Real Talk

Fitness & Food: When Instagram Becomes Dangerous

July 27, 2016

Food and fitness-related posts take over most of my Instagram feed. I follow a ton of amazing health and wellness bloggers, which means my feed is basically a huge collection of people eating yummy food, staying active, wearing cute clothes, and promoting healthy products. And I’m pretty sure I’m not the only one whose feed looks like this.

Although it makes me happy to scroll through endless photos of glorious meals and inspiring fitness posts, it also makes me nervous.

As someone who has struggled with orthorexia and exercise addiction, I’m hyperaware of triggering statements and images. In recovery, I learned that one of the most helpful things for me to do in order to stay grounded is to notice triggering things, point them out to myself, and dissect them in my head. When I take the time to logically talk myself out of the thoughts that these images or words elicit, I’m able to stay on track.

Something I’ve been frustrated with recently is how easy it is for someone to scroll through Instagram and get triggered to make comparisons. I think we all know this on some level, but most of us don’t stop to really think about it.

Specifically, I’ve been uncomfortable with a lot of the caption-photo pairings I’ve been seeing lately. I see photos of delicious breakfast bowls, hearty lunches, yummy dinner plates, and delectable desserts that make me drool. Underneath those photos, there’s often a recipe or a cute story explaining how the meal came about, and usually it’s paired with a little snippet of what’s gone on in the blogger’s day.

For example, I might see a huge, gorgeously purple smoothie bowl topped with nuts and bananas and seeds and edible flowers and all of the yummy things. Underneath the photo, the caption might read, “Got back from an 8 mile run this morning and I’m feeling AMAZING, so it’s time to dig into this DELICIOUS smoothie bowl! Now I’m off to work and a relaxing yoga class this afternoon! What are you guys doing today?! Recipe in the comments!”

I just made that up, but I see something similar to that over and over again on my feed.

I don’t think there’s anything wrong with posting photos of food and meals. I love when people post photos of food! I do it, you probably do it, we all do it. I mean, my friends and I have an entire Instagram account dedicated to food pictures.

There’s also absolutely nothing wrong with promoting an active lifestyle and talking about your fitness routine. The main part of any blogger’s job is to connect with readers, and that means sharing what’s going on in her day and what she’s been up to. I’m all about “that fitness lifestyle,” and I love to hear what people are doing. (I’m nosy, remember?)

The problem, though, is the overall picture. And the overall feed. First of all, when someone posts that type of Instagram photo with that kind of caption every single day, it sometimes sends a message that you deserve to eat that yummy meal after a workout or only if you’re planning on working out later.

Like, I’m eating this omelette and big bowl of oatmeal with tons of toppings right now and so happy about it! (but it’s okay because I’m doing BBG and going on a run later.) <– What’s in the parentheses is what might be implied to many people scrolling through their feeds. I don’t want anyone getting that message. You don’t have to work out to “deserve” to eat delicious food.

My friend Nina puts it best when she says, “You’re not a dog. You don’t get a bone for doing a trick.” You eat delicious, whole, healthy food because it makes your body and soul feel good. It nourishes you and fuels you, whether or not you went to the gym that day. And even if the food isn’t that healthy, you still don’t need to work out to be “allowed”  to eat it. Life is about balance. Food isn’t punishment, and it’s not a game.

Then we’ve got the issue of portion sizes. It goes both ways here. Sometimes I’ll see images of breakfasts with one egg and a pathetic side of sautéed spinach, which sends the message that that’s the only thing the person is eating for breakfast. On the other hand, someone might post a pic of a huge container of ice cream topped with cookie dough bits and chocolate drizzle and nuts and caption it, “Perfect post workout fuel! I treat myself to this every night!”

It’s easy to go through Instagram and not realize that you’re internalizing some of these messages. Yes, someone might be saying her breakfast is an egg and spinach. But she also might not be telling you she later added two more eggs and a smoothie to that breakfast. Maybe she posted just the one egg and spinach because it was more aesthetically pleasing for the photo.

And that photo of the huge container of ice cream? I’ve heard girls justify bingeing daily on unhealthy foods by saying, “Well *insert name* eats it every day after she works out and she’s super fit, so it’s fine if I do too!” How do you know she’s eating that whole container of ice cream? How do you know she’s eating it at all?

Second, I want to address the problem of fitness standards. Honestly, I usually scroll through my feed pretty quickly, so I’m not really processing everything I read in the captions. Recently, though, I’ve been paying extra attention to the content of those captions, and I’ve realized how unrealistic a lot of people’s fitness habits seem to be. Post after post I see, “Just got back from my 10 mile run!” or “Finished HIIT this morning and can’t wait for my weight session tonight!” or “Woke up early for a 45 minute run and now off to do shoulders and back!” A similar caption is posted day after day, on multiple accounts.

Um…what?! If you’ve ever noticed this on your feed and subconsciously compared yourself to these fitness routines, DON’T.

First of all, a lot of people on the Internet lie. Just saying.

Second, the way we receive these messages makes it seem like these people are exercising much more than they actually are. For example, it’s easy to get accounts confused, and when they all kinda mesh together, it seems like that person is doing a crazy amount of exercise every damn day when they’re not actually.

Third, even if those people are doing all of those workouts, it does not mean you should too. That person might be overtraining. OR, fitness might be that person’s job. Don’t compare yourself to someone who is literally paid to workout. When you’re paid to work out, obviously you have more time to exercise and are expected to work out more often. Those people, if true professionals, are taking care of their bodies in much different ways (which they’re probably not posting about) than the average person does in order to maintain that amount of exercise.

When I struggled with exercise addiction, these kinds of captions definitely triggered me. I was overtraining, but seeing posts like that made me think, I do less than that, so I must still not be doing enough. I thought, This girl seems healthy and happy, and she says she works out 7 days a week and hates taking rest days, so maybe I should, too. 

NOOOOO! I wish I could shake some sense into myself when I was having those thoughts. Those thoughts got me into a lot of trouble. They were wrong. Those fitness standards are unrealistic, and they’re not healthy. More is not always more. And social media is definitely not reality.

Instagram is a breeding ground for comparisons, but we have to fight those instincts. What works for someone else might not work for you. Anyone can say whatever they want on the internet, true or not. Have you ever posted a photo and acted like you took it that day but didn’t really? I have.

It’s also important to remember that just because someone is a food or fitness blogger doesn’t mean you should be copying what they do. She might be posting photos of drool-worthy food, but that doesn’t mean she has a healthy relationship with food. She might, but she might also be undereating, overeating, feeling guilty, bingeing, or feeling scared and confused. We don’t know.

Same with fitness. She might seem happy and strong and muscular, but that doesn’t mean she isn’t tired as hell, overexercising, forcing herself to work out way too often, or feeling trapped. Social media is a highlight reel of our lives. Most people don’t like to admit to themselves when something is wrong, let alone post about it on Instagram. Instead, it can be easier to act like everything is perfect and to hide behind an image of a fit girl who eats a lot of perfect-looking, divine food.

Somehow food and fitness got all wrapped up together and became really overwhelming on social media so that it sometimes sends a message it wasn’t intended to send in the first place. I don’t think anyone means to send messages promoting undereating, overeating, or overexercising. However, when the images and captions come day after day, all piled together, sometimes that is the message we receive.

I want to reiterate that there’s nothing wrong with posting a photo of your meals and/or talking about how great you feel after exercising. There are so many users who truly do promote healthy, balanced lifestyles. Although I think that food and fitness posts can be triggering and lead to unrealistic standards, I also think communities that have been created on social media platforms, like Instagram, are amazing ways to stay motivated to live a healthy lifestyle. I think it’s a great way to find support when trying to eat healthy foods, stay active, and achieve an overall state of wellness.

We just have to be careful about when things go too far, and we have to check ourselves to make sure we’re not making comparisons. I just want us all to be conscious of the overall messages we are sending, and I hope that everyone can be honest with themselves and others about their intentions behind those photos and captions.

I’m a very straightforward person. I like to keep it real, and I like when everyone else is keepin’ it real with me, too. And I know that if I’m seeing these photos and captions and thinking, “Holy shit, is this real?!” then I’m not the only one.

I want to tell you right now that I’m never going to lie to you and tell you I work out 7 days a week, every week, and that I feel amazing, so you should do that too. I’m also never going to tell you that I don’t work out at all and that I eat hoards of cookies and ice cream all the time. I’m not going to post a vibrant picture of a beautiful cake and tell you I ate it in one sitting and will do it again tomorrow, when I actually just had a piece or two. I’m also not going to tell you that I ate only a banana for breakfast and felt full and super energized.

I’m gonna keep it real with you, because I want us all to stop putting expectations on ourselves and on others. So yes, sometimes I might post a picture of a meal and tell you I worked out that day, but that’s not meant to make you feel like you should copy my life. And it’s definitely not meant to imply that because I worked out that day, I was “allowed” to eat that big meal. Or that what I tell you I do one day is what I do every day. We’re all individuals, and we all gotta do what works for us. Social media is a great way for us to share our lives and what we love, but it’s important to remember that at its core, social media will never be real life.

 

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