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The Troubling Rise of #Foodstagram

In the world of snappy technological invention, this article about Instagram and food might seem a little dated. But just because something has been around for awhile, that doesn’t mean that we know it completely. 

Before we begin, a disclaimer: I’m not blasting this social media platform. I use it myself and also am guilty of uploading the occasional food photo.

But what I think we do need to remember is that there are ways in which our usage of Instagram can influence our attitudes toward food and its experience. So what is it about using Instagram to share photos of food that we are not exactly seeing?

Leaving Instagram accounts solely dedicated to food photos (e.g. love_food, foodporno and foodcreative) let’s look at the everyday Instagram user to examine the good and the not-so-good of food on Instagram.

Instagram is for sharing. It is a repository of photos from users who seek to share a slice of their life visually, and a platform for followers to penetrate the mental space of strangers and friends alike. Where may the benefits accrue? For those who participate as avid voyeurs: we live vicariously through the accounts we follow, we tell ourselves that we are creating and fortifying a relationship with our Instagram friends because our consumption of their pictures “stands-in” for interaction (so we think), and we enjoy an exposure to new places, things, sights, all from a glowing screen in our palm. For those who propagate photos: catharsis is achieved through the visual sharing of weal and woe, and more addictively, the belief that our happiness and the esteem of others are rewards reaped from posting on Instagram.

So, that’s great, right?

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Yet, as we must know by now, the sharing on Instagram is done selectively and undergoes several mental and aesthetic filters before culminating in a carefully orchestrated display. As such, even when we get seemingly mundane snapshots of “My Kitty and I” or “Just chilling with the boys #nightlife #yolo #shots,” there is always a subconscious message behind the image, and it demands your positive regard.

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What does this mean for the food that gets posted onto Instagram?

One thing it can mean is that food is viewed as something to exploit for social approbation. Common themes of Food Photos on Instagram include feats of consumption (e.g. “last night’s 500 vodka shots!”, “look at all the cake i’m always eating because i don’t need to diet #naturallygorgeous”), feats of creation (e.g. “slutty brownie baking time with BFFs!! yay (: (:”), and privilege, of taste and of access (e.g. “look at all the pretty, expensive macaroons i’m eating at _____!”). A corollary is a streamlining of the types of food that are flaunted on Instagram. Food that doesn’t look pretty, regardless of how tasty it is, will not get its five minutes of fame on Instagram, because appearances are paramount to Instagram and its discerning users. On the flipside, food that looks like a dream but tastes like cardboard will be proudly broadcast, because the priority is on food that looks good and inspires envy. This converging of visual standards is problematic, because every time we discriminate certain food experiences over others for Instagram, we reinforce an ideal of which foods are worthy.

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Moving from the mind to the tongue, a fixation with using Instagram for food has consequences there too. The Journal of Consumer Psychology concludes that over-exposure to food photos on Instagram can ruin meals due to “sensory boredom”, since one is bombarded with so much delicious-looking food (and what edibles on Instagram don’t look appealing?). Also, some restaurants, like Momofuku Ko in NYC, have banned the taking of food photos, arguing that it distracts from the dining experience for all present.

The value of food lies in what it does to our tummies, our day, our mood – not how many Instagram Hearts it garners. When we post ‘foodstagrams’ hoping they will provoke hearts and comments, we relate to food as a strategic tool for our social media profile. This critique can be broadened to other social media platforms, especially those that reward the construction of artificial scenes. So don’t live for Facebook, and don’t eat for Instagram!

-Min Yi Tan

Cover photo source.

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