Influencer Culture, Eating Disorders, and the Promise of Wellness

by thethreepennyguignol

Wellness has a nice ring to it, right? There’s something soothing about that term. Calming. Wellness, like it’s all about shifting your life into some soft-focus place of warm, pillowy goodness. You just want to be well. It’s simple, isn’t it? Really?

Trigger warning for discussions of eating disorder behaviours.

But wellness, as I assume all of us know by now, has a far less zen place in social media than its name might suggest. Wellness influencers abound, dropping cookbooks and workout plans and selling weekend retreats that promise Instagramable moments so everyone can know just how well you’re doing. What you put into your body – food, supplements, vitamins, macros – and what you choose to leave out of it, the exercise you do, the diets you follow, they’ve become marketing points through which to court an audience. The more specific, the better, the more niche, the better – the smaller the corner of the internet you can declare your kingdom, the more people you can guarantee will come to you for advice on how to live well. 

Wellness, in and of itself, has become a lifestyle, a brand, a selling point – the very notion of being well has become a product, and the cost of purchase is usually whatever these influencers happen to be shilling this week. And, you know, branding any lifestyle content is something that is slightly surreal and unsettling when you think about it, but there is something especially insidious about this aspect of influencer culture. Because it’s not just selling a particular kind of duvet or the most pigmented matte lipstick on the market – it promises to give us this nebulous wellness, a word that seems to encompass control over our physical and mental health without promising anything too specific, an offer which, to a lot of us, is too good to turn down.

And so, we’re drawn into wellness culture. Because we want to be well. For some people, coming to this world may be a reaction to feeling unheard by the medical community and searching for a last resort to make their lives better; for others, it’s just a part of a self-improvement push, hunting down that perfect life that social media promises us. Wellness influencers offer a chance to take your health and happiness into your own hands, and that’s a damn tempting prospect for almost anyone out there.

In the last couple of years, it seems as though so much of the wellness industry has been crumbling apart at the seams. Major bloggers are coming clean abouttheir battles with eating disorders and other disordered behaviours, many of which were active during the time that they were promoting a healthful lifestyle. Which shouldn’t really be that much of a surprise.

When you really take a look at many of the ideas that these influencers are putting forward, so many of them fall neatly into the parameters of disordered eating – cutting out food groups, displaying unfounded fears of certain food, a focus on presenting a specific body image (usually small, often trying to be smaller). Purging is also common; whether it’s in the form of laxative teas, extended fasts, or over-exercise to repent for percieved food sins, they might not be hunched over the toilet, but they’re still finding ways to undo the so-called damage. So many of these stories echo each other – their online lives were beautifully crafted, and hiding a crush of bingeing, unhappiness, and over-exercise just out of sight. The more they allowed disordered eating to consume their lives, the more notable their platforms became. Increased Instagram use has even been linked to higher presentation of Othorexia Nervosa.

I have no doubt that, for some people, pursuing certain restrictive diets allows for a positive change in their lives, but let’s be real: for most people, cutting out food groups and restricting the scope of what they can eat without decent medical reason to do so is an attempt to excuse high-level control over what they put in their bodies.

Do I sound cynical? I sure hope so. In case you weren’t aware, I’m in recovery from an eating disorder, and man, does this shit suck. I mean, maybe that goes without saying, but sometimes, trying to re-route the restrictive dumbassery in my brain to something more productive makes me feel like crawling under the covers and not coming out till someone can bring me a packet of crisps that I will agonize about whether or not to eat for three hours before going on a run and crying instead. I am not saying that wellness culture or influencers gave me an eating disorder, but I do think that the promise of control that wellness culture offers is a seductive thing to people like me, who struggle with issues of control and anxiety.

And it’s really confusing for me, to be honest, to so often see the restrictive behaviour that is put worth as wellness presented as something positive. To see food obsession turned into not just an identity, but an identity that is sold to other people to buy into. I do not deny that some people find peace and comfort and better health through the routes that wellness culture offers them, of course, but it’s kind of shocking to me to see disordered behaviour presented as enviable.

Because even with so many of these influencers coming out about their illnesses, their battles with disordered eating, and how the perma-pretty, carefully-constructed images that they curated online fed into that, this idea of wellness is still an impossibly seductive one. This is a $3.7 trillion industry, after all, and in this capatalist hellscape which we all inhabit, as long as it continues to be profitable, it’s going to keep on existing. And that promise, that nebulous promise of making yourself well, somehow – that’s going to continue to be, even when it’s hurting the very people who are putting it forward. And if it’s hurting them – then what chance do the rest of us, down here, on the ground and just trying to get well, really stand?

If you’d like to read more of my writing on eating disorders, feel free to check that out here. If you enjoyed this article and would like to support The Cutprice Guignol, please consider supporting me on Patreon!