Along with the prevalence of social media, an extraordinary amount of attention has been given to weight consciousness and diet (Peterson, 2021). Every time we go on apps like Instagram and TikTok, we are exposed to images, content, and numerous campaigns around the importance of “healthy” foods, diets, and being in shape. With the way social media and monetization works, most of this content is targeted at affecting the dietary behavior of consumers in order to make sales (Hawkins: Farrow; Thompson, 2020). However, it’s possible that social media ads, influencers, and campaigns depicting diets might be causing consumers to have guilty feelings about food. While this effect may enable companies and influencers to increase sales and engagement, it turns out that food-related guilt can conversely cause very unhealthy behavior (Peterson, 2021).
In general, women tend to report more feelings of guilt towards food than men do (Steenhius, 2009). Psychologist Ninoska Peterson, PhD describes how we can learn eating-habit related shame from a young age. During childhood, we learn food rules and social cues to determine when we can eat, why we should eat, and how much we’re allowed to eat. Social cues and rules around food may be presented more stringently to girls. So, upon violating these rules, a woman might experience feelings of eating-related guilt more intensely. This is not to say that eating rules are inherently bad, but a grave problem arises when these rules become unreasonable, oppressive, and health-threatening.
To combat this, many dieticians suggest “putting food in two new categories that are more holistic in nature. Instead of assigning a “good” or “bad” label, they suggest using the terms “nutritious” and “satisfying” to help overcome feelings of guilt (Cleveland Clinic, 2021).
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However, when we see diet-related content on social media, feelings of food-related guilt may increase if we cannot or do not adhere to these eating rules (Peterson, 2021). I would argue that much of “healthy eating” content is rule-like since it has the purpose of designating "right and wrong" food groups, changing, and redirecting behavior. Moreover, Aston University researchers provide evidence to suggest that our online social circles implicitly influence us by using “nudge techniques” to change eating behavior (Hawkins: Farrow; Thompson, 2020).
For example, take into consideration the diet videos on TikTok. Depending on the video, you might see calories flash across the screen and short clips showing “healthy meals.” The content creator is normally praised, rewarded, and even called beautiful in the comments. Given that, what is the implicit meaning for viewers who do not or cannot eat in a similar fashion (Hawkins: Farrow; Thompson, 2020)?
While people have every right to choose their diet, we also have to acknowledge the impact of these videos in the context of social media (Hawkins: Farrow; Thompson, 2020). Likewise, there is nothing inherently wrong with someone sharing their diet, but because weight and certain eating habits are so heavily stigmatized for women, the diet space on social media is incredibly impactful on the minds and behaviors of women.
To provide an example of this stigmatization, in a study “excluding respondents who never experienced feelings of guilt, the average number of guilty moments for female respondents was 17.2% of all eating moments. The majority of these guilty moments concerned relatively mild feelings of guilt. In 86.3% of all guilty moments, respondents reported feeling ‘a little guilty’; 11.2% of all guilty moments involved feeling ‘quite guilty’, and only 2.6% of all guilty moments involved feeling “very guilty” (Steenhius, 2009).”
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Women feeling at least some guilt for a notable portion of their meals is attention-grabbing and worrisome. In a study that investigated a sample of 97 Australian women, shame associated with eating behavior was the strongest predictor of the severity of eating-disorder symptomatology (Bernie; Irwin, Journal of Clinical Psychology).
This data brings us back to our most critical concern. Shame around eating habits is particularly impactful on women, and this shame has a major impact on their behavior, especially when reinforced by diet rules presented on social media which is ultimately content designed to change behavior or receive positive engagement.
So, what can we do? Many dieticians suggest that we practice intuitive eating, which is eating when we feel hungry rather than sticking to rule-based regimens that tell us when to eat (Cleveland Clinic, 2021). Regimens can serve to be problematic when trying to combat eating-related guilt because “breaking the rules or regimen” can trigger shame. As mentioned before, instead of seeing foods as “good” or “bad,” we can contemplate what types of food will serve our body the most and what types of food are simply for enjoyment (Cleveland Clinic, 2021). Additionally, you can curate your social media to lack content that will incite shame. Shame is a very distinct feeling so if there's a certain type of content that gives you this feeling, it could help to avoid it.
Finally,embrace the flavors of what you're eating, think about the ingredients, relish in moments of deliciousness, and enjoy life.
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Burney, Irwin. “Shame and Guilt in Women with Eating Disorder Symptomology.” Journal of Clinical Psychology. 2020.
Hawkins, Lily; Farrow, Claire; Thomas, Jason. “Do perceived norms of social media users’ eating habits and preferences predict our own food consumption and BMI?” Department of Psychology, Aston University, Birmingham. 2020.https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0195666319310359?via%3Dihub
Peterson, Ninkosa. “Here’s How to Respond to Food Shaming.” Cleveland Clinic. 2021.
Steenhius, Ingrid. “Guilty or Not? Feelings of Guilt about Food among College Women. Faculty of Earth and Life Sciences, Institute of Health Sciences, VU University. 2009.
Coverphoto cred: Healthline