Written by Mariya Bershad.
Instagram hosts a wide range of content related to fitness, food and body image – hashtags like “StrongNotSkinny” link images with search terms, making it easy to find posts categorized accordingly within seconds. But whether you’re looking for recipes to help you maintain a suitable weight, the motivation for a physically and mentally healthy, active lifestyle, or recovery inspiration, it can be hard to develop a homepage that lines up with your goals.
Here we outline some current #Inspo controversies and offer suggestions for navigating Instagram with your mental health in mind.
Troublesome Weight Loss Messages
Instagram is, unfortunately, a hub for weight loss motivation. In addition to pictures of glittering smoothie bowls, it’s easy to find false promises of cleanses and clean eating. (In reality, there is no such thing as “dirty” food and the body has its own built-in detox agents—the liver and immune system!) In addition to posts related to food and nutrition, profiles full of “bikini body” workouts and fitspiration photos can be found all over Instagram.
The recent backlash on accounts and posts centered around weight loss is encouraging. Some content creators are criticizing strict diets and clean eating for promoting disordered eating habits. Intuitive eating—a nutrition philosophy that promotes honoring hunger cues—is a focus of more and more Instagram profiles, helping to develop a community that rejects the diet mentality and pushes for healthy relationships with food. Even after Instagram’s ban of hashtags like “thinspiration,” public figures like Aerie REAL model, Iskra Lawrence, continue to push for change by encouraging followers of all body types to link their photos with the hashtag “BodyGoals.”
However, even with this pushback against the thin ideal, it continues to be difficult to find content that does not link health and fitness to weight loss and restriction.
#StrongNotSkinny: Getting Real or Another Problematic Ideal?
Recently, this movement towards strength training and muscle gain has made its way to the “Popular” page. The hashtag “StrongNotSkinny” currently presents over five million posts including gym selfies and “transformations” that highlight increases in calorie intake and changes in exercise routines.
Many members of the fitness community are pleased to see this movement away from the thin body ideal, appreciating the emphasis on what one’s body can do rather than what it can look like. Furthermore, some argue that the word “strong” can be taken to mean not only physical ability but also mental strength, including the hard work it takes to recover from an eating disorder.
However, those skeptical of the hashtag argue that it too can promote unrealistic body goals. Gaining muscle often involves gaining fat as well, but images of chiseled, gym-honed bodies suggest otherwise. As the thin ideal can promote restriction, the strong “ideal” can potentially promote over-exercise. This new, “stronger” body goal falls short of body acceptance; rather, its critics point out, it creates a different “ideal” to strive towards.
#BoPo: Self-Love for all Body Types
There is a growing community of bloggers promoting body positivity and acceptance at all shapes and sizes. This group is, in part, comprised of eating-disorder recovery advocates. Body positivity and acceptance posts include transformation pictures emphasizing improvements with weight gain, promoting recovery progress and self-confidence at all stages. Some posts celebrate specific “recovery wins” such as eating fear foods and wearing certain clothing items or styles.
Finding a Lifestyle Inspiration
How do you decide what combination of profiles and posts work for your lifestyle and goals?
If you are feeling out of balance or notice that you are overly critical of your body shape, food choices, or eating behavior, then consider:
- Following bloggers who value transparency, flexibility and balance. An example of this would be a fitness blogger who posts unedited, unposed photos and speaks honestly about bad body-image days—but also keeps followers in the loop about her life as a college student. If you’re interested in finding nutritious recipes, perhaps a dietitian who blogs authentically about self-care and eating a wide range of foods in moderation can be helpful.
- Following profiles that are completely unrelated to food and body image. This can mean following a pre-professional account consistent with your career goals, such as a nursing student. If you like art, you might consider following a professional illustrator or photographer. Following these accounts can also be helpful if you are recovering from an eating disorder, because as necessary as it is to stay focused on your recovery, an important part of progress is reminding yourself of all the other things that make your life fulfilling.
If you are recovering from an eating disorder, then consider (and discuss with your therapist and support squad):
- Following bloggers who document their recovery progress. On Instagram, you can find bloggers in virtually all stages of recovery who post body-positive selfies, snapshots of recovery-consistent meals, and inspirational quotes. Many posts also chronicle experiences with fear foods and challenging eating situations (like at restaurants with friends).
- Following bloggers who have had eating disorders in the past. These content creators will ideally promote healthy relationships with food that include diversity, paying attention to hunger cues, and feeling good (rather than looking good). However, consider whether or not (and what kinds of) food-related content would be helpful, and make note of what audience the blogger is targeting. (Is he or she looking for clients who want to “get healthy” and lose weight, or is the profile about intuitive eating and recovery?) Bear in mind that recovery is not necessarily linear, and that “fully-recovered” bloggers may not be presenting every aspect of their progress.
- Continuing to evaluate how (and if) social media aids or hinders your progress. What’s right for your recovery may change over time.
By looking out for bloggers who promote flexibility and a balanced lifestyle, it’s possible to find the right inspiration to line up with your overall goals. Along the way, you might also learn that taking social-media vacations is also helpful—it’s good to know when to put down the phone and turn all the #inspo into action.