of the comparison anxiety beast, especially when it comes to thinking about our bodies.
There are countless subcultures that are popular within Instagram, but food and fitness seem to be two sections of this virtual society with rapidly growing populations - I am actually writing from experience here, as someone who runs an account where I share my vegan food creations (@livs.vegan.food). It’s obvious why these kinds of content are consistently popular: food is a universal love language, and people are always seeking inspiration for new ways to create gastronomical delights in the comfort of their own home (or they simply wish to torture themselves through the medium of food envy); and fitness experts provide some sense of guidance for those who are new to the gym, as well as allowing those who are more experienced to improve their workouts further. Throughout the pandemic, these already popular content creators saw a surge in new devotees, as people swarmed to food accounts in order to make working from home more tolerable by bribing themselves with a delicious new recipe to try for lunch, and fitness gurus demonstrated ways to build or maintain fitness levels without needing to step foot out of the house thanks to the use of sofas, chairs and baked bean tins (https://metro.co.uk/2020/03/30/use-household-items-gym-equipment-12477058/). Thankfully, many of these influencers are also actively trying to promote healthy mindsets when it comes to eating and working out, with accounts specifically dedicated to critiquing diet culture also on the rise.
Dismantling diet culture is vital for society’s progress in promoting positive relationships with one’s body, as well as with food and exercise. The notion that we should all eat and exercise intuitively, and in a way that is simply striving to make your body and mind feel good, is certainly what we should all be working towards. Unfortunately, the patriarchal beauty ideals that have been embedded into collective consciousness for so many years reduce this way of living to something of a Utopian pipedream. Most people have grown up influenced in some capacity by the viciously omnipotent diet industry, and so a sudden shift in the public psyche towards body positivity- or even body neutrality, which encourages people to focus on their bodies in relation to the purposes it serves without paying attention to its appearance- can leave some looking for urgent guidance in this new world of wellness. This is where food and fitness Instagrammers may come in, providing lost souls looking for a supposed roadmap to the ultimate, ineffable destination of “health” with something tangible to focus on through meal ideas and workout inspiration.
Due to my own history with disordered eating and using exercise as a form of self-punishment as opposed to self-care, I engage with these Insta creators with caution. I genuinely enjoy going to the gym and working out in order to improve my strength, and take inspiration for some of my workouts from fitness bloggers to ensure I’m challenging myself and avoiding things getting repetitive. I also love saving recipes that I find on fellow foodie accounts for future reference - although the collection is growing at a rate parallel to the dwindling likelihood that I will ever actually make any of them. On the other hand, I’m still incredibly prone to experiencing major comparison anxiety, so I know to avoid content such as “what I eat in a day” posts, people sharing the exact nutritional value of their meals, as well as in-depth looks at people’s intense fitness regimes. These are personal boundaries I’ve been able to set for myself after learning precisely what it is I find to be triggering, so I have been able to tailor my experience on Instagram to the point where I am almost exclusively exposed to content that I know is going to make me feel good. Some people may not be able to set these boundaries, however, such as those who are struggling through an eating disorder, people experiencing body dysmorphia or suffering with obsessive thoughts about exercise. In spite of most creators telling their followers that every person’s body is different and their profiles do not exist in order to provide a framework for a supposedly “healthy” lifestyle, vulnerable users - especially Instagram’s increasingly young audience - can skim over this word of warning and look to these individuals to provide them with rules and ideals to live by.
A friend of mine runs an Instagram food account with over 28k followers, and has shared with me frequent messages she receives from various followers asking her questions about the in-depth nutritional value of her meals, requesting personalised meal plans, and seeking advice on eating disorders - something she has not even experienced herself. She tells me that she finds these questions to put a lot of pressure on her as she isn’t qualified to be giving this advice, and how she believes it to be “worrying how people are seeking validation to eat from external sources on the internet instead of following their cues and intuition”. Because Instagram acts as a window into a person’s life, seeing relatable and personal content can lead those who are looking for guidance (in any aspect of life) to try and emulate these creators as they truly feel like they know them on an intimate level, despite the fact many accounts openly describe their Instagram as “highlights reel” of their daily life. When users prone to comparing themselves find Instagrammers who possess what they may consider to be their ‘ideal’ body type, the potential desire to replicate their way of living can be even more concerning. For some, Instagrammers become a proxy for doctors, personal trainers, nutritionists and therapists, but when no single person could hold all of these titles in real life, how is one individual supposed to possess all of these powers merely because they are being viewed through the pretty, filtered lens of Instagram?
Instagram as a whole certainly appears to be moving in the right direction when it comes to stamping out the ridiculous notions of diet culture and instead promoting genuinely healthy ways of living (and I mean ‘healthy’ in the sense of eating intuitively and celebrating your body for what it can do, rather than ‘healthy’ in the sense of replacing every carb with a vegetable and attempting to suppress chocolate cravings by eating a singular grape). There has to be an onus on food and fitness accounts with a large following to think critically about the messages they are sending out to potentially vulnerable people, but there is also still some responsibility for users to be selective in the content they consume, to set boundaries when it comes to social media usage and to try and seek out the influencers who are going to bring something genuinely positive to their feed. It is in our nature as social creatures to compare ourselves, but I can only hope that by gradually shifting the way we as a society talk about eating, exercising and our bodies we can finally stamp out toxic self-deprecation and be able to admire others without it impacting our own self-worth- both within the world of Instagram and beyond.
Written by Olivia Cox