Instagram is a revolutionary tool. With a few taps, you can share photos that connect you with friends across the world, create a visual collection of memories and build communities around similar interests – travel, fashion, even hedgehogs.
But, there is a dark side to Instagram and to photo sharing in general. You put out a carefully curated version of yourself to the world. You begin measuring your social status–even your self-worth–in likes. You obsess over each photo and forget to live in the moment. This can have a huge impact on your psyche, especially when it comes to food.
For the past few years, my close friend Lucy* has struggled with anorexia. Like many Instagram users, she enjoyed documenting her daily meals. Gradually, however, the habit became inextricable from her disorder – she wouldn’t so much as nibble on anything without photographing it first. Using an app and her catalog of food photos, she tracked every calorie. For a time, she consumed more food photography than she did actual food. This is an unfortunately classic example of disordered eating. According to this article, 23% of Instagram users post food pictures as part of a food diary. Many extol the benefits of tracking food intake, but it can encourage controlled, obsessive eating habits. It shifts the purpose of eating from nutrition to documentation, which fundamentally redefines how we interact with food.
My friend isn’t the only one using Instagram to control and support her eating disorder. Hundreds, if not thousands, of users are creating entire communities that support eating disorders and excessive weight loss through jarring photography and captions. #th1nspo (#thinspo was banned) is one of dozens of hashtags linked to disturbing pictures of emaciated users, and Instagram even warns that when you search #ed (eating disorder), you might come across graphic images. Some accounts, like @skinny_please96, are devoted simply to documenting weight loss through intensely personal and often alarming photos. It’s a culture, complete with it’s own lingo, like “HW” for “highest weight” and “GW” for “goal weight.” But what does this have to do with foodstagrams?
A search of #imfat gives a hint. Mixed in with images of extreme weight-loss and photos encouraging self-starvation are numerous shots of users’ food. I’m not against food photography – quite the contrary. I visit Food Gawker and Food Porn Daily frequently for cooking inspiration. But on Instagram, the line between art and obsession is blurred.
While accounts like @skinny_please96 are definitely extreme (and it’s possible that their friends don’t even know about them), I was sick of my entire Instagram feed being consumed by friends’ food photos. It wasn’t cute; it was an obsession. Having had my fair share of body insecurities, I want to avoid the temptation to revive old habits, and I unfollowed several friends’ food-focused accounts.
But the entire composition of Instagram is becoming increasingly food-orientated. It begs the question: what’s really going on here? Does it depict a love of or an unhealthy preoccupation with food? Has our generation’s obsession with food gone too far? And more importantly, what are we supposed to do about it? My advice would be this: when in doubt, put down your phone and pick up your fork – your food’s getting cold, and your stomach doesn’t care if it looks better in Lo-Fi or Hudson.