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Ever snapped a photo of an absolutely mouthwatering burger and shared it with all your social media followers? If so, it turns out you have an eating disorder. A big one.
In the past few days, media outlets across North America have covered a presentation given at the Canadian Obesity Summit, where Dr. Valerie Taylor discussed the evolution of our complicated relationship with food. While Taylor actually argued that it's only a problem when we can't attend a social gathering without photographing the associated food or drink, some journalists sensationalized the issue, possibly scaring readers into thinking that posting a single food photo means they should check themselves into a psychiatric ward.
It seems people are too quick to say that social media has turned us all into food-obsessed demons, that food porn is facilitating the obesity epidemic, or that a series of Instagram photos of kale is a sign of anorexia. Instead I'd argue that modern technology affects our relationship with food in positive as well as negative ways, and that most of all it makes us think more about the stuff we eat. Ultimately, all this talk about eating points to one big question: Is there such a thing as a “normal” relationship with food in the first place?
What's the Deal?
When I spoke with Taylor over the phone, she suggested the real problem behind our distorted relationship to food is that we no longer think about it as “fuel.” Food, she said, has gone from being a part of social events to a social interaction in and of itself (at least in extreme situations). That remark raises a question about whether new developments in social media have helped or hurt our relationship to food by making us think about grub as something other than nutrients. The answer, it seems, is both.
Research suggests people eat less when they take photos of their meals, possibly because they're more mindful of what they're eating. That makes sense in light of all the recently developed apps and programs, such as The Eatery and FitID, that allow users to share photo journals of their meals and sometimes let other people decide how healthful those meals appear.
In this case, it seems obvious that social media is helping us develop better health habits, becoming more conscious of what we're scarfing down, and learning to eat less. But what if the reason we're eating less is because we're ashamed to share photos of greasy hamburgers and feel bad about ourselves for eating and enjoying those kinds of meals? Access to social media can make us realize that food is fuel - that it's a source of nutrients that can cause us to gain weight - or, alternatively, it can make us realize that food is much more than just calories. Eating can be the cause and effect of so many feelings that have to do with our relationship to other people, including shame and pride. That's because food, and eating, are inextricably linked to our self-image, our background, and our health and fitness habits.There isn't necessarily a “right” way to feel or think about food, and social media only highlights the many functions that food serves in our daily lives.
Why It Matters
The most important thing to realize is that food hasn't been just fuel for a long time. Food has been the core of holiday celebrations, family gatherings, and religious rituals for thousands of years. Social media might be making us more aware of the “social” aspect of eating, but maybe that's a good thing. Even when statistics indicate that we eat alone more than half the time, food always connects us to others - the people that prepare and sell our food and the other members of our culture who eat the same thing. When we share food on social media, we're deliberately inviting other people to participate in our eating experience, becoming more aware of the fact that we never truly eat alone.
Ultimately, social media is neither a cause nor an effect of disordered eating, but merely an extension of our already complex relationship to food. Like food, social media is at once a private and public experience: We can consume it alone but always use it to connect to others.
So is posting a photo of that burger to Instagram okay? I'm not sure, but I have a feeling I'll finish the meal before I figure out the answer.