In the UK, over the last few years, we’ve seen a healthy eating revolution. It’s something I’ve been a small part of since founding Balanced Being in 2014, and I am thrilled that many people are beginning to care about their overall health and wellbeing.
Healthy appetites for quinoa and the gym are, of course, a welcomed lifestyle, but, what comes with trends and sadly our media culture is the inevitable backlash. As more and more bloggers and social stars in health, fitness, fashion and beauty become as famous as reality stars and celebrities, one thing I am very conscious of is the responsibility these influencers have to the impressionable fans and in particular teenagers who follow their every move.
Having suffered first-hand from the eating disorder bulimia for seventeen years up until five years ago, I am aware of outside influences that can cause self-esteem issues. I was the girl you’d find mopping up weekly magazines whose front covers are plastered with celebrity body shaming, and frequently championing women in the public eye for the amount of weight they’ve lost.
The fact that the covers and contents of these magazines focus on looks, body shaming or relationship status as a woman’s worth is a contentious subject and a huge concern in our culture. But, these were the mediums I’d scan each and every week as I binged on the high fat and sugar treats laid out next to me after my supermarket visit, vowing to start the trendy new diet tomorrow before bringing that food back up again.
Social media, and in particular Instagram has become a mirror of that magazine culture, and I fear on a much larger scale. Now, anyone can call themselves a blogger. And while many positives come from having a voice and a platform, what saddens me is the amount of semi-naked health and fitness bloggers who glamourise their latest weight loss, abs or latest fitness session. Of course, there is nothing wrong with documenting your health journey, but I think most can spot a manipulated and airbrushed selfie just before I don’t know; you’ve gone to buy a pint of milk looking completely flawless because you #wokeuplikethis.
There are plenty of bloggers who DO keep the social space ‘real.’ But, psychologically seeing the actions unfold of some very high profile people, and up and coming stars in the social space, hiding insecurities or an eating disorder, and portraying themselves as ‘happy’ or ‘healthy’ is a whole other ball game.
I’d like to point out that I’m all for men and women showing off their bodies in the right environment and when they feel comfortable doing so. It’s a models job, for example, to show off their bodies and portfolios. I’ve myself paraded about almost entirely naked in plays in the past and have no issue in displaying my body that is by no means perfect, but that I’ve worked hard to love — flaws and all — after my eating disorder when it feels right. And, while I understand we are all on our journey of personal discovery, a multitude of contrived images and selfies that I fear most feel pressured into posting to keep up with the Kardashians and social peers — rather than feeling a hundred percent comfortable doing so is a worrying trend.
Outside the social fitness stars, most recently there’s also been contention surrounding health bloggers offering advice on a specific way of eating, often with no nutritional training. Those who have often come from privileged, wealthy backgrounds who don’t touch sugar, or carbs in exchange for spiralized veg and multiple daily yoga sessions. Yes, they have been very successful at it, and I admire many of them for what they have achieved. But, I often wonder if those health bloggers are mindful of who is mirroring their every move that is frequently portrayed as flaw free.
I know first-hand that when you begin to create a perfect life or way of eating on Instagram, there’s a pressure to keep up with it. I felt that at the beginning of this journey and for a moment it gave me a love/hate relationship with the medium. I would imagine that pressure gets deeper the bigger you get. But knowing that some of these women have suffered from eating issues (and haven’t divulged that information to the masses) is a very dangerous game indeed.
Most recently a BBC Three documentary ‘Clean Eating’s dirty secrets’ interviewed Emmy Gilmour, the clinical director at The Recovery Centre. She explains that a third of the top ‘clean eating’ health bloggers in the UK have made contact with the clinic to seek help and advice on their disordered eating issues.
That is especially dangerous when you consider these top bloggers have a huge following of impressionable teenagers trying to establish their identity as their bodies grow and develop. Many also argue that their ‘version’ of healthy eating is essentially a cover for weight loss and being thin or a diet that works for their bodies. I would urge these bloggers with secret eating issues to seek help and think long and hard about portraying a perfect lifestyle. To step away from the social media and blogging bubble, and to work on getting themselves well again.
Healthy eating is subjective to the masses and tricky to determine as fads, and most medical advice out there is confusing or misleading. To be fair to all health bloggers, much of the scientific advice out there often contradicts itself. Think of the researcher who published evidence of gluten sensitivity who’s now overturned his findings with a paper showing gluten sensitivity doesn’t exist.
Let’s face it, with all the mixed messages out there; I can fully understand why many are confused as to what constitutes a healthy diet and why many feel the need to do their research, or follow bloggers. I am also wary of the local GP, who often deal out medication in particular anti-depressants like they’re smarties without tackling the underlying issues. I was handed Prozac when I sought help for my eating disorder and depression from my GP. The fact that Prozac increases appetite, and was prescribed to a bulimic is insanity.
From my understanding, GP’s are given little or no advanced or updated nutritional training while practising and it’s clear that things like BMI tracking have become an archaic form of monitoring someone’s weight that doesn’t take into consideration muscle mass, build and fitness levels. Frustrating for women who weight train for tone, and are more muscular than they were years back. Just think of the body builders without an ounce of fat on them who are labelled ‘obese’ by their GP’s.
While I believe the old fashioned balanced diet and staying away from processed and high sugar foods, the majority of the time and staying active is essential. I don’t believe restriction or feeling guilty or inadequate because you can’t afford the latest superfood or that you had a slice of toast that morning is conducive to our health or wellbeing and it can in fact mess with our mental state. Not eating perfectly all of the time does not make one a failure, and that often gets lost in this health movement ‘bubble.’ In fact, I fear many of us have lost the sense of intuitive eating and tuning into our bodies too. I mean, we’re all different shapes and sizes so it’s inevitable that one way of eating that works for one person doesn’t necessarily work for another.
And it’s not just women who are feeling the pressure. The Nightingale Hospital in London has recently revealed an increase in the number of boys it treats for eating disorders with a rise in “orthorexic” tendencies (people who are obsessed with a “perfect” body and an obsession with eating foods one considers healthy).
Dr Bijal Chheda-Verma, a psychologist, and therapist at the hospital said
One general theme we have been looking at is the increase in the importance given to body image. There is a perfectionist attitude, the wish to be very slim. The role of social media may be contributing to body image disorders.”
What worries me here, is the overwhelming feeling that looks and the perfect body define us as human beings, and sadly social media can often bypass more important values like kindness, love and intelligence.
At Balanced Being, I have a team of writers, including Dave, our award-winning comedian and writer who suffered from anorexia and now uses his experience to inspire others. I’m also very conscious of the younger girls in the BB team. One of our girls is 17 years old and recently wrote a beautiful post on her personal blog about her body struggle a year ago. Reading her piece struck a chord with me, and in part, inspired this piece.
It saddened me how someone so young, healthy and intelligent could put pressure on herself to keep up with the social stars and a clean eating ‘culture’ during her blogging journey. I know she’s level-headed, and she very quickly realised she wasn’t healthy restricting her food intake and by cutting out whole food groups. But, what about others who aren’t so strong willed?
If you are a health or fitness blogger reading this now, how would you feel if you knew you contributed to someone’s eating issues? Or at worst, a full-blown eating disorder because someone felt unable to live up to your body shape or IG that portrays an unachievable way of eating or lifestyle that may be glorified or manipulated? I believe health and fitness influencers have a duty of care to their followers (and as pointed out earlier a duty of care to themselves if they’re struggling with eating issues).
Firstly, teens should NOT be cutting out food groups unless they are of course allergic to something. They should not be crash dieting either. There’s healthy; there’s obsession, and there’s falsifying perfection by preaching that any food not deemed ‘clean’ is bad or dirty.
I believe it’s time we reflect on how we frame our messages, pictures and ourselves across social media so that we keep things a lot more ‘real.’ Those who are blessed to have a voice and a platform should be educating young and impressionable people that anything beyond perfect eating, or not having what society or the media terms as ‘a perfect body’ does not make us a failure, unhealthy, or unworthy of love. Of course, much of this education begins at home, but as social media becomes more ingrained in society and youth culture, I’d be thrilled to see schools covering the pitfalls of regular social media use within the educational system.
Let’s do our best to represent a realistic message and balance. A balanced diet, a healthy and balanced way of thinking and vocalising ourselves and our messages. Let’s challenge men and women who feel under pressure to photograph their every move and meal religiously, to think beyond that way of living and to experience life away from social media too. I’d hate to see a whole new generation of insecure people or the level of eating disorders increase even further. I’ve been there myself; it was miserable and incredibly self-destructive.
Remember, no one is perfect. I’ve made hundreds of mistakes in my life and will continue to do so. But, I believe that making mistakes and being ‘real’ is endearing, builds character, helps us grow and helps us understand what we want and what we don’t want in life. Let’s experience new foods and cultures, and not focus so much minute by minute on how thin or attractive we are in a selfie.
And finally, before you think I’m opposed to Instagram, I’m not. I love creating beautiful images that inspire and challenge thought. However, I also love having a little fun and banter on there and even picking fun at the term ‘clean eating’ occasionally. I want people to have a chuckle when they get to my page or my site. To feel inspired to be happy, healthy and mindful of what they put into their mouths, how they feel about themselves and not to take life, perfection or oneself too seriously. And for gods shake to eat some carbs and a slice of cake once in a while!
This article was first published on Medium Monday 15th August 2016.