Critics have looked toward clean eating as an extension of orthorexia nervosa, the little known condition of clinical obsession with eating healthy foods (Williams 2015; Younger 2015). Where anorexia pertains to an anxiety about the quantity of food the sufferer consumes, orthorexia is most accessibly explained as an anxiety over the quality of the food one eats (Larsen 2013; Bratman 2015). Though the condition is not yet recognised by the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders index, Dr Stephen Bratman, who first coined the term “orthorexia” writes on his website:
Orthorexia is an emotionally disturbed, self-punishing relationship with food that involves a progressively shrinking universe of foods deemed acceptable. A gradual constriction of many other dimensions of life occurs so that thinking about healthy food becomes the central theme of almost every moment of the day, the sword and shield against every kind of anxiety, and the primary source of self-esteem, value and meaning.
Orthorexia recently received mainstream coverage as a result of an emotional article written by Jordan Younger, a former clean eating blogger now in recovery from the condition. While the popularity of her brand as a wellness blogger grew, Younger recalls her descent into mental illness in her article for Refinery 29.
My issue didn’t fall into the traditional categories of anorexia, bulimia, or binge eating. Mine was an obsession with healthy, pure, clean foods from the earth, and a fear of anything that might potentially cause my body harm.
Younger’s piece went viral and the 23 year old is now a very visible advocate for raising awareness of the condition. In recounting her descent into fanaticism toward certain foods, Younger’s account equates unclean foods with potential bodily harm, an interesting rendering of a body at battle with polluting forces which seek to physically degrade the integrity of the body.
Bratman, Steven. “Healthy Eating vs. Orthorexia”. Orthorexia.com, 26 May. 2015. Web. 12 July 2015.
Larsen, Kristine Instefjord. “Similarities and Differences between Eating Disorders and Orthorexia Nervosa.” Diss. Norwegian School of Sports Sciences, 2013. Print.
Williams, Mary Elizabeth. “We’re clean eating our way to new eating disorders.” Salon, 31 Jan. 2015. Web. 12 July 2015.
Younger, Jordan. “My life with Orthorexia.” Refinery 29, 11 May. 2015. Web. 12 July 2015.
As a method of “clean eating” the paleo diet follows through on the movement’s re-evaluation of the term “clean” as a metaphorical state, as we can imagine the foods eaten by primitive man would not have fitted conventional notions of hygiene. Instead, the prioritisation of certain foods over others is done based on a social agenda.
The paleo diet’s prioritisation of raw food over cooked food is shared by the primitive tribes of Douglas’s account. Citing an un named review of Indian Sociology, Douglas argues for some tribes, the digestion of food begins at the moment of its cooking, the point at which absorption of food by the body actually begins (Purity and Danger 127).
Food preparation involves a collective pre digesting of food by the maker, and as a result the food itself is seen to absorb the nature of the maker. So one cannot eat food prepared by someone else without absorbing the latter’s qualities which manifest in food at the moment it is cooked. If the maker’s nature is sinister, this is the point at which the pollution of food occurs.
Note here it is a moral, not hygienic instance of pollution.
In the case of the paleo diet, which rejects clinical notions that “raw” foods are often seen to be pathologically harmful (ie. Salmonella poisoning), there appears to be a similar anxiety over food becoming manifestly “unclean” at the moment of cooking. Raw foods are symbolic beacons of health and well being, where cooked foods, though in no way condemned, fail to dominate the clean eating hashtag’s visual representation as extensively.
Douglas, Mary. Purity and Danger : An Analysis of Concepts of Pollution and Taboo. Routledge Classics ed. New York: Routledge, 2002. Print.
Clean eating is a wellness phenomenon that has taken over dashboards everywhere. To eat clean has become the raison detre for many young females, if their social media activity is anything to go by. By what are the implications for a population of young women striving toward a state of cleanliness, synonymous with both internal and external purity? Masked by the empowered tone of postings by amateurs and wellness bloggers alike is an excessive anxiety toward the disorder emblematic in foods which fail to meet new criterions of cleanliness.
Mary Douglas famously argues that our visceral fear of dirt stems not from an anxiety over its lack of hygiene, but the context of its placement in a social system. For example, dirt is tolerated in contexts where it is expected, (ie. the garden bed) however once dirt transgresses out of this expected position this is the moment where discomfort occurs. Funnily enough, there is nothing about dirt itself that is inherently “dirty”, rather it is whether or not it follows the social doctrines of its placement.
To ramble now on clean eating, there is nothing to suggest the purpose of clean eating involves striving to consume foods that are necessarily “hygienic” – the conventional meaning of the word “clean”. Clean eating instead involves a re evaluation of the meaning of the term to suit a more metaphorical pursuit of wholesomeness which would be difficult to explain to someone who naturally took on the traditional, verbatim definition of “clean”. I believe there is some interesting discourse work at play here by the community that recalls Douglas’s re-evaluation of the cultural relativity of dirt. Foods contained within the clean eating diet are not prioritised due to their hygienic status but for the fact that they follow certain social rules.
The first of these is that these foods are of a certain nutritional value, verified by a number of different sources. I am not in aposition to question the diet’s nutritional content, however I would like to point out how the definition of “clean” has been refigured as something that fits into accepted social codes of nutrition and health. I speculate that the other of these is the aesthetic value of certain foods contained within the clean eating diet. It is difficult to explain the sum of things making up the clean eating aesthetic but a few common motifs include wholesome boards and bowls containing brightly coloured foods garnished by attractive condiments, smoothies presented in fashionable milk bottles, smiling attractive girls in work out gear holding vegetables and so on. What I edge toward is that for foods to be considered “clean” they also must follow certain aesthetic as well as nutritional rules to truly be validated within the social system.
My precursor is an auto ethnographic study interrogating the way young women seek to perform and represent identity through the construction of an online presence for my younger self.
My research question explores the social implications of the use of the hashtags fitspiration, thinspiration and clean eating on Instagram and Tumblr. At first I hoped to approach an embodied, subjective analysis of the way young women aged 12-25 use these hashtags to perform and represent eating disordered behaviours, however I quickly realised the impossibility of gaining the necessary ethics clearances needed to approach an understanding of the way an especially vulnerable group in society consumes potentially triggering material. Since I am only able to analyse the hashtags discursively in the scope of my final project, I wanted to use my Precursor to exorcise a desire I have to study the lived experience of a group who fascinate and disturb me.
My precursor is a contribution to the field of Digital Anthropology, a research community investigating the way human beings use digital artefacts to represent the human experience. Research emanating from this area commonly comprises ethnographic and auto ethnographic modes of analysis to interrogate how the offline manifests in the online and vice versa (Digital Anthropology 13). An ideal target audience within this community are researchers from the Young and Well CRC, a cluster known for their work promoting safe and healthy online behaviour to young people.
An inspiring piece for this precursor is Crystal Abidin’s digital ethnographic study of Singaporean bloggers, “‘Cya IRL’: Researching digital communities online and offline”. As part of her research practice, Abidin created a Facebook account to interact with the bloggers participating in her study, as well as a personal blog documenting her research journey.
In order to access and be socialised into the blog community, I had to ‘live’ within their shared social space and ‘perform’ as they would. This included adopting communication and behavioural norms just as any anthropologist entering a physical field site would. (Abidin 8)
Through this precursor I have also adopted behaviours I’ve observed as normative in the community I’m studying, particularly in relation to hashtag use, tone, form and emoji selection.
The piece is a valuable exegetical artefact for a research area investigating the evolution of the way young people perform and represent identity. The diary entries are written before a time of readily available methods of anonymously distributing private thoughts publicly online. Moreover, the historical images I have used to form the content of my Instagram account are also an interesting study of the way young girls represented themselves before the invention of the front facing mobile camera and the selfie. Taken together, both mediums used in this project are an attempt to imagine what it would look like if such technologies of extension were available to me at the diary entry’s time of writing.
The artefact is presented within a purpose built website capable of linking out to content on other platforms. As such, the form of the piece is appropriate to a technologically literate research community interested in seeing research presented in an accessible and aesthetically pleasing way.
When I first created this precursor, I developed it as an aesthetic artefact to be studied as a text. I conceived of the Instagram and Tumblr accounts as static objects which would be viewed only by those who understood its purpose in academic inquiry. In putting myself at the centre of this project, I also saw the precursor’s first incarnation as a way of validating and discovering the personal motivations behind my choice of research topic.
But, as I checked back on the profiles after Precursor 1, I was shocked to find that people were actually interacting with the artefacts. I saw an opportunity to interact with this community and test my assumptions about the nature of the posts this audience found engaging.
Before I approach a discussion of my findings from this precursor, I must note the ethical anxieties that came with this project’s development. Each time I saw a comment or a like on one of my posts I felt a pang of excitement at a gateway into new knowledge of the type of posts the community found engaging. But this went hand in hand of with immense discomfort at the strangeness of the deception that achieved that interaction.
Here I was, a healthy 21 year old Honours student posing as my emotionally immature 14 year old self.
I went through a period of in depth content analysis of pro-anorexia accounts situated within the hashtag, thinspiration and found myself unconsciously posting images using similar hashtags. When these images achieved lots of likes and followers a particularly sickly feeling pitched its tent in my stomach as I realised I was achieving these insights by contributing to a movement which daily facilitates and validates eating disordered behaviours offline. This really hit home when an anorexia recovery blog began to follow me. Even though these posts were made in service to research which may hopefully contribute to healthy online behaviours, I was confronted with a dramatic justification of the ethical constraints research at this level must follow, for which I am glad of going into semester 2.
If I have learned one thing from my research, it’s this: social media services like Facebook and Twitter are providing teens with new opportunities to participate in public life, and this, more than anything else, is what concerns many anxious adults. (boyd, 10)
I approached my research with a similar sense of alarmist horror at the new ways young women are interacting in digital spaces. However, I emerge from this study with the view that though the technologies young women are using to represent the human experience are radically different, the behaviours and experiences they are being used to represent are actually the same as they have always been.
This is why something I wrote in 2003 can be repackaged in a shiny new way, but can still gather you up and plop you right back into the moment of its original writing.
To close with a quote from Horst and Miller:
We may employ technologies to shape our conceptualisation of what it means to be human, but it is our definition of being human that mediates what the technology is, not the other way around. (“Normativity and the Principle of Materiality” 108)
My research seeks to use Mary Douglas’ understanding of purity and danger as a lens through which I which I will conduct visual content analysis of the use of the hashtags thinspiration, fitspiration and clean eating. As such, my preliminary reading has encompassed analyses of other theorists who have also applied Douglas’s work (and its incarnations) to concepts of the body and eating disordered behaviours. I’ve had a look at the current state of art in research into the way young women with eating disordered behaviours use social media and looked toward the methodologies employed to gain further understanding of the complex and at times disturbing messaging underlying these hashtags and their use.
My analysis will use the concept of Abjection in a similar way to Eliza Burke’s discussion of the link between disseminating imagery of thinspiration and the user’s personal feeling of distress. Burke never explicitly references Kristeva’s theory, but it appears to hover over her discussion of users posting images of distress online in a bid to represent their disgust at their bodies and the effects of self starvation.
I intend to argue the act of creating or reposting such imagery is a ritualistic act helping to quell the sufferer’s own abject disgust at their hungry or needful body- similar to an act of privation discussed in Mary Douglas’s work. In the past few weeks I’ve gotten obsessed with Kristeva’s theory of Abjection, which is directly inspired by Douglas in Purity and Danger and has also been applied to analyses of eating disorders. It will be an important part of my research as I want to hypothesise at this stage that the pro anorexia blog user posts thinspiration imagery online to express their own abject disgust at their ‘fat’ or ‘needful’ bodies. Making their experience public in the form of a tumblr or instagram post means they participate in a form of separation or distancing from their own personal experience of their bodies (from which a feeling of abject disgust originates).
I’d like to argue that reposting or creating thinspiration imagery is an act of privation discussed in Mary Douglas’s work, an attempt to restore order and boundaries between the self/the user and feelings of abject disgust at their own bodies.
Social Media is allowing young women new ways to perform and represent body image. Through the use of the hashtags clean eating, thinspiration and fitspiration on Instagram and Tumblr, young women appear to be participating in communities that validate eating disordered behaviours. My thesis seeks to use Mary Douglas’s anthropological understanding of purity and danger as a way of articulating how social media is being used to performidentity in the context of these disorders.
Douglas’s influential theory posits an idealised notion of the body as a pure object, but since such absolute purity is unobtainable, the body is regarded as a defiled and dirty object. In a bid to get closer to an impossible notion of purity,Douglas contends that rituals of privation are performed upon the body in order to purify it. Using Douglas’s theory as a framework for my content analysis of the use of the three hashtags on Instagram and Tumblr, I seek to examine how the use of social media by young women is one of these rituals of privation.
It is my hope that understanding these practices critically may provide insights to change how we communicate health education campaigns seeking to promote positive body image for young women.
For my precursor, I set about creating an online presence for my 12-14 year old self. My project studies the way young women aged 12-18 represent themselves through social media such as Tumblr and Instagram in 2015. Having experienced what it is like to be that age I feel a special connection to this audience. I feel almost a protective urge toward them. Additionally, there is a large age gap between myself and my sister, Phoebe who turns 14 soon. I constantly project my own experiences of being her age onto her, feeling like my own experiences are an advantage she has over the wicked monster of adolescence. But, my research into the current virtual environment suggests I should just throw those experiences out the window, such is the profoundly transformed digital space available to her.
So I asked myself, if I had access to Instagram and Tumblr in 2006, what would my profile look like? And, since I’m working under the hypothesis that young girls use these mediums to present a ‘curated version’ of their lives, how would I strategically represent myself?
Preliminary content analysis has revealed the very different ways girls use Tumblr and Instagram to represent their identities. Tumblr appears to be a place of anonymity, where girls can disassociate themselves from their ‘IRL” identity and because of this, be extremely raw and honest. Tumblr is replete with text posts in a confessional style. Users seem empowered by their anonymous identities and often use the medium as a bit of a short and sweet/truncated online diary. I took this idea to its extreme, by hunting through my old diaries and posting actual excerpts of my inner thoughts at ages 10-18. With faith in its anonymity, my younger self confided in my diaries in the same way as many modern Tumblr users do online. The only real medium available to me back then was the written word, so I played with the idea of myself potentially using Tumblr as my anonymous confidante. I will note that the process of deciding what to post online was an act of curation by my adult self. I have posted passages that are expository (ie. They capture an age or mood really well), interesting and of course not too vulnerable. But, this may also emulate the process of what the Tumblr user decides to put online.
From there I created an instagram account for my younger self, uploading old photos and captioning them using the current codes and conventions of language I’ve encountered in my content analysis. I used instagram to visually represent moments outlined in my diaries. At times of self loathing and insecurity, I imagined my younger self searching ‘thinspiration’ and posted a few images I would hypothetically be exposed to.I tried to think about the different things I would post about when I was 12 to when I was 18- based on first hand accounts of those ages in my diary. I tried to think about how I would use instagram to lie to myself, about things I truly felt. I thought about how I could construct a public identity which differed from my more honest Tumblr interactions. And most of all,I tried to think about how I would use instagram as consolation for reality.
Believe it or not, I found this process more vulnerable than actually posting excerpts of a secret diary, as instagram feels less anonymous, being primarily image based. I was apprehensive about putting pictures of my younger self up in the public domain in the same way a mother feels uncomfortable about having photos of her child put up on Facebook- you never knew who would be looking. This hit home as I posted a image of the ‘thinspiration’ vein which said ‘name a food and I won’t eat it for a month’. A user, believing my profile was authored by a 12 year old girl, actually suggested a few foods for me to give up.Similarly, random users liked my photo ‘one like=one hour fasting’- encouraging a young girl to starve herself and while being on my profile, liking a few pictures of me at 12. This was disturbing and sobering, but showed how active the community who follows these hashtags are and how willingly they will reinforce eachother’s behaviour. After discussions with some of you guys in the lab, I decided to keep my profile public to see where it went and who would find it.
The idea for my first precursor really flowed on from this blog post I wrote for our non fiction site. It was a huge Eureka moment for me on the possibilities of non fiction and the limits of the memoir. Take a look.