(Photo taken from the public account of celebrity vegan Yovanna Mendoza on Instagram https://www.instagram.com/p/Btzy09Znii7/ )
Following the recent ‘fishgate’ story of the You Tuber Yovana Mendoza (a raw-vegan diet enthusiast who had built her own social media brand around veganism and was caught on camera eating seafood and trying to hide it) creates once more too many questions about how certain social media trends can affect consumers’ health and well-being. Mendoza had adopted and promoted a particularly restrictive dietary programme that eventually made her sick, but also she was advocating certain practices that not only were dangerous, but also they were completely unscientific. However, she never seemed to doubt herself, until the day that her health was in danger and of course things changed overnight.
Popular wellness bloggers produce discourses around themes such as ‘healthy lifestyle’, ‘cultivation of healthy vanity’, ‘nourishing beauty’ and ‘glowing everyday life’. They also make various kinds of claims. For example, some of them argue that the ‘healthy’ foods and recipes they propose helped them overcome various medical conditions that they had gone through and hence changed their lives (e.g. Ella Woodward, aka ‘Deliciously Ella’). Some other claims made seem to be normative: they aim at regulating the behaviour of the audience through establishing that these actors are ‘wellness authorities’, deference to which is justified in the form of advice. The kinds of advice set out are frequently very detailed. In many cases, they amount to a practice of exhaustive self-surveillance with regard to food preparation and consumption, involving an overall lifestyle of ‘self-care’, ‘individual beauty inside and out’, ‘healthy and happy world’, ‘detox life’ and many more.
Hard scientific credentials rarely, if ever, back the authority claimed. On the contrary, the actors’ relation to science seems to be particularly distant: only few of them have university nutritional qualifications and some prefer to take various online courses (among them the INN, the New York Institute for Integrative Nutrition that in their eyes entitle them to act as ‘wellness coaches’.
There is more into the discussion about healthy eating, especially when advice is coming from people who have no scientific background or medical training whatsoever and, moreover, are able to influence public opinion through celebrity and fame. Besides, the discussion can be even more challenging when celebrities, whose only relation to food science and/or industry is that they consume…food, are involved.
Confusing messages on nutritional advice, mingling scientific (and sometimes pseudo-scientific) facts with personal experiences and opinions or just false data can also find a welcoming place on social media. Medical authority and scientific expertise can also be ignored by practically anybody who is able to create a successful social media profile to share her own experiences and perhaps enhance what Warren Belasco calls “crisis of authority, trust and responsibility”, in his foreword to ‘Food words: essays in culinary culture’ (Jackson, 2013).
It can also undermine the opportunities of consumers to relate with actual science and the latter’s evidence-based methods to reach certain conclusions. Through access to a variety of recipes, food related advice, food blogging experiences and a strong visual food-centric imagery, social media can distract consumers from making positive food choices (Vaterlaus et al, 2015). Research has also shown that, compared to non-interactive media, the interactive abilities of social media can especially influence young adult behaviour towards food choices (McFerran, Dahl, Fitzsimnos, & Morales, 2010).
A brief review of the literature reveals a number of take away points: First, practices of ‘healthy’ eating occur against a backdrop of food anxiety, shaping the interpretive lens and expectations of various actors. Second, the rise of wellness bloggers and other ‘lay’ personas claiming authority to tell people what to eat and how to eat it outside mainstream epistemic channels can be understood as a symptom of enhanced reflexivity: ‘traditional’ scientific authorities are continuously challenged. Third, social media have changed the fora of articulation of these challenges, making them cheaper, easier and more decentralised. Further investigation is required in order to shed more light into these phenomena, especially into the relationship of social media and the proliferation of challenges to traditional authorities about food.