Last month I had the privilege of joining my husband on a work trip to south Florida. It was a dream come true for my cold soul to ditch the single-digits temps, snow storms, and gray skies. The views were incredible, the beach was just a few blocks away, the hotel had an amazing restaurant, and one night we even ate at a diner that was featured on The Food Network.
It was a picture perfect week. Emphasis on the “picture” because there’s a lot you can’t see just in the photo. The weather, for example.
The first day in Florida, the state experienced record low temperatures with wind chills down into the 20’s! (I was glad I’d brought my winter coat.) The above picture was taken when the beach was the same temperature as the beach in Chicago, despite any alternative appearances.
Fortunately, the cold spell was short-lived, and the winds brought in fresh, warm air the next day. Aside from the chilly first day, my time in Florida was everything you’d expect in a vacation: slow mornings, long walks, relaxing by the pool…but the behind-the-scenes of my frigid first day is a prime example of how pictures can be (and often are) deceiving.
Especially on Instagram, appearances are everything. Pictures are perfect. We set up our food to look as fancy as a gourmet restaurant, we dress to the tens and make sure our makeup is runway-worthy, all for a photo. But those photos are of real, imperfect people who also have real struggles. The smiles on the faces of “influencers” make it seem like their lives are perfect. Add that to their glam clothing and fancy lunches, it’s only natural to want what they seem to have. But the pictures are deceiving, leading us to overestimate their happiness. Not only that, but the highlights we see of others’ lives on Instagram often don’t actually represent those people’s reality at all.
Foodie bloggers who are unhealthfully thin but post beautiful, rich recipes often don’t actually eat what the post. “Health bloggers” often struggle with hidden eating disorders behind their smiling selfies. Behind the celebratory before-and-after weight loss photos, we often uncover shame, self-doubt, extreme dieting, and relapsing into patterns of binge eating, purging, and yo-yo-dieting. Much of what we see online portrays a lifestyle that clashes with reality. They say pictures are worth a thousand words, and sometimes this means they tell 1,000-word tales that don’t accurately convey the full story.
Looking at the photo I snapped of the waves rolling onto the shore, you’d never know that it wasn’t at all “beach weather” as we normally think of it. The picture itself isn’t deceitful, but the idea it conveys doesn’t allow the viewer to fully understand what was really going on in that place and time. The same is true of other photos we see online. The woman celebrating her weight loss? We don’t know how she’s actually feeling. Perhaps she’s even more distracted by, ashamed of, and preoccupied with her body than she was before she started dieting, (something that often accompanies dramatic weight changes). Those photos of perfectly portioned dinners atop beautiful plates, with hand-set garnishes? We don’t know if that “health guru” even ate it. Or if she did, maybe the rest of her life is falling apart.
I don’t want to suggest that there aren’t folks out there posting pictures of pretty dinners alongside smiling selfies who are truly at peace with themselves, with food, and with their lives. I just want to send out the reminder that we really don’t know. We can’t know – and comparing (and possibly shaming) the hurting pieces of ourselves against the picture-perfect photos we see online which may not actually represent reality ends up doing far more harm than good.