CW: This article contains discussion of eating disorders.
There are two ethical levels to the culture of Instagram clean eating: the ethics of the influencers appointing themselves experts, sharing misinformation, encouraging weight loss and an aesthetic ideal, and the ethical value that the influencer themselves puts onto food. The language surrounding clean eating is incredibly binary: food is healthy/unhealthy, organic/processed, positive/negative. Even the word “clean” alludes to an obvious opposite of dirty. Binary language like this removes any complexity surrounding nutrition. Our health can not be easily condensed into what we eat and how much we exercise, especially as increasing numbers of studies are showing the effects that our emotional health and stress have on the body.1
Of course, if you spend any time lingering on lifestyle Instagrams, you will see the overwhelming hypocrisy as influencers scatter self-care advice between posts about eating only fruit for breakfast and transparent attempts at cutting calories with “just as good” substitutes (whoever thinks spiralized courgette is as good as pasta is kidding themselves). This negative, moralistic approach to food is a discernible cause of stress in many people’s lives, increasingly leading to disordered eating. Some clean eaters state that they have been eating disorder patients themselves and that focusing on health encouraged their recovery, an inspirational motif that continues to encourage people to join the community.
However, in involving oneself in Instagram’s clean eating community, many young people build an online identity around binary ideas about food, admit to shame about their cheat-days, and share meals that do not meet the recommended calorie intake. The obvious answer to the question of why so many ‘former’ eating disorder patients turn to clean eating, however understandable their initial motivations surrounding health are, is that it is a more socially acceptable form of controlling your diet.2 The overlap between disordered eating and clean eating is another indicator of a dangerous culture, driven by shame and aesthetics.
The internet - with its character limits, text cut-offs, and competition to capture more attention than whatever else is on your feed - is notorious for turning nuanced information into catchy shorthand phrases. We’ve seen it countless times with entire political movements being turned into hashtags, news headlines missing key details, and our personal lives reduced to witty Instagram captions. The clean eating movement is absolutely no exception and this limiting language intends to encourage you (the potential follower and consumer) to absorb the message too quickly to consider it properly, elusively suggesting the expertise of the influencer.
Doctors and health professionals not only have qualifications, but also take ethical pledges. While there are cases of ethical violations by professionals, these usually have consequences. However, Instagram influencers are much harder to hold accountable. Most Instagrammers will not outright claim to have expert knowledge, but I would argue that just putting yourself in the position of influencer is suggesting you consider yourself more knowledgeable than the layman and that you expect your followers to follow your advice - for better or for worse. Instagram, in limiting what it shows, allows for ambiguity in the expertise or background of what you are preaching. The phrases associated with clean eating are often overly simplistic and simultaneously unclear. Random ingredients allegedly “boost our immune system” or “fight cancer”, neither of which are possible in such exact terms, but the influencer likely relies on this shorthand to appear assertive to the average Instagram user without a background in biomedical science.3
The language surrounding clean eating is reflective of our sometimes moralistic approach to food and eating. Captions emphasise purity, food items are described as being “guilt-free” or sometimes a “guilty pleasure”. Eating out of line with a chosen diet is even referred to as “cheating”. Other times, by less strict Instagram gurus, we’re told it’s okay if we slip on our diets, it’s forgivable and we can try again tomorrow - a kind sentiment, but what do we need to forgive exactly? Why is it a point of shame to eat the food that you enjoy?
Healthy eating in and of itself is positive; looking after yourself and nourishing your body appropriately is medically beneficial. However, healthy eating should extend to our mindset as well - I do not believe eating habits revolving around shame, calorie-counting, or pseudoscience are healthy.
*Illustration by Abigail Featherstone*