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The Problem With Food Porn

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The day I launched The Anti-Diet Project, I also created a hashtag for it. In part, I did this because it was 2013, when the entire world simultaneously decided that there was no object or experience in life that didn't require aggressive hashtagging. The other reason was because I wanted to create a sense of community, both for myself and for like-minded readers. On tough days, it felt — it still does feel — so invigorating to scroll through Instagram and Twitter, seeing other #AntiDietProject moments from around the world. And it felt similarly gratifying when I'd post something about my new lifestyle and see it met with virtual high fives (real talk: That's what we all like about social media, right?). On Instagram, in particular, I'd post unapologetic gym selfies and delicious meals I no longer felt ashamed to eat — and it made sense. My changing relationships with food and fitness were two of the most important things in my life at that time, and it felt right to share that. But over time, I noticed an unmistakable pattern in terms of what people liked (or rather, what they hit "Like" on). Not just on the hashtag, but on my entire Instagram account: My most popular pictures were of food. The prettier, the better.
I'd noticed this with other "healthy living" accounts — even on those for eating disorder recovery. Click on #EDRecovery today and you'll get over 1.6 million pictures, almost all of which are of food: A syrupy stack of pancakes, lovely yogurt parfaits, and bright bowls of multicolored fruit, all carefully styled and filtered within an inch of their lives.

Bravo! I thought. Why shouldn't we who have spent our lives wrestling with food celebrate when we finally learn to embrace it in a sustainable, healthy way? I'd spent my whole life obsessing over forbidden bowls of pasta and trying to figure out how to eat kale and only kale, forever. Now that I could eat dinner like a normal person, I wanted to shout it from the virtual rooftops: Check out my pasta, y'all! AND my kale! And, um, how about this nectarine, since the light is so pretty right now?

Only recently did it occur to me that there might be a problem here, and that I might be part of it.

One of the primary goals of intuitive eating — of all non-dieting and recovery methods, really — is food neutrality. Food is neither enemy nor best friend. It's neither the worst nor the greatest part of your day. It's meant to fuel you and to be enjoyed — not avoided or worshipped. I'd done a great job at stopping the avoidance and self-criticism around food, but looking at my Instagram feed, it seemed that I and many others had inadvertently flipped the switch toward another extreme. Here, food was anything but neutral. It was all glammed up, and it was everywhere.

I heard Dr. Lynne Gerber refer to this issue in an excerpt from the upcoming documentary Fattitude (for which we were both interviewed). Commenting on the representation of food and eating on reality television, she said: "The contradiction of 'don't eat this, don't eat that,' with 'watch us cook this, watch us cook that! Watch the new restaurant show! Watch the new cooking show!' The food thing is intense, man." On TV, we can watch Biggest Loser contestants locked in a room full of doughnuts and burgers as they struggle through the Temptation Challenge. Or we can click over to The Food Network for The Ultimate Burger Bash or Paula Deen's Doughnut Bread Pudding with Butter Rum Sauce. In either scenario, food is the center of attention.

My goal was to step outside that toxic system and learn to treat food normally. Yet, if I found myself face-to-face with a juicy grapefruit or a gooey, Willy Wonka-style sundae, I could not resist taking a photo and captioning it with something along the lines of, "OMG SO GOOD." And, in response, hundreds of people would click the Like button, agreeing en masse that yes, that sundae looked SO GOOD. It was as if I were eating dessert and getting praised for it. Actually, it wasn't "as if" anything — it just was.
When that fact finally hit me, it landed hard. It was another in a series of wake-up calls with food. (Will I ever run out of those? My phone's been ringing off the hook with them for like two years.) At first, I was angry at myself and embarrassed for making such an obvious gaff. But soon, I realized that my intentions hadn't been evil or even inherently problematic. It was natural, after a life of secretive, shameful eating, to want to share my healthier habits publicly. Even if it was a little bit showy to be all "check-out-my-sundae," it was also a little bit brave. It was me telling the world that eating a sundae is not a crime — and it was also me asking the world, "It's not a crime, right? Okay, just checking."

But at a certain point, I couldn't deny that it was also a bit of a bad habit. Good intentions aside, I was drawing a lot of focus to food and maybe seeking a little too much of that quick-hit social-media validation. So, I decided to take an inventory of my food posts and find the line for myself.

There were shots of scrambled eggs in pretty light, captioned with a line about the importance of plating my food whenever possible. I think that's okay. It's a presentation of food and a reminder of the mindful and respectful way I try to eat it.

Then there were sundae shots — or, one sundae in particular. It was my favorite sundae (possibly my favorite dessert) from a celebratory meal at one of my favorite restaurants in the city. I think that's okay, too. That post does, after all, remind me and others that we have permission to eat sundaes just as much as we have permission to eat grapefruit. Second, we're allowed to have favorite foods! I'm sure that not all of the 100+ burgers featured in The Ultimate Burger Bash are incredible, but sometimes you stumble across that incredible burger — the burger that ruins you for all other burgers. If you want to take a photo of that and share the joyous news of the all-time greatest burger (or that sundae or even that grapefruit), I have no problem with that.

Then there were my food shots that symbolized something else. My friend had surgery that successfully removed his cancer, and so we bought him a big-ass cake. Hell yeah, we did. It doesn't matter if it's a cake or a pack of chewing gum; whatever you're celebrating the end of cancer with, I say take a picture and share that fabulous moment if you feel like it.

But amid all these shots were the rest of the foodie shots clogging up my Instagram. This was straight-up food porn: a bowl of soup I didn't really like, a sheet pan of yams for no reason, a pita pizza I posted because the colors looked pretty and I was home alone and I hadn't posted anything for a week and probably wanted some attention and who doesn't like pita pizza?

On all of these, I'd used the #AntiDietProject hashtag, but they weren't really in keeping with the spirit of The Anti-Diet Project. In a certain light, they represented almost the opposite of my mission: the glorification of food rather than a natural, neutral relationship with it. It was unbalanced and unhealthy; though I posted plenty of nutritious foods in the mix, the sheer volume of these needless, pretty food pics was the problem. Though I'd shaken off so much of mainstream culture's disordered thinking around food, this was one area in which I'd gleefully participated. In this way, I was still using food unhealthfully, whether I realized it or not.
Now that I have realized it, I have to walk the walk. I'm not going to delete all my old foodie pics, because they are part of this lesson I've learned (one I don't want to forget). It would be all too easy to erase my mistakes and curate an Instagram presence that shows only my best and most virtuous moments. But social media is already full of those half-truths we tell about ourselves, and if I'm going to take another step into a more healthy life, I want to keep as much unvarnished honesty as I can stand.

Food is not a problem. Food porn is. I want satisfying eating to be a part of my life, but not the focus. The point of this project was to break out of the food-related cycle that had kept me from enjoying the rest of my wonderful, lucky life: the apple-picking day trips with my friends, the vacations I take with my boyfriend, that one time I met Diane Sawyer and she put her arm around me. Those moments mean more to me than anything I've ever eaten, and so I want them to represent me on social media more than what I ate for breakfast on any given day. Maybe that sounds small and silly, but when I think of how much time we all spend scrolling through these platforms and how much of ourselves we put into them, it doesn't seem so ridiculous.

I'll still post food photos on Instagram, and I'll still follow accounts that post them, too. But going forward, I will be mindful of the context and the volume of those photos. Furthermore, I'll make the effort to be aware of how much food I see, and the stylized forms in which I see it. I will remember that a tomato is just a tomato, and that not every bowl of soup needs an audience. I will be conscious of what I'm dishing out and what I'm taking.

Most of all, I'll remember that food is here for me to enjoy and be fueled by. But in the end, it's just dinner.


The Anti-Diet Project is an ongoing series about intuitive eating, rational fitness, and body positivity. You can follow my journey on Twitter and Instagram at @mskelseymiller or #AntiDietProject (hashtag your own Anti-Diet moments, too!). Curious about how it all got started? Check out the whole column, right here. Got your own story to tell? Send me a pitch at kelsey.miller@refinery29.com. If you just want to say hi, that's cool, too.
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