Forget clean eating — we need a serious social media detox

It has been a bizarre month for my social media feeds.

Feminism and orthorexia make strange bedfellows, but in January, my Instagram, Twitter and Facebook accounts have unspooled an unlikely collage of handmade Women’s March placards (#pussypower #fightback #grabthis) alongside handmade turmeric tofu bowls (#detox #cleanwarrior #eatstrong).

“Clean eating” is nothing but dieting in soft-focus disguise.

Yes, the urban middle-class of Instagram might have kicked off 2017 by marching hard, but an awful lot of us are evidently still dieting hard too. And while I applaud the former — I took my ten month old daughter to the London march, and was deeply moved by the positive, passionate atmosphere — I hope that we’ll extend our new appetite for activism to the more subtle forms of disempowerment that bombard us every day.

“Clean eating” is nothing but dieting in soft-focus disguise, as Ruby Tandoh so passionately asserted in a Guardian article last week. The backlash against the “wellness” industry is well underway. But the widespread obsession with ‘perfect’ nutrition is just one example of how naive we can be about the need to safeguard our mental and cultural health in the digital space.

Thinspiration — a blast from the past

Content that would have been considered ‘extreme’ ten years ago is now utterly mainstream.

Back then, the web was awash with pro-anorexia forums offering ‘thinspiring’ images of emaciated models and tips for how to appear normal while eating no more than 200 calories per day. Most of those sites have now been shut down, or forced deeper into the dark web. But then why would we need them, when exactly the same stuff is being published by friends and brands alike in a halo of Hefe-filtered light?

The debate around restrictive food fetishism is a timely reminder that social media is the natural home of extremism, whether you’re a rabid Trump supporter or a liberal “wellness” guru. We’re currently being exhorted to celebrate #deedsnotwords, but words matter; and in our visually oriented digital culture, pictures possibly matter more.

Science is optional?

Sure, with our marches and petitions, we millennials have finally been forced to stand up for values we had, thus far, lazily assumed were sacrosanct. But how many of the dozens of words and images we publicly share every day truly reflect the world we want our children to grow up in, rather than promoting — however ironically, or trivially — the same emotional insecurity and magical thinking we deride?

It may sound melodramatic, but every time we share a recipe on Pinterest for a Healthy Vegan, Paleo, Gluten-Free, Dairy-Free Cookie Milkshake (and this is something, to my shame, that I actually have done), we’re whispering: Death isn’t real. Control is immortality. Ageing is unacceptable. Nature is dangerous. Science is optional. Childishness is freedom. All beliefs that would not be out of place in the current White House.

As the designer Mike Davidson wrote in a wonderful blog a couple of weeks ago, “when we spend our energy creating anything, we should stop asking ‘do people want this’ and start asking ‘is this helpful?’” If it is to have lasting impact, our revolution of deeds must be accompanied by a revolution of words and images, one that starts with the most humble and apparently harmless messages (explicit and implicit) we share with our families and friends.

It’s unquestioningly laudable to protest an anti-abortion edict from the monstrous Donald. It’s far harder to call out a Pinterest board of superfood salads as a force for evil without being condemned as a po-faced bra-burner (who is probably fat).

But this is not the time to start mud-slinging. That’s exactly the sort of buck-passing behaviour that got us into this mess. Instead, each of us must take responsibility to create less, but better. Unsubscribe from publications and brands that peddle extremist lifestyle nonsense. Filter your photos for content, not style. Think before you tweet.

Detox where it matters and trust me, your liver will take care of the rest.

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