An essay on the cynicism towards health and Instagram by Elizabeth Gill
As a self-identifying slob, I have looked at the current health trends with a rather hefty dose of both cynicism and distaste. For anyone confused as to what I mean when I use the vague and clinical sounding term “current health trends”, allow me to elucidate. My natural inclination towards all things easy, from food preparation to TV choices, seems terminally at odds with what I consider to be a whole new way of life. Words that have never entered my vocabulary before are becoming unavoidable in everyday conversations. Ones like paleo, or bikram. My rarely used Instagram is invaded with pictures of all things related to fitness, and everyone has a blog where they can regale you with exciting tales about how they made a delicious dinner for nine using nothing but quinoa and goji berries. The fashion media, which once extolled a hedonistic lifestyle that aligned with the interests of Champagne producers and drug dealers, no longer leaves its insiders’ exploits to the tabloids and has instead created a powerful alternative to the model-turned-actress cliché of the ageing beauty. Rather than lend their good looks and vitality to sell the products of others, models such as Karlie Kloss and Rosemary Ferguson have developed brands selling their own health foods, free from gluten and sugar, the newest evils to scandalize our modern times.
All this not-so-quiet seething is spurred on at least in part by my own petty frustrations at having all culinary endeavors turn out not so much like delicious meals, but what can only be thought of as ambiguously coloured nutritional pastes. What has brought about this hailing of all things healthy? Trends and fashions do not occur within a vacuum, but are products of surrounding environs. The dubiousness in my tone ought not to be seen as directed at the food or practices themselves: I love avocado smash as much as the next person. Rather, it is the proliferation of images of people’s self-improvement that are in no way novel or interesting that are the source of my distaste. Because I would say this current “age”, if that is the right term, will be viewed as one that is more defined by the seemingly immeasurable expansion of social media, rather than the branding of yoga or the rediscovery of bone broth.
The idea that social media lends itself to narcissism is hardly groundbreaking. But the quality of narcissism has not changed with the advent of Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, merely our exposure to it. Health and beauty have always joined hands as status symbols. Having a Botticellian figure during the 16th entury was certainly the best way to prove you were well nourished and had the means to plump yourself up.
The translucence of your skin was similarly a fine indicator that you were located in a class above outdoor manual work. Our human desire to show off in this regard is not new, merely changed. It is part of our wish to show others that we not just have, but are, things of worth. That we might be the sort of person who is healthy, well and of value. More than anything else, these online mediums afford us the ability to show just how every aspect of our life is under control.
The pressure to create an illusion of stability is not worth the stress. As people, we feel an understandable need to conform; a true free spirit is someone who throws food at others, but it can develop to something that quells our individuality and creates fear around genuine self expression. We should value that we care about the opinions of those we respect and cherish it as a way to connect with them. But we should not become defined by it; trying to project a false image of nonchalance and ease. The limited ways that it’s acceptable to be individual often fall into Instagrammable stereotypes. I sense behind this is the utter terror of not mattering. We try to establish relevance by creating a media presence; demonstrating our significance. There is an inherent value to feeling like you’ve witnessed something and sharing that, but you don’t witness your styled breakfast. When we tell the world what we’re eating, wearing and seeing, it should be because we are proud of it. Because it is something that gives us pleasure in that moment. Something to allow us to more richly connect with those we value and not to conform to what we think is expected of us by our friends and followers.
“Health is not a privilege of the elite and it shouldn’t be displayed as such.”
This “Trend” almost necessarily entails a high level of conspicuous consumption. It is clear to even the most uninterested observer that this does anything but enrich our lives. When something becomes about presentation rather than enjoyment, we have a problem. There are a hundred million ways that these images are branded, improved and bettered, no doubt with the help of some caring and altruistic multinational corporation. The products that people use to showcase their sculpted lives become just as much a part of a trend as the desire to show them off. When one looks at the marketing behind a lot of these products it can be hard not to get riled up. They go from the laughable to the genuinely anger inducing. The sale and consumption of overpriced, needless products is something that smacks of capitalism’s darker side, seeming both wasteful and elitist. Investing in an implement to perfectly fashion your courgettes may not end up making you a health god, but it will make you a retailer's dream.
When being healthy in itself becomes marketed as a luxury good it makes me uncomfortable. Health is not a privilege of the elite and it shouldn’t be displayed as such. When having a healthy lifestyle is conflated with the more silly and attention seeking indulgences of overpriced yoga wear and out of season exotic fruit, it means that we run the risk of dismissing the whole enterprise outright. This would be a great mistake. While the focus on an elite lifestyle no doubt taints the trend, it should not undermine the genuine and actual benefit of taking better care of yourself and appreciating the beauty in your life. While the number of places in my city that serve cabbage wraps and other such punishing and off-putting dishes has no doubt increased, so too has the amount of eateries selling good quality, fresh and often much healthier food in order to cater for the growing demand. We ought not ignore the fact that, once silliness is dismissed, the average quality of products, and our awareness of certain issues, has still risen.
“Investing in an implement to perfectly fashion your courgettes may not end up making you a health god, but it will make you a retailer's dream.”
The tide may be turning against those deemed too sanctimonious or preachy about their lifestyles, but the inclination to curate every aspect of our lives with disturbing, exhibition-like deliberation isn’t going away. So it becomes more about how we ourselves consume the trend. It is the easiest thing in the world to use some of the rampant silliness we come across as an excuse not to engage with things we find difficult to achieve, such as changing our unhealthier habits, or even just exercising more. Whether or not the craze for all things cold pressed will continue or not is anyone’s guess, but don’t be turned off it by smug converts, nor by self-righteous and cynical slobs like myself.