“Who eats big fat IN-N-OUT burgers right before shooting in a bikini??? #WeDo”
-Caption of Instagram photo of two size 0 models posing with burgers in bikinis.
It’s 2005. I’m on the couch between my two big cousins, spoons clashing as we feverishly destroy a pint of mint chocolate chip ice cream. They helped me finish my flyer route early so that I could watch the newest episode of the O.C. with them. Fifth grade me is trying to keep up with the storyline, pining fervently for my own teenage years, and hoping I can keep a low enough profile that my mom won’t tell me I’m too young to watch. They gush about how pretty and skinny Marissa Cooper is- I nod along. The heroin chic modelling era isn’t yet forgotten, and Mischa Barton is the hotness. Angles and eyeliner and pretty much everything we all decide we want to be. We put our spoons down.
Here’s the scene: Lyndsey is surprised to see Marissa and Summer, the hottest girls in school, eating cheese fries and burgers for lunch. “It must be hours on the elliptical after school to work that off huh?” she prods. **Collective laughter**. “Coop? At the gym? I’m pretty sure she’s allergic to exercise” giggles Summer affectionately, while 90-pound Marissa eats another cheese fry and laughs.
That, I type from memory. How, may you ask, do I remember the exact scene from a random episode in season 2 of the O.C. that aired thirteen years ago? Because my entire idea of beauty, thinness, and acceptable practices to achieve the ideal female body stemmed from that one inconsequential scene in a teen drama, probably.
First it was the airbrush epidemic. Then it was 25-year-old supermodels playing high school kids in teen dramas. Now? It’s us.
It’s an uphill battle toward healthy representations of female bodies, and there have always been factors to overcome, norms to subvert, and trends to expose and uproot. But what happens when the most offensive perpetrator is no longer the mass media, the television producers, or the makeup companies? What can be done when, horror of horrors, the guilty group is- us. Me and you. Going about our day to day and sharing our screen selves with the world.
Celebrities and mere mortals alike, women have until this point done a pretty good job holding the media accountable. When Jennifer Lawrence called out Flare magazine for aggressively photoshopping her waist, people listened. In the past decade, celebrities have begun to call publications out, to share their displeasure, relationships be damned- and It’s awesome. Magazines have listened. Photoshopped images now often have disclaimers. Popular publications like Darling Magazine have taken a no-retouch stance, and others have committed to using all body types as models, including plus-sized women. It’s by no means universal, and photoshop lives on, but I’m calling this “calling-out” a win for women.
Similarly, I would claim that there is less “cheese fry scene” woman-on-woman crime happening in film and television. Some producers and many actresses are increasingly aware of how those seemingly insignificant moments can have long term effects on say, fifth grade girls and their ice cream eating habits. The rhetoric has shifted away from thin female characters obsessively talking about how much they eat and how little they exercise, and now includes a wider variety of representations. Netflix as a platform has produced a serious film about anorexia, and actresses who have struggled with their bodies in the past have increasingly shared their previously taboo experiences publicly.
So why then, is body dissatisfaction among young women worse than ever?
In observing a particular online epidemic plaguing young women over the past few years, I think I’ve pinpointed the cause. This affliction seems to specifically effect females, and while not everybody participates actively, almost nobody is safe from exposure. Simply put, it’s conventionally attractive, incredibly thin or fit women, sharing images on Instagram that highlight their “desirable” bodies, alongside captions of how much food they eat, or how little they exercise.
“Who eats big fat IN-N-OUT burgers right before shooting in a bikini??? #WeDo”
“Not pictured: the entire pizza we just ate!”
“All my friends in LA are posting workout pics and I’m just eating another slice of pizza as my cardio”
“Best part about Milan Fashion Week: Pre-Cat Walk Gelato!”
“On my way to find a cheese burger and fries”
…you get the picture.
These are a tiny sample found in about 5 minutes on the internet, of a trend that I’ve been observing for years. All of these photos are accompanied by very thin women in minimal clothing, posing in ways that highlight their slim bodies. And this is the problem.
I need to caveat that this is not “skinny-shaming”. This is not an Instagram account that attacks these women and reposts their images claiming that #YouDidNotEatThat because it’s inconceivable for a thin woman to consume anything other than kale. Nor am I saying that thin women aren’t allowed to post food pictures, or be as excited about treating themselves to snacks as much as the rest of us on the internet.
However, the obsessive need to accompany an image highlighting your thin body, with a caption about how much you regularly consume pizza and beer, and how little you exercise, is distorting body image of online users (aka, everyone). From supermodels to Instagram influencers, to women I know in real life, the need to prove that thinness is derived from unhealthy eating, and to make exercise entirely invisible, seems to thrive online.
Instead of a magazine image that I see for five minutes in the check out line at the grocery store, or a scene in a teen drama that I actively consume for half an hour and then turn off, these representations on Instagram berate women constantly, all day every day. The app itself is all-consuming, and the access to millions of images daily creates an alternate reality where young women are told that these women they idealize don’t work for their bodies. Therefore, if I eat pizza and skip the gym, and yet don’t look like that, I’m deviant. There’s something wrong with MY body, because @fitgirl123 ate a Big Mac as her cardio yesterday and just look how thin she is.
In 2018, the problem is us. But there’s a catch- it’s not our fault. Why are women sharing things that don’t represent holistic lifestyles? Why do we feel the need to caption a bikini photo with a pizza emoji, or a skinny selfie with how we skipped the gym every day this week? Is it because we want to make other women feel bad about themselves? No. It’s because we’re conditioned by society to think that living exclusively off of chicken wings and beer and playing video games with the guys instead of hitting the gym makes you fun.
Tina Fey tells us in the opening of her book that her career advice for making it to the top in a man’s world is- drumroll… don’t eat diet food in meetings. She says this not to shame women who diet, but instead knowing how others will do so.
Gillian Flynn puts it perfectly in Gone Girl:
“Men always say that as the defining compliment, don’t they? She’s a cool girl. Being the Cool Girl means I am a hot, brilliant, funny woman who adores football, poker, dirty jokes, and burping, who plays video games, drinks cheap beer, loves threesomes and anal sex, and jams hot dogs and hamburgers into her mouth like she’s hosting the world’s biggest culinary gang bang while somehow maintaining a size 2, because Cool Girls are above all hot.” Oof right?
So what can be done when we can’t tell the mass media off, but instead have to be critical of ourselves? Not every woman on Instagram is perpetuating this idea, just as not every magazine publication and celebrity is working to combat it- there are still a myriad of body image issues stemming from traditional production. However, there has been a shift, and its time for women online to take accountability and realize their responsibility to share healthy and realistic lifestyles.
It doesn’t mean thin girls can’t post photos with pizza (although it helps us all when the pizza is actually in the photo). It also doesn’t mean people have to announce it to the world whenever they hit the gym (please don’t). What it does mean is that we should all be aware of our influence, even those of us who don’t have micro-celebrity status on Instagram, and we should try to share more honestly. It isn’t the men who follow you who are most avidly consuming your content- trust me, they think you look good without the pizza emoji in the caption. It’s the women- your friends, your following, your fan base, who are being harmed when we post half truths or omit reality from online personas.