Instagram & the Cult of the Body Image Hashtag

#fitspiration #cleaneating #strongnotskinny #transformationtuesday

If you’re on Instagram, these phrases are instantly familiar, conjuring up images of mostly attractive girls, phones pointed at a mirror, baring an exquisitely toned midriff. And fair play to them. I’m not in any doubt that it takes a serious amount of discipline and training to get to that point, and why shouldn’t they be proud? Yes, it’s really good to see a shift away from dieting towards emphasising the amazing things our bodies can do if we fuel them well and stay active.

What worries me, though, is when you take away the star-shaped avocado slices and green juice and abs you could bounce a 5c piece off, it all basically boils down to the same focal point: body image. And the amount of content that forces us to analyse our bodies in one guise or another is staggering.

The now well-established wave of clean eating was something that I totally got on board with. As someone who can’t eat dairy and chooses not to eat meat, I was over the fucking moon to see avocado toast popping up on the menus of even the most obscure cafés in Ireland as they jumped on the bandwagon. Gone were the days of being presented with a sad few leaves as the healthy option. Here, finally, was an appreciation for good, nourishing filling food which aimed to steer us away from our wily sugar-addict ways.

A new breed of food blogger, young, vibrant, brandishing a spiralizer, offered a panacea for all our worldly woes: improved energy, flawless skin, balanced body weight, full-metal-jacket immunity and (it seemed) an amazing life in a loft space in New York or London. Again, all well and good, but all of a sudden it started to feel a little…cultish. Comments on Instagram posts wondered how you’d ever manage to uphold the laws of clean eating when travelling. I started to throw a packet of nuts in my bag lest I be forced down a less-than-wholesome road when I was out.

Why is this a bad thing, I hear you ask? To increase your intake of fruit and veg, cut out processed food and scale back on sugar is surely a positive move. To have a few almonds instead of a packet of Tayto is surely a better choice. And yes, it almost certainly is. But it’s when you begin to feel intense guilt for having a few crisps that it becomes an issue.

It started to feel like more of a belief system than a way of eating, where the non-clean food was a bit dirty, and to eat it was to sin. I’m not saying that any of these food bloggers promoted this particular vehemence, but it definitely evolved. There was a certain implication that foods containing sugar, bad fats and additives were “dirty”, that you could be brought before the High Court of Eating for so much as a sideways glance at a box of Lucky Charms.

Feeling fear around eating certain foods is an alarm bell. There’s a strong body of research to suggest that people feel worse rather than better after being on social media, and perhaps the proliferation of body-image related posts is a contributing factor.

A recent study found that Instagram use was linked to developing symptoms of orthorexia, an unhealthy obsession with healthy eating. To see people deprive and berate and punish themselves in pursuit of some kind of aesthetic really saddens me, not least because it makes me think of all the things I could have done in the hours I wasted obsessing over food. In the past, I’ve had a not-so-healthy relationship with food and I have to say, the control offered by clean eating was something that was definitely a potential trigger for me.

So although my love affair with avocados continues (hardcore, houseless millennial that I am), I’ve had to take a step back from the rigid confines of clean eating. Rather than get up early on the morning of my birthday to make a beetroot chocolate cake (which is actually not bad, if you’re ever inclined), I had several slices of a five-tiered chocolate orange taste sensation with marshmallows and caramel drip things, because I realised that I wasn’t going to poison or defile my body with a bit of cake.

On the other hand, there’s been a strong push towards loving ourselves as we are, images of ‘real’ bodies and cellulite and no make-up selfies and captions explaining how many photos it had taken to get this perfect shot. And while this is hugely refreshing and I applaud the courage and honesty of these women, it still emphasises body analysis. Also, I don’t know about you, but a lot of these ‘bad’ pictures still look pretty good to me. What if your cellulite is more like craters than dimples? What if your arse has a bigger fold of fat in pigeon pose than the honest Instagram yogi? (Incidentally, I recently realised that my arse is a very unusual shape in pigeon pose. Potato-like). What if their ‘bad’ still makes you feel awful?

And what if you’re super-skinny or toned… does that make you somehow not real? Is your body not to be paraded for fear of offending the ‘real’ amongst us? Where do we go from there? You could argue that to describe just one type of body as beautiful or good is effectively body shaming everyone else.

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But still, the eye seems to be drawn to a certain ‘perfect’ aesthetic. Follower numbers tell us that a huge number of us like pictures of pretty blonde girls eating courgetti in beautiful apartments. We like the enviable pictures of the acrobatic yogi on the tropical beach and the celebrity with the covetable wardrobe. It’s aspirational. They’re selling us a lifestyle that somewhere, deep down, feminist sensibilities and all, we might like to have. This is the power of exposure to the images that create our idea of ideal.

Even though we might know that many of those photos are totally contrived, taken with professional cameras and edited to within an inch of their lives, it still has a huge negative effect on how we judge ourselves. To lay a bit of psychology on it, in social situations, we naturally tend to make downward comparisons, comparing ourselves to people we see as slightly ‘worse’ than us in an effort to make ourselves feel better – an “at least I’m not as bad or fat or skinny or stupid or unhealthy or lazy or gossipy as her” mentality. In the perfectly curated world of social media though, there isn’t much scope for that, so we’re left feeling distinctly not good enough.

So I took a break from Instagram. Then I did a bit of a detox and unfollowed the accounts which were overly perfect and made me feel like crap. As a yoga teacher, I used to follow lots of white, slim, clean-eating, super-flexible yogis. To be honest, that’s what the majority of yoga accounts on Instagram look like. While some of these people have an authentic and often uplifting message to share, it dawned on me that many accounts were filled with gratuitous bikini/handstand or green juice pics accompanied by a token ‘Namaste’. Was this enhancing my life? Was it the message I thought yoga teachers should be circulating, subtly or otherwise, one of inclusivity and valuing your uniqueness? Probably not.

In an attempt to diversify the images I was seeing, I found accounts like The Atlas of Beauty and women like Jessamyn Stanley and Dana Falsetti. They don’t go around shoving #bigisbeautiful down your throat. They just make a stand for being okay with whatever body you’re in. And maybe even feeling good about it. Because skinny is beautiful too. And somewhere-in-between-with-a-bit-of-back-fat. And black. And brown. And pale. And freckly. And stretchmarky. And kind of wonky-toothed. It’s all okay.

The issue, I think, is these stark dichotomies: good vs bad, clean vs unclean, real vs fake. Instagram will always have images of bodies and lifestyles to throw at us. It’s being able to take a step back and realise how your brain is processing these images. Be wary of blindly subscribing to the cult of the hashtag whether it’s #cleaneating, #strongnotskinny, #glutenfree or #bigisbeautiful.

By all means, take the positive part of the messages they endorse and use it as inspiration, but don’t let yourself fall into the trap of thinking that there’s only one good way to eat or to look. By all means eat and exercise for the good of your health and energy levels, but realise that there’s a whole lot of diversity out there and that there’s a whole lot more to us, and to our lives, than our bodies.

Ask yourself as you scroll; do I feel good or do I feel shit? If it’s the latter, maybe put down the phone for a bit. Or follow Celeste Barber. #effyourbeautystandards.

Featured image source.