I thought it was a universally acknowledged truth: it’s not nice to comment on other people’s food. Growing up, remarking on people’s portions or diets was frowned upon. I was taught never to criticize another person’s eating habits, not even when my uncle loaded up his plate with so much salad that there wasn’t enough for anybody else, or when my aunt embarked on a lemonade-only diet. “Keep your eyes on your own plate,” my parents wisely said.
And I understand why. Everybody eats differently, and everybody has a different relationship with food. By remarking on somebody’s portion size or diet routine, you run the risk of making them self-conscious—and there’s nothing more uncomfortable than an embarrassed silence falling over the dinner table. You could also trigger disordered thoughts or behaviors; no shortage of mashed potatoes is worth risking somebody’s mental health. And anyway, nobody wants to hear your opinion on their eating.
However, there’s a swath of influencers who weren’t raised with the same values. Instagram wellness influencers regularly post photos of aesthetically pleasing meals, often accompanied by a recipe and a blurb. Scroll through their page and you’ll be greeted with heaping bowls of fruity oatmeal, oversaturated tropical smoothies, and hearty salads decorated with a perfect drizzle of dressing. These images are perfect, symmetrical, mouth-watering. In the posts’ captions, these influencers condemn diet culture and advertise their healthy, guilt-free lifestyles.
At first glance, wellness culture is great. In the 1950s, it was defined as “an integrated method of functioning, which is oriented toward maximizing the potential of which the individual is capable,” and it’s since become synonymous with clean eating, alternative medicine, and trendy exercise regimens. It doesn’t advertise fad diets, and it doesn’t appear to equate weight loss with success. It seems, at its core, to be about looking good and feeling good—what’s not to like?
In reality, however, wellness culture is just a dangerous continuation of diet culture. It promotes restrictive eating and glorifies weight loss through posts that advertise sugar-free, low-carb alternatives to “unhealthy” foods. Wellness culture also hides its toxicity behind the guise of health, luring in anti-diet-culture feminists by promising energy, confidence, body positivity, and freedom from illness. And yet, while the movement promises health and happiness, it pushes the thinner-is-better narrative on impressionable young people who are duped into thinking that this overpriced, all-consuming culture of wellness is good for the mind, body, and soul.
The lack of distinction between wellness culture and diet culture became apparent to me when I noticed that, in attempting to clarify how little they subscribe to diet culture, wellness influencers inadvertently promote it. “It’s okay to indulge, it’s okay to let go,” professes one influencer. “It’s okay to enjoy that piece of cake, that slice of pizza, or whatever the heck it is that makes you happy.” I initially read this as a rejection of diet culture; a reminder that pizza and cake won’t kill you. But then I glanced over it again, this time focusing on the words “indulge” and “let go.” These two terms that suggest that eating pizza is a vice, I realized. They suggest that eating cake is something you do when you’re spiraling out of control and have forgotten your goal: to become “well.” Well, I’ve noticed, is often synonymous with thin—and this is apparent in posts that say things like “had a hankering for a bagel but this hit the spot for waaaay less calories.” If wellness means depriving yourself of the calories and nutrients your body craves, how healthy can it be?
Wellness is all about bettering your mind and body through healthy practices and mindfulness. And yet wellness influencers document everything on social media, which renders these mindful activities utterly performative. Going to the gym, journaling, making nutritious food, meditating—these seemingly mindful practices are treated as monumental events to be shared with the internet. If wellness and health are about improving yourself, why share it with the world? When workout and eating habits are broadcasted on Instagram, they become less of a healthy practice and more of a façade; an opportunity for an influencer to flex how perfect and balanced their lifestyle is. The way I view it, doing something that’s good for you and then posting it on Instagram is superficial. You should be striving for “wellness” because you want to feel good, not because it’ll earn you followers or clout—otherwise, this mindfulness comes off as fake.
The idea that you can only be healthy if you do juice cleanses and pilates and shop at overpriced groceries stores is exhausting and totally false. Just because I eat regular brownies instead of paleo alternatives doesn’t mean I’m unhealthy! Further, fitting into the wellness influencer definition of health is unattainable for anyone who can’t afford to eat like royalty and buy “clean” food all the time. The wellness industry caters to wealthy people, and it’s perpetuated by Instagram influencers who operate under the allure of health. Let’s take a word of advice from our parents and stop the condemnation of other lifestyles and eating habits.
By Sophia Peyser
Illustration by Cienna Smith for Eater