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Health

What Do Influencers Eat, and Why Does It Matter So Much to Us?

'What I eat in a day' videos have become the subject of unending debates about whether influencers are modeling bad behavior or just 'doing what feels right for them.'
September 2, 2020, 5:46pm
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I have one of those cultural questions you asked for: What should we do, if anything, when it seems like an influencer or a YouTuber isn’t eating enough? It seems like these people will post about not eating very much, only for people to accuse them of not eating enough, only for them to defend themselves and say ACTUALLY they feel fine (and sometimes other followers of theirs will jump in, too). This has been happening over the last year, and especially the last few months, with Cassey Ho (of Blogilates), who went on a short diet, then a long diet, and now seems very underweight to me, and according to her posts, she truly does not eat very much, particularly for an active person.

I feel like the answer is probably “don’t get involved,” but it just makes me so sad to see someone whose content I love seem to go to a dark place and not realize it? I feel like if she were a friend I’d say something (though I’m not sure what?), but also the fact that she is a public figure means it feels especially fair to say something, yet if anyone attacks her her followers will attack back saying "no one can tell her what’s right for her." That seems like a popular excuse these days, but I don’t know, can’t anyone ever tell anyone what might not be right for them because it’s hurting them???? I've loved Cassey for so many years and just hate to see her suffering!!! —Ali

Let’s briefly recap what’s going on here: About a year ago, Cassey Ho, who makes YouTube videos and Instagram posts under the brand “blogilates,” started a “90-day journey” to get in “the best shape of [her] life, once and for all. Mentally and physically.” It seems like this took some of her followers aback, because to their mind, Ho was already in good shape: she was a fitness influencer and had been for years; millions of people followed her workouts; she occasionally posted videos about “healthy lunch ideas” and so forth. She occasionally suggested a slightly tortured relationship with food, posting about her fantasies of eating vast quantities like “a burrito the size of a baby” or “a bowl of noodles the size of a large pizza,” and has admitted to being an emotional eater.

This 90-day journey became a full year, and has turned into Ho posting more about what she eats and lots of photos of her visibly smaller physique (Ho has stated she lost weight), again to the dismay of some of her followers who criticize her portions and the fact that her meals seemed to lack in carbohydrates. Ho recently posted a response video defending herself, saying “fruits, veggies, popcorn ARE CARBS!!!!” and that “for me - for my body - it messes with the flow of my digestion, makes me extremely gassy and bloated, and I’m lethargic after I eat it. So, I get my carbs in other forms like fruits and veggies.”

In the same vein, she was recently criticized for making a TikTok preaching the value of the “banana test” for whether you are actually hungry (if you wouldn’t eat a banana, you aren’t hungry, according to this dubious metric that was debunked by dietitians). In a July post responding to criticism of her body, she wrote, “Oh. So I see we’re diagnosing me with an eating disorder again… STOP TAKING OWNERSHIP OF MY BODY. First I’m too fat. Now I’m too thin. My body is not your body to judge. Not when I was heavier. Not now. Not EVER… This is MY truth. And if you can’t believe my truth, then I urge you to go on a journey to find your own truth.”  Today, she released a video about “how she lost 20 pounds” that also promotes a nutrition plan she created with her own dietitian.

In comments she passed to me through her business manager, Ho was more diplomatic and claimed that she formerly struggled with an eating disorder, but no longer does: “In the past, yes I did struggle with orthorexia after I competed in a bikini competition in 2012. Under the guidance of a body building coach I got super lean for the stage in just 8 weeks. I ate a diet very low in carbs and very high in protein. I was trained to avoid fruits… It was not a sustainable way of eating long term,” she wrote. “It took years of internal work and journaling to undo my unhealthy relationship with food, but now I'm finally healed. I am not afraid of food. I view food as nourishment, as joy, and as energy!”

Ho is only one high-profile example of many, maaannnyyy influencers who post about what they eat to lose or maintain weight. “Full day of eating” and “what I eat in a day” are extremely popular content formats for vloggers, models, actresses, and other mysteriously famous people, in addition to people who post more specifically about fitness; we have the same, or even more, morbid curiosity about what people eat as we do about what is in their purse.

But very often, the reception of these videos, particularly for conventionally attractive people who appear to not eat all that much, follows a pattern: The person posts their video; people flood the comments accusing them of having an eating disorder and modeling unhealthy behavior; the posters’ fans and stans and sometimes the poster themselves post right back saying “it’s her body and she should do what feels good for her,” and sometimes, “you’re not a doctor so how would you know.” Everyone leaves feeling defensive and mad, and the person who posted the video almost certainly goes right on eating whatever they posted about eating in the video. The heat of these debates is so intense that a popular meta-content category has emerged where other personalities will make posts reacting to the original “what I eat in a day” posts, and then the cascade of arguments will start all over again.

I think to assess what’s going on here, we need to separate out some issues and deal with them one at a time: 1. Whether someone like Ho should post about what they eat (already in trying to work this out I’m intellectually at the point of, “can… a person… talk… publicly… about what they do,” I’m never going to get through this), even if they make disclaimers justifying any choices with the defense that “it makes them feel good” and try to distance themselves from the possibility of giving medical advice; 2. whether Ho should be allowed to expect no one to criticize those posts, even experts, given that no post or even a set of posts can really be considered a full picture of someone’s health; and then, 3. taking all of that together, what it means for what you should do.

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So looking at the simple fact of “what I eat in a day” videos, is there anything inherently wrong with posting them, is there anything inherently wrong with criticizing them or expressing concern for the person in them? Should it be, as the influencer and her stans are so fond of saying, okay to talk about “doing what’s right for her because it’s her body”?

For Ho’s part, she told me she believes “every body is different, so no one diet or exercise program will work the same for everyone. It is important that health and fitness leaders teach their followings the importance of self discovery when it comes to understanding their body.”

But she also added, ”I've only ever shared experiences that I think could bring value into other people's lives, never anything I wouldn't recommend to a close friend.”

None of the experts I spoke to specifically condemned Ho’s posts, but very strongly condemned the impulse for watchers to do as an influencer does. (And, I feel like it’s reasonable to point out, I don’t think this video format is popular just because it’s fun to see what people eat; we very obviously connect it in a results-based way to what they look like.) “As a rule of thumb, people should get their health and nutrition information from credible, credentialed sources who are trained to individualize care plans based on the whole person in front of them,” Maya Feller, a registered dietitian, told VICE. “It makes sense that a person would want to follow in the footsteps of a public figure—there are times when it's not prudent. I also like to remind people that we never know what's happening in another person's home or kitchen. Specifically, we don't know what resources they have access to or what their healthcare team looks like.”

According to experts I spoke to, posting these videos falls in the “it’s a free country” category of activities, but it is likewise a free country for followers to respond, because the post the influencer is making is for public consumption and part of their platform. To post content that is clearly modeling behavior and say they’d never recommend anything “they wouldn’t recommend to a close friend,” as in Ho’s case, but then tell people not to follow it and focus on their own “journey of self-discovery,” or ask them not to criticize it for reflecting potentially unhealthy habits, is understandably confusing. At worst, it reads as the influencer trying to have it both ways. “If you have a significant number of followers, you have to assume that you have a number of followers who might be in a vulnerable place who might be looking to you for advice, or guidance,” said Claire Mysko, CEO of the National Eating Disorders Association.

Lorien Abroms, a professor of prevention and community health at George Washington University, said that disclaimers do little to discourage followers, because the influencer is still setting an example. “It’s clearly dangerous in the sense that people model their behaviors on influencers or on other people, broadly speaking,” Abroms said. "So if they're seeing people say, ‘Oh, look, I had a doughnut and I only took a bite,’ or ‘look how skinny I look in these jeans’ or  ‘[look at] how much weight I lost,’ People are gonna think, Oh, I should be doing that too.”

Abroms said there is not enough research that has been done on the impact of influencers’ health choices, particularly for their younger followers, so the disclaimers aren’t sufficient to distance themselves from any negative impact of the example they set. “Probably the influencer can absolve themselves because no one's really proven to them that what they're doing is harmful. But my sense is that from the few studies that have been done, that it actually is harmful, and so I'm not okay with the disclaimer being enough.”

It’s tempting to approach an influencer the same way you’d approach a friend, and in that case everything would rest on the question “Is she or isn’t she displaying an unhealthy relationship with food and her body?” But the answer does not really matter, because social media is not reality, even if an influencer makes a very big show of bringing their loving fans everywhere and anywhere on any journey (For Ho’s part, she told me in comments, “I don't share anything that isn't authentic to who I am. That's why I'll show my healthy meals and fitness routines alongside my love for dessert and my intense dislike for burpees!”). This goes not just for the idea of a complete picture of what someone eats, but that these posts, particularly for someone very famous, can rise to the level of fiction, whether that means they actually eat more, or even less, than what they post about; whether they even actually binge or purge those or other foods; or even whether they eat completely normally, but post as if they are way more ascetic than they actually are because they have very finely tuned their strategy and know what pops on the algorithm, what posts people will bookmark or DM to their friends. Right now, that’s adorable little plant-based meals with only trace carbs and the occasional fry, tee-hee.

However, the question still remains, even if it wouldn’t be appropriate to express concern for the influencer as a person if you take it as a given that their feed is likely embellished or fake on some way, wouldn’t it be fair to criticize them for valorizing an unbalanced diet, and potentially even being cynical about it to the point that it misrepresents what they purport to eat, but they post about it because it’s the content people respond to and what performs well?

According to experts, yes, but then you’d be missing the point. “Posts from Cassey Ho or others with a similar message don’t end up in anyone’s social media feed by accident,” said S. Bryn Austin, a professor at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. “Instagram and other social media platforms all engineer algorithms that are completely invisible to users while selectively targeting them with influencer messaging, product advertising, and other content that companies believe will be profitable.” Austin encouraged thinking critically about the whole system in which Ho’s posts exist, rather than seeing her as  a free actor. “From a public health perspective, there may be good reason to critique Cassey Ho’s message, but that would be aiming too low,” said Austin. “We should set our sights higher on the social media platforms themselves, the makers of exploitative and manipulative algorithms, and the advertisers that profit from promoting body dissatisfaction and eating disorders.”

So what, then, is the move—Cringe and scroll by? Engage critically? Unfollow?

We have seen in recent years that voting with one’s feet, in the form of not engaging or unfollowing, does very little, when it comes to things like, say, conservative disinformation on Facebook. To Austin’s point, what has actually been effective has been holding sites like Facebook accountable for the bullshit its algorithm surfaces and pressuring it into better regulating people like Infowars’ Alex Jones or Richard Spencer. Getting companies like Facebook to understand all the nuances of harassment and hate speech has been a long slog, but an extremely valuable one.

For a controversy that lands even closer to this subject, TikTok admitted at the end of last year that it suppressed videos by fat, queer, and disabled people. That its content seemed to reflect young, conventionally beautiful, able-bodied people was not the result of a freely-conducted popularity contest; it was a result of the people who run TikTok pressing their own biases onto its audience.

Instagram gets actually very little algorithmic scrutiny compared to Facebook (which owns it) or YouTube. That may be because it skews toward lifestyle content, which is considered an overall softer set of subjects than, say, politics and business. How diet culture compares to the alt-right in terms of insidiousness, it’s hard to say. Sure, it gave rise to waist trainers, flat tummy tea, and activated charcoal, but it’s sure not bringing down democracy as we know it (or maybe it is? What if the great leaders we should have had by now fell victim to it? You can laugh and I can mystically say “no one knows what might have been” and we can go our separate ways.). They both certainly stem from a hatred for humanity and a desire to subjugate people by getting them to build prisons in their own mind. But it’s worth taking a harder look at who succeeds on Instagram with what kind of content, and asking whether that’s just the free market at work, or something more calculated that claws at our insecurities.

I sense that probably what you actually want to know is not whether it’s fair of you to criticize, but who is actually right, because if you were right, you’d think that means you’d have a right to say what you want and expect that it would have some sway over the influencer you care about. But all things can be true here: You can be right, AND within your right to criticize or express concern, AND the influencer neither has to listen to you nor take your critique to heart, unfortunately (though, in a strict business sense, you’d have to wonder how an influencer could justify continuing to post things a large contingent of her audience dislikes). But consider maybe that we’re all prisoners of the same garbage algorithm, and while it would be great if influencers swam against the current and personally made more responsible choices about their content, what would be even better is if the platform didn’t reward them for it

If you or someone you know is struggling with an eating disorder, you can call the National Eating Disorders Association Helpline at 1-800-931-2237, text "NEDA" to 741-741 or click to chat.

Disclaimer: Casey Johnston is not a doctor, nutritionist, dietitian, personal trainer, physiotherapist, psychotherapist, doctor, or lawyer; she is simply someone who has done a lot of, and read a lot about, lifting weights.

You can read past Ask A Swole Woman columns at The Hairpin and at SELF and follow A Swole Woman on Instagram. Got a question for her? Email swole.woman@vice.com.