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Instagram Food Is a Sad, Sparkly Lie

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How influencers transformed eating from an activity into an aesthetic

Illustration: A woman holds up a giant burger while another woman photographs it Vance Lump

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There are rules for being an Instagram influencer. First of all, be famous, or at least related to someone famous, and if you can’t be famous, at least have the decency to be rich. Second, as in most public-attention-based endeavors, be young, female, and conventionally attractive. Third, you’ve got to go on vacation. No one needs to know why, or what you’re vacationing from, you’ve just got to go on vacation all the time. Fourth, you are obligated to, at some point, post pictures of food.

Not just any food — Instagram food. Maybe a sushi donut, or something covered in glitter that isn’t usually covered in glitter, or a confection so full of food coloring that its bitterness needs to be evened out with massive amounts of sugar. Here’s the important part: Even if you just did it for the 'gram, you’ll have to swear up and down that you cleaned your plate.

Social media has proved beyond a shadow of a doubt that everyone loves to gaze at food (if that were a thing that even needed proving), but the question of who’s eating what, and how much of it, is a much thornier one, especially when it comes to women. For the young women who constitute Instagram’s target demographic — the desired audience of both for the corporations that sell products and the influencers who pretend not to be advertising them — even eating something as innocuous as a sad desk salad at work can come along with casual policing from whoever happens to be within view, and I can’t think of a single category of food that, in my 31 years on earth, I haven’t been warned about by some busybody whose opinion I haven’t asked for.

This, of course, presents a problem for marketers: How do you sell food to a group of people that American culture has harassed into a near-universally fraught relationship with your products? It turns out the answer is easy: Just give them something to do with food that isn’t eating it.

When I say “Instagram food,” you probably know exactly what I’m talking about. That’s not only because Instagram is a widely used and intensely visual medium, but also because its emergent aesthetic tropes are as essential to the zeitgeist as baby tees and brown lipstick were to the 90s. Food thrives on social networks because of its easy, graphic appeal and pan-demographic interest — we all have to eat, right? But while Facebook has become a repository of time-lapse recipe videos for quick weeknight dinners that often prominently feature, for some reason, canned biscuit in dough, and Pinterest traffics largely in mason jars, do-it-yourself projects and the protein-packed simplicity of an egg baked inside half an avocado, Instagram has thrown its lot in with spectacle.

Over-the-top, intensely trend-driven, and visually arresting, Instagram food is almost always something to be obtained, rather than cooked or created. It’s elusive and aspirational, something instantly recognizable yet only minimally available, the product of a long line (a ramen burger or matcha croissant) or a trans-continental flight (going all the way to Tokyo for a Gudetama waffle). Its appearance in your timeline signals status: You went to the place. You got the thing. You’re the kind of person who lives that kind of life.

This is why Instagram stunt food works: It transforms an indulgent meal or snack from a physical activity to a status performance. In the most successful of Instagram food operations, the posting of a particular item signals both affluence and leisure. Lines can stretch for hours for rainbow bagels with birthday cake cream cheese, or milkshakes bedecked with an entire movie theater snack counter’s worth of candy, so if you’ve obtained one, not only did you spend $15 on a pile of novelty sugar, but you can afford to spend two hours on a Tuesday waiting for it, not to mention the time required to lovingly photograph it in natural light.

The most notable thing about these feats of digital culinary showmanship, though, is what they don’t signal at all: the actual eating of food.

Instagram food has almost nothing to do with consumption as a gastronomic endeavor; instead, consuming Instagram food means acquiring it, and sharing proof of your acquisition. This flattens it out from a sensory experience into an aesthetic one; for the hungry audiences of the thin, conventionally attractive women whose hundreds of thousands of followers net them hefty checks, whatever’s being photographed is rendered calorie-neutral. It’s a visual-only binge.

I asked Bea Iturregui, a director of partnerships at Cycle, a digital agency that specializes in pairing Instagram influencers with brands, what she thinks the women who post pictures of their untouched, candy bar-adorned milkshakes are trying to accomplish. “People wait hours in line for this stuff, and it's not because they think it's going to be the greatest thing they've ever tasted,” she acknowledged. “Food trends are often too rich, too sugary and just too much. The real gratification comes once the photo is posted.”

That seems right. As far as I can tell, it’s nearly impossible be popular in the world of Instagram food maximalism if you actually look like a person who eats the things you post; otherwise, your probably fat hand might appear in (and ruin?) a photo of an ice cream cone held out in front of a brick wall. This is especially true for women who take a more holistic, “lifestyle”-oriented approach to their influencer status, women for whom food plays a big, but not exclusive, role. According to Iturregui, if you’re one of those women, “There's pressure every time you post. People will always have something to say: about your food, your clothes, your relationship, your body. The list goes on.”

On Instagram, giving in to indulgence can be a big part of an influencer’s #relatable persona, but only if she’s also constantly signaling to the world that she knows where to stop. This can take the form of exercise posts, acai bowls, or — on an image-driven medium — the simple self-evidence of the poster’s thinness. The easiest way to create context for an over-the-top food purchase is to show it next to a body that has not succumbed to fatness, the prospect of which is regarded with as much horror on influencer Instagram as it is in the rest of celebrity culture. Indulgence as spectator sport is only marketable if you also demonstrate that it requires repentance.

This disconnect between possessing Instagram food and actually eating it may have all been subtext at one point, but it’s now something for which popular Instagrammers know to have a ready answer when doing press. Recently, InStyle rounded up half a dozen of them to ask how they stay thin, which itself is nothing if not a tacit admission that being conventionally attractive is part of being good at the job. The six high-profile Instagrammers — thin, pretty women — all claimed to eat everything they post, and also emphasized that they put in a pretty massive amount of fitness time to counterbalance it.

It’s not impossible that they eat it all, though it’s entirely beside the point one way or another — in order for this whole delicate balance of star, sponsor, and adoring audience to work, it’s a claim they have to make. Iturregui told me she’s seen plenty of food thrown away at influencer-focused food events, a claim backed up by my friend Eric Mersmann, who has made the rounds as an ice cream Instagrammer in New York. “I’d say like 75% goes in the trash,” he says of the ice cream events he’s been to. “Once it gets too melty for a good shot, it goes out.” In a certain sense, influencers are stuck in the bind that all women are: they have to find a way to give audiences what we want and make it seem possible, which involves projecting a lifestyle that can’t exist.

For some influencers who share pictures of food, all of this may be incidental. Impressive metabolisms are out there, after all, and some of the Instagrammers who throw stuff out at events may just feel pressure to get a good shot of a trendy dish that doesn’t necessarily suit their own tastes. For the others, watching their timelines fill up with food feels more transparently performative, like a present-day version of Paris Hilton in the early 2000s, remaining impossibly thin and toned while regularly being photographed acquiring fast food. It’s a contradiction as compelling as the food itself: a beautiful woman constantly eating the most over-the-top meals imaginable, and yet never gaining weight. Hilton got so good at exploiting the paradox of her body and her appetites that she booked a whole Carl’s Jr. ad campaign where she housed a giant burger while wearing a bathing suit, and both to that audience and this one, the message is clear: If you get your aesthetic just right, if you’re cool enough, if you’re worthy enough, none of that science stuff about food and physiology will apply.

Most people understand that’s not how bodies work, of course, but it’s still an irresistible fantasy. And fantasy is exactly what it’s designed to be: the ooze of a buttery grilled cheese, the drip of a just-punctured yolk down the side of a double-stacked burger snowdrifted with truffles, a magically pink drink swirled with neon blue, a four-scoop ice cream cone melting in the sultry summer heat — these images are intended to elicit visceral, lizard-brain responses of hunger and desire, but somewhere between the screen and the mouth, things often go left. Tall burgers, it turns out, defy the reality of the human jaw. Unicorn Frappucinos sold out quickly, even though I never once saw anyone say they were delicious. Raindrop cakes taste like nothing, galaxy donuts stain your fingers, charcoal ice cream turns your teeth black, sushi burritos fall apart.

But in a world where women have long ago learned the social consequences of consuming things just because they taste good, tasting good becomes a secondary concern. From brands and influencers looking to profit, the result is a dictation: Eat with your eyes, not with your mouths. This food is made for it.

Amanda Mull writes about fashion, sports, sex, and more. She lives in Brooklyn, just like most of the people who do that.
Vance Lump is a freelance illustrator based in the Pacific Northwest.
Editor: Helen Rosner