All I Want To Do Is Look At Ugly Food Photos

Photo: Getty Images.
In late January, Olivia Jade made her much-anticipated return to YouTube following the 2019 college admissions scandal. I devoured the entirety of her first daily vlog within minutes of its drop but was left thinking about one single element specifically, long after the 15-minute video had ended. It wasn't her mention of the Red Table Talk interview she'd done a month earlier. Nor was it her mint-green pyjama set — though I did covet it. No, instead, the image that wouldn't leave my mind was the up-close shot of the most unsightly salad I have ever seen. According to Olivia Jade, the salad is something she orders a lot. Composed of lettuce, avocado, celery, and gnarled tendrils of pale, shredded chicken, the limp-looking salad was served with lemon-olive-oil dressing on the side. 
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If I'd come across this green-and-grey salad in its brown biodegradable takeout container in real life, I likely wouldn't have batted an eye. Yes, it would still have been undoubtedly ugly, but it would have just been any other salad. What do I care how it looks? Seeing it through my laptop screen, though, its appearance hit differently. Social media is a space that's generally filled with highly curated, expertly edited images that display only the most glamorous depictions of people's daily lives — so the fact that this very famous, hyper image-conscious, and much-followed vlogger shared an unstyled shot of sickly ribbons of chicken left me delighted. 
As someone who was deeply invested in the era of peak food-blogging in the mid- to late-aughts, I have, in the past, enjoyed many an artful photo of moist cake slices or runny-yolked eggs. Styling these images to pop on Tumblr or Instagram takes real, undeniable skill. But, it's only recently that I've realized that I have moved beyond those specific visual pleasures. After nearly two decades as a social media user, I've grown tired of how images, specifically of food, are often presented — that is, perfectly. 
Now, when I see a photo of someone's immaculate brunch spread, my mouth doesn't immediately start watering; those stacks of fluffy French toast or dishes of crispy bacon strips just don't inspire daydreams anymore. Instead, I'm distracted by the thought of more mundane things, like that one friend, holding their phone high up above the food, making everyone else wait to eat so that the syrup bottle can be positioned just-so. This isn't a dig — on many occasions, I have been that person. And, trust me, I am not a traitor to my generation so I'm not saying there's something wrong with putting the perfectly arranged food shot on Instagram, I just don't get the same thrill out of it as I once did. The magic is gone.
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This makes sense. By now, most of us have seen numerous articles revealing the food styling secrets that go into making food look "good" in ads and even cookbooks. Glue is used in place of cereal milk, vaseline is smeared on the rim of a margarita glass to make it glisten, microwaved wet tampons are stuffed into a dish to create the illusion of steam. Once you know about these tricks, the food itself loses its appeal, because you're reminded that aesthetics were prioritized over tasting good or even being edible. What's the fun in that?
What gets me going lately are snapshots of sloppy, thrown-together sandwiches on plates smeared with errant blobs of mayonnaise and crusty monochromatic casseroles still in the dish, sitting under atrocious lighting. These photos make me think about the actual food and not the background production that goes into making it look good. Whoever posted the picture simply wanted to share what they were cooking or eating as quickly as possible and then get down to the most important part: eating it.
To my great pleasure, I've been seeing these types of food photos on social media more and more, and according to Jill Warren, content marketing specialist at Later, this step away from highly stylized images doesn't only apply to food pics. "There's been a major shift in the type of content people share on Instagram over the last few years, moving away from oversaturated, picture-perfect photos towards more authentic, barely edited, real-life content," she explains. "This makes a lot of sense, especially when you consider how much Instagram has evolved. In the earlier days, it was a simple look-book for sharing filtered images — remember Clarendon? Now, the app has become a place for connection — whether it's between brands and customers or influencers and their communities." 
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After a year of connecting almost exclusively through social media, this trend has become even more prominent. "Creators and brands who are willing to 'lift the curtain' and share their authentic selves benefit from a deeper, more meaningful relationship with their audience," Warren says. "Arguably, being relatable is far more powerful than being 'perfect' in 2021."
When I see an unedited photo of food, placed however haphazardly onto a plate or still in its takeout container, I also see a genuine love for eating, something I have in common with the photo's poster. I think, wow, I bet that tastes good, and am happy that the person got to enjoy whatever dish they shared. It feels like a pure exchange between two people, even if the interaction is virtual or one-sided. 
A few weeks after Olivia Jade returned to vlogging and implanted the hideous image of her favourite salad in my brain forever, she posted a "What I Eat In A Day" vlog. In this one, she ordered it again. "I had this in another blog, and everybody was saying it looked bland," she shared unapologetically, as she removed the take-out container's lid, and prepared to dive in. It was as if she were looking straight at her 1.86 million subscribers and saying, "Yes, I know this salad doesn't look sexy, but I love it and I am going to continue to order it anyway." If only she'd been as authentic on her college application, she could have gotten in anywhere.

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