When I was a teenager, I wrote miserable LiveJournal posts about wanting to throw up my lunch and swapped lists with commenters cataloging every fat-free calorie I consumed. My internet friends understood my complicated relationship with food: why I needed to eat to feel my feelings, yet hated myself every time I ate a meal.
Maybe that's why I'm fascinated with the thriving Instagram collective of young women who share photos of painstakingly constructed bowls of kaleidoscope-like "superfoods." In interviews, many said they were recovering from eating disorders and depression. Instead of seeking solidarity through communal restriction, they channel compulsive tendencies into a meticulous but euphoric attention to detail that leads to self-love instead of self-hate.
"Many of us in the 'superfood' community try to promote having a positive relationship with food, and I think seeing beautiful meals and snacks acts as a sort of support system and daily reminder for those people to continue nourishing their bodies with wholesome foods," said Casey, a 20-year old whose Instagram account Whole and Healthy has more than 33,000 followers. "I have a passion for making my meals look more like art, rather than just 'another meal.'"
The concoctions are mostly vegan, all-natural, and often gluten-free, and the women who post them are predominantly teenagers and live all over the world (although, inexplicably, the majority are based in Australia). They post Mason jars overflowing with layered mixtures like "chia seed-mango-pomegranate-bee pollen parfait" and the occasional riff on comfort food, like "vegan gingerbread buckwheat pancakes" topped with "banana coins and quinoa pops." But the most popular photos are of breathtaking bowls featuring what Into the Gloss once aptly called "decorated mush."
Yes, mush can be breathtaking. Most bowls start with a base of oatmeal, porridge, or simply blended frozen fruit, which many in the community reverently refer to as "ice cream" (there's an Instagram account called "nanaicecream" for devotees that favor banana). Layered above are fresh strawbs and 'nanas — these women are on a nickname basis with fruit, as if to show how unafraid they are of all-natural sugar — and exotic-sounding ingredients: baobab buckwheat bircher, maca-cinnamon-nutmeg-flaxseed oats, raw cacao-tahini sauce. They're sprinkled with supplements you've probably never heard of: caramelised buckinis, goji berries, hemp hearts.
The descriptions stress abundant nourishment, but also excess: The bowls contain "huuuge dollops" of "toppings overkill," and the adjectives "addicted" and "obsessed" are used frequently. Viscosity is key: "I mean look at that texture…just look at it," they exclaim. Users eat "huge bowls of gooey carrot cake oatmeal" topped with "a shovelful of peanut butter" and start their morning by "devouring Creamy Rich Chocolate Oats with Fresh Raspberries, Nana slices, Figs and Dried Coconut." Most bowls are eaten for breakfast — as food photographers know, it's not only the healthiest meal of the day, but the most photogenic — and often have captions declaring the meal a new "start" or "beginning."
The message is clear: This perfect, wholesome bowl is the beginning of the rest of your perfect, wholesome life. It's a message that resonates — many of these teenagers have more than 100,000 followers on Instagram.
"I think sometimes that people (me included) get so caught up on having what some might regard as the perfect and healthy diet, that they forget that it is also very important to have a healthy mentality towards food and not be obsessive," wrote 15-year-old Tina, who recently shared a bowl of oatmeal cooked with artfully displayed raspberries, banana, sesame seeds, cacao nibs, medjool dates, and homemade chocolate almond butter to her 45,000 followers.
But how are diligently ornate bowls of "overnight coconut steel cut oats with chia seeds and raspberries topped with homegrown passionfruit, pepitas, marigold petals and more raspberries" not products of obsession?
Aside from purported health benefits — less bloating, more energy, clearer skin, etc. — popular users said the practice was therapeutic, not just because it helped suppress the urge to diet but because it made eating fun instead of traumatic.
"My initial goal was to lose weight so I began like most teenage girls, with calorie counting and apps like MyFitnessPal, but (thankfully) I later began to see the bigger picture," wrote Lisa, an 18-year-old who asks her followers to hashtag their re-creations of concoctions like "apple pie oats topped with apple + cinnamon + sultanas + granola + homemade cinnamon maple almond butter" so she can compliment them on their efforts.
I was initially skeptical of the focus on perfection: Commenters ooh and ahh over how perfectly each pepita is placed, and users plan ahead to buy expensive superfoods in bulk, just like I used to fixate on how many tiny bites I would take of the PowerBar I kept in my pocket all day so I felt safe. The emphasis on how "fun" the process is also seemed disingenuous. Who wants to spend all that time soaking oats and arranging flaxseed in synchronized patterns? (When I told a friend that I was obsessed with following the superfood community on Instagram but had yet to make my own bowl, she said, "We have jobs.")
But ornamental superfood evangelists say it's cheap and easy to eat superfood-style if you shop locally and order supplements online. They also insist they've never felt more levelheaded.
"I've battled depression for the majority of my teenage years, but I discovered something incredible through food and a balanced lifestyle — I began to feel better both physically and mentally, everyday challenges were easier for me to cope with and I felt a little buzz of pride every time I'd create something new and exciting in the kitchen," said 19-year-old Samara. "This lifestyle gave me something to be passionate about again in a time of my life where I felt otherwise empty."
Lin, a 15-year-old whose Instagram account has over 109,000 followers, said she got into the trend while recovering from an eating disorder and "realizing that all food is good for you, and at the same time discovering newer ways to nourish myself back to health." Now, instead of stress-eating when she's upset, she makes a "comforting bowl of lovely hot chocolate oatmeal, a giant splodge of [peanut] butter because why not, fruit, slivered almonds, and cacao nibs."
It's impossible to tell whether these exquisite bowls are a product of calming ritual or unhealthy obsession (or both), or whether their creators are actually eating the artwork they profess is so delicious. But onlookers will always judge young women for what they choose or don't choose to put in their mouths — see the wildly popular Instagram account youdidnoteatthat, which accuses thin women who pose with junk food of "pretending" to eat — while teenage boys who lift weights and bulk up on protein powder are rarely deemed obsessive or dysfunctional.
What I do know is I prefer deliberate positivity over guilt-ridden fixation. And it seems like an increasing amount of young women do too.
"As a comparison to other trends, I think this lifestyle really resonates with other people and stands out because it is finally something that seems realistic for everyone, and doesn't involve restriction," said 17-year-old Claire. "Life's too short for restrictions and we all deserve to be nothing but happy."