Loni Jane Anthony, one of the best-known vegan wellness influencers on Instagram, with more than 400,000 followers, often refers to what seems like a serious health situation from her past: After spending her early 20s indulging in junk food and alcohol, she cut out all animal products from her diet and switched to uncooked fruits and vegetables, and she claims her candidiasis, bloating, eczema, hair loss and body aches miraculously cleared up. These days, her feed is saturated with colorful photos of her plant-based meals (she has since integrated some cooked food), bikini-clad portraits at the beach with her two sun-kissed children, and recipes for the superfood smoothies that are a regular part of her diet.
Anthony, who did not respond to HuffPost’s request for comment, is a central figure in the wellness movement that has swept across Instagram, raising concern and controversy along the way. In the Australian tabloids, she has received intense backlash for eating vegan while pregnant and for feeding her son mostly fruits and vegetables. One Daily Mail article condescendingly referred to her as a “mummy blogger” (she has written two cookbooks) and found doctors who would go on the record calling some of her (to be fair, unsubstantiated) health claims “utter garbage.”
She is not the first influencer to find herself under attack. Essena O’Neill, whom The Cut calls an “Australian model, Instagram star and vegan-lifestyle enthusiast” abruptly deleted all her social media accounts in 2015 after announcing that the platforms had made her “lost” and “sick.” The backlash from the vegan community was swift: She said she began receiving death threats. Ella Woodward of Deliciously Ella denounced the once popular term “clean eating” after reckoning with criticism that she peddles dangerous diet claims that could contribute to eating disorders.
Wellness trends that have been allowed to proliferate on Instagram are now the subject of concentrated debunking efforts (celery juice most recently). The worry is that a focus on “clean eating” from accounts like Anthony’s offers not just benign recommendations to eat more vegetables. Instead, these accounts might be contributing to eating disorders like orthorexia (which has not been recognized by the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders) and often spread dubious health claims that have not been vetted by medical professionals.
“Fatphobia is the last form of socially acceptable discrimination. [Wellness trends] are actually mired in all these social structures that have to be called out.”
– Kristi Hall, marriage and family therapist who specializes in treating eating disorders
Is all this pearl clutching based on legitimate fears that social media is creating harmful filters through which women in particular process their bodies? The story within the Instagram wellness community is very different. Some of its central figures emphasize that they only present a diet or lifestyle that worked for them and never pressure their followers to make potentially unhealthy choices.
“I am not preachy, I am not judgemental, I am not an extremist, but I am educated. I have a bachelor of nutrition and dietetics with honours,” Ellie Bullen, the certified nutritionist behind Elsa’s Wholesome Life, told HuffPost in an email. “My message is simple: Eat more plants.”
Charlotte Markey, a psychologist and the founder of the Health Sciences Center at Rutgers University, who studies the effects of social media on body image, said Bullen is the exception. Most of the people who run wellness accounts on Instagram do not have a medical background.
“So much of this is just people who look good (and seem to know it) and think they’ve found the holy grail of health and weight loss,” Markey said. “That’s why we do research on this stuff. Hundreds and thousands of people are included in this research over time. What scientists learn from research is more likely to be useful and directive than what an Instagram guru suggests.”
In fact, some wellness influencers don’t even follow the lifestyles they promote on Instagram and YouTube. The popular YouTube celebrity Rawvana sent the online vegan community into a tailspin after she was recently caught eating fish on camera. Bonny Rebecca, another famous vegan YouTuber, recently revealed to her followers that she had to give up the vegan diet because it caused her and her boyfriend serious health problems.
Carlie McKibben, who runs the account Plantifully Nourished, adopted a vegan lifestyle while recovering from an eating disorder. She acknowledged that the issue is more complex than urging people to eat more plants. While she emphasized that her message “is not that my way of eating is the healthiest” and that she doesn’t want to be a “negative or stressful” influence in the lives of her followers, she said she has encountered people on Instagram who assume that adopting a plant-based diet will automatically result in their “dream body.” She said she has experienced how a plant-based diet can turn obsessive, even harmful.
“It used to be very triggering to me to look at certain accounts that would post their ‘what I eat in a day’ videos that show only fruits and vegetables and usually a restricted amount,” she adds. “Many young girls who often do not even understand the science and ethics behind a plant-based diet decide to eat this way because they see other social media influencers who are thin eat this way too, and that is what is detrimental.”
Medical experts who treat body image issues say that perhaps unwittingly, many of these wellness influencers are contributing to a cultural landscape that makes women feel guilty and ashamed about what and how they eat.
“The wellness culture on Instagram is so damaging because it’s so fear based. It’s saying, `If you don’t eat a certain way, you’re going to have bad skin or a bad body,” said marriage and family therapist Kristi Hall, who specializes in treating eating disorders. “It’s masquerading as health and wellness when in fact it’s the same message as always: that smaller equals healthier.”
Wellness influencers aren’t making claims that will necessarily physically harm people (after all, celery is a healthy vegetable), but they do take away “people’s ability to be experts of their own bodies,” Hall said. She warned that people should be wary of an Instagram account that (intentionally or not) makes you feel pressured to change your lifestyle or ignore your body’s instincts in favor of their recommendations. Usually, that’s not physically tenable, and it can wreak havoc on one’s mental health too.
“[The wellness culture on Instagram] is masquerading as health and wellness when in fact it’s the same message as always: that smaller equals healthier.”
“There becomes a classification of a moral or good way to eat, which asks, ‘Are you a disciplined person? Are you a good person?’ Instagram totally contributes to that,” she said.
Wellness influencers might think that they speak only for themselves on their accounts, but it’s not that simple. “I know it feels like it’s just your personal journey, but the truth is, this is a social justice issue,” Hall said. “Fatphobia is the last form of socially acceptable discrimination. [Wellness trends] are actually mired in all these social structures that have to be called out.”
If Instagram wellness influencers are here to stay, Markey said they should “use their influence more responsibly,” by including in their posts, at the very least, a link to a study backing up every health claim they make ― from the benefits of fasting to chia seeds and avocado. But even that seemingly simple solution can be misleading. Hall pointed out that the wealth of bad science available on the internet can back up almost any dubious claim, including that weight loss is linked to health.
No matter how mindful the leading figures of the Instagram wellness community try to be, there is no way to avoid public disapproval. The “really deeply ingrained belief that there’s something wrong with women if they don’t care about their appearance” is part of what created the mostly female-led wellness Instagram movement, Markey said. She added that it’s wrong to think of these women as superficial and that we should instead consider that they are responding to intense social pressures.
Many of the women behind these Instagram wellness accounts are well intentioned and want to spread information that they genuinely think will help people live better. But the diet culture that existed long before the advent of Instagram has always punished women for being too skinny or not skinny enough, for not caring about how they look or caring too much. Instagram’s wellness trends may have benefited the very few women who have gained renown on the platform. For the majority of other women, though, social media only reinforces the same old unfair and even harmful expectations, which ultimately erode their self-esteem more than it can ever help them get healthy.