Last week, in the middle of the “free Krispy Kremes for the vaxxed!” kerfuffle—as some people rushed so helpfully to remind us that doughnuts aren’t good for you, and others said, “Man, it’s a pandemic, give the diet culture stuff a break”—I happened to stumble across this tweet from a very earnest and kind-seeming person. She wrote: “I gained more weight than I feel comfortable with over the past COVID year. I’m using a food-tracking app and a step-counter to try to lose it. But given the discourse around fatphobia, I feel like it’s somewhere between impolite and oppressive to talk about it online. Your view?”
What a sensitive point of online etiquette! And, as we seem to be moving into a time when people are focusing their “pandemic is ending” reemergence anxiety into body image concerns, a very pressing one. I asked a few body image experts for their thoughts on related questions that may be troubling you as we approach our “hot vax summer.”
I look at my post-pandemic body and I … am not loving it. Can I vent about my unhappiness online?
We’re starting with the easy part: This is one thing that’s kinder not to do. There is a decades-old body of research, psychologist Charlotte Markey said, on the way such “fat talk” affects people who hear it, and the answer is “not well.” It’s that “fat talk” research that underpins the common advice to parents to avoid discussing weight and body size in front of kids.
Online, the effects of your fat talk are hard to predict. You just don’t know where your tweets and posts are going. “Anyone in a bigger body than you is hearing that you think their body is your worst nightmare,” said Virginia Sole-Smith, author of The Eating Instinct: Food Culture, Body Image, and Guilt in America. “You don’t think it’s fatphobic because you’re focused on your own stuff. But it is fatphobic to say, ‘I don’t want to have a fat body.’ ”
“From the perspective of just a regular human, I’d say, sure, of course anyone can post what they want,” said Lindsay Kite, who is a body image and media expert and co-author of More Than a Body. “From the perspective of a body image researcher, I would ask that person to reconsider doing that, in light of the body anxiety that their followers might already be experiencing, especially if the majority of their followers are girls and women. You don’t know who looks like your ‘before’ picture. You don’t know who is in the thick of an eating disorder, getting that extra push to double down on starvation or purging or laxative abuse from your post. That might seem extreme to people, but those are actually really common.”
OK, got it. But I do have this post-pandemic goal of losing however many pounds. Should I keep the specifics off my social feeds?
Kite pointed out that if your feed is generally not a place where you talk about weight, it can be jarring for followers who aren’t expecting to see diet talk when you pop up with it. If you, as a social media consumer, are not into weight talk, you can prune your feeds of such influencers; I just a few days ago unfollowed a few CrossFit athletes on Instagram when they started talking about losing the “Quarantine 15.” (Bye!) But when a random acquaintance posts a tweet about weight loss goals, that’s unpredictable. “That’s happened to me, with people I would never think of as being somebody who would be pushing that kind of content. And then when they pop up with it, I think it can have an even more detrimental effect than if it’s coming from an influencer or company or somebody else I expect to be focused on that,” Kite said.
When it comes to talking about those tracking apps, it’s probably better to avoid that. There is research out there on the way fitness tracking devices like calorie counters and step-tracking apps can feed into disordered eating, so consider that even if you respond well to gamifying fitness (I hear you—I do, too), some people reading your feed may not do as well hearing the specifics. And, again—you just don’t know who!
OK, OK. What about exercise talk? Can I post a sweaty selfie to social media after a run, or celebrate 30 days of HIIT, or a nice streak of hitting my step-counting goals?
This question shows how hard it is to parse out wellness culture from diet culture. I have a ton of friends who post running stats to Instagram as a way of being “accountable” and connecting to other people about their daily lives, and social media’s ephemerality definitely lends itself to that kind of a habit. But there’s a fine line here.
“I think it would be great if people were aware that when you post about how you have done a Peloton workout every day for the last three months, framing it through a metric, that can be triggering to people who are vulnerable to using metrics” in the service of disordered eating, Sole-Smith said, pointing out that seeing that kind of post may affect people who are “in that gray area of subclinical eating disorders,” not necessarily only those who’ve been diagnosed.
“We think we’re doing something good for our bodies, but in posting streaks, you’re running the risk of making someone else feel like shit about it.” Sole-Smith mentioned that she had a pandemic-era intention to do a bit of yoga every day and had been posting about that on her Instagram, but decided to stop because she felt odd about it: “I don’t want to imply to my followers that this is something you need to do.”
Kite thought that a better way to share online about your new fitness goals might be to focus not on numerical outcomes (“the number of calories you burned or the weight going down on your scale after two weeks of morning jogging”) but on your increasing feelings of strength and endurance. “Maybe you can run a mile and you couldn’t do that a month ago,” she said. Or you just feel great! Talking about that kind of outcome is “much different from talking about appearance changes and weight loss.”
An even better option might be to find online workout accountability partners who’ve agreed to fill the role. A group chat, a Reddit forum for a particular sport, or a private Facebook group are all good, if you want that group-class feeling of mutual commitment to a goal.
I like to post about food, and I’m trying to eat more plant-based meals and cook for myself more often rather than getting takeout, etc. Are you telling me that’s bad to talk about, too?
This is difficult, because the behaviors you’re describing are certainly positive actions, in the health department, but there are so many ways to talk about food and cooking that fall into the diet culture zone. Just as you would try to keep fat talk out of your fitness posts, make sure that your “I’m trying to eat better” posts are never about weight. If you feel like you need to say something about the way the food affects your body, try to focus on other health-related goals rather than losing pounds. Another linguistic upgrade would be to avoid using buzzwords from the diet-adjacent parts of wellness culture, like “cleanse,” “cheat day,” “processed food,” and “toxins.” A few years ago, Quartz published a handy guide to these phrases that could be described as “diet culture in disguise”; many are still in circulation.
A solid rule of thumb I use is to always talk up the food you are eating, rather than slandering the food you’re avoiding. You never know which of your followers and friends out there might be sitting at their desks, needing the indisputable pleasure of a Krispy Kreme, and very much not wanting to hear it.