This New Book Will Change the Way You Look at Food on Instagram

‘Food Instagram’ explores how the social platform has helped and hindered the industry.

Surprisingly, since Instagram’s launch in 2010, there hasn’t been much written about the cultural impact of the food pic. It’s a photographic genre that we know all too well: the hedonistic cheese pull, the dramatic dip of a birria taco, the breaking of an ooey-gooey cookie. For years, these images have permeated our feeds, even making their way into our own private camera rolls.

“We’re pretty sure that Instagram has been so overlooked for the same reasons that food is often overlooked, whether in the academy or journalistic spaces that want to think that they’re quite high minded or serious,” says Emily J.H. Contois, co-editor of Food Instagram: Identity, Influence, and Negotiation. What Contois means is, food is often considered “of the everyday.”

Contois, an assistant professor of media studies at the University of Tulsa, researches the intersection of food and the body and how it shapes our identities. In her latest project, Contois collaborates with Zenia Kish to compile a series of essays on how users engage food Instagram “to construct identity, to seek influence, and to negotiate aesthetic norms, institutional access, and cultural power, as well as social and economic control.”

“You’ve probably heard Brillat-Savarin’s ‘Tell me what you eat. I will tell you what you are,’” Contois says. “We were really interested in how that shifted. It’s not just, ‘You are what you eat.’ It’s ‘You are what you post.’” Food Instagram has shaped everything from the way restaurants approach lighting in their dining rooms to the extent by which consumers engage in experiences solely for “grammability.”

The book features 23 authors—from former influencers to digital artists—living in 12 different countries, who each bring different methodologies and theoretical insights. You’ll find essays about Hong Kong’s camera-centric foodie culture, Instagram’s long history with feminist eateries, and the photography of Australia’s livestock producers.

To get you thinking about the complexities of this Instagram genre, here are five, fascinating takeaways from the book:

The anti-aesthetic is still going strong

In the late 2010s, Instagram users began to reject the perfect curation that the app had long been known for, opting instead for unfiltered, lackadaisical shots. And this movement continues to prevail, especially as these perfectly imperfect images find their way to apps that celebrate authenticity.

“It’s both interesting and a tiny bit frustrating that our book is finally coming out and everyone wants to talk to me about TikTok,” Contois jokes. “But I think it’s still within that transformation that TikTok is able to offer content that's a little bit less curated. It purposefully looks and feels a little more amateur when we think about how the videos are edited together.” And now, with the arrival of BeReal, which spontaneously notifies users to share a photo within a two-minute time frame, this style is bound to prevail.

Contois feels that part of this shift is a generational thing, a youthful resistance. “I see part of it too, within burnout culture—the idea that life is so hard in this capitalist moment—and I think that plays out two different ways,” Contois explains. “It can be a beautiful escape to scroll through this seemingly easy feed of incredibly beautiful images. But I think that there’s also been a backlash against that aesthetic. There is this quest for realness when so much feels fake, so much feels out of control.”

Food Instagram explores this phenomenon in myriad ways. In Copenhagen, chef Umut Sakarya challenges the airy aesthetic of New Nordic cuisine with provocative food photos, featuring anti-vegetarian and often sexist discourse. Another chapter looks at how far-right political leaders in Italy and Brazil use anti-food porn images on Instagram to cultivate populist sentiment.

The pandemic transformed the way we interact with food content

In 2020, Instagram became a boastful place for homespun cooking, especially when it came to baking sourdough bread. “Food Instagram creates a sense of time and a sense of place,” Contois explains. “When so many of us were stuck in our own homes, we were viewing images of other people, being posted from other places, but were all going through the pandemic at the same time—that transcendence across space, time, and place was something the app made possible.”

In her essay, “Uncle Green Must Be Coming to Dinner,” Robin Caldwell reflects on how Instagram provided a platform for Black women to express a heritage of hospitality during a time of widespread illness and social uprising. Using the hashtags #blackfoodbloggers or #blackgirlcooking, Caldwell joined a community of Black cooks who chose warmth over aesthetic, tuning in to cooking demonstrations that carried the same spirit as cookouts or Sunday dinners.

sandwich with runny egg
Unsplash/S O C I A L . C U T

#foodporn can mean many things, or nothing at all

There’s no food Instagram trend that has lasted quite as long as the food porn hashtag, marked alongside delectable, zoomed-in images of dishes. Even as we steer away from impeccably staged photos, this hashtag continues to enjoy a lively existence. In Food Instagram, Contois and Kish explore the idea that consumption of Instagram-worthy food might be enough to satiate one’s appetite.

In one chapter, Gaby David and Laurence Allard examine how the hashtag is employed in Paris, uncovering how it is used to label essentially any image of food. It’s become so ubiquitous that it has lost any meaning.

From a food studies perspective, food porn capitalized on the way in which beautiful food, difficult techniques, and esoteric ingredients can feel out of reach. “It was pornographic because it was something so far out of bounds for what the everyday person could ever replicate or experience,” Contois says.

But from a media studies perspective, in which feminist scholars have critically analyzed actual pornographic film, food porn relies on a sense of disembodiedness.“On Instagram, there’s that disembodied hand—clutching the latte or holding onto the ice cream cone—or toes peeking into frame as you shoot down at the ground,” Contois explains. The subject isn’t quite there.

“Instagram, in its codified style, makes labor invisible,” Contois continues. “It makes time invisible. It makes the gender dynamics of food production invisible in the same way actual pornography has these power dynamics that are separate, but also totally connected to the end product as it's being consumed.”

Instagram continues to place pressure on restaurants and bloggers

In “Freak Shakes and Mama Noi: Cases of Transforming Food Industry Influence on Instagram,” Katherine Kirkwood takes a look at Patissez, an Australian cafe that specializes in viral “FreakShakes.” The elaborately adorned milkshakes raise questions about the theatrical nature of plating food, and how the superficial drive for likes might diminish the integrity of a dish. Kirkwood also points out that Instagrammable menu items are not the most sustainable business model, as they may lead to health concerns, financial implications, and food waste.

Similarly, in “My Life and Labor as an Instagram Influencer Turned Instagram Scholar,” KC Hysmith discusses the personal, political, and professional intersections of being “Instafamous.” Women, in particular, suffer from the devaluation of digital labor.

“Instagram is kind of this double bind that makes it possible for bloggers and restaurant owners to take great looking photos, to share them, and to be able to grow their platform,” Contois says. “But it also creates enhanced expectations for creating lots of content and creating images that net a certain aesthetic standard and all the effort that comes with managing the community and following that Instagram can create.”

On the other hand, farmers are using the “darkgram” to foster community

We don’t usually associate farming with the throes of Instagram relevancy, but in “Farming, Unedited: Failure, Humor, and Fortitude in Instagram’s Agricultural Underground,” Joceline Andersen explores how, in addition to adapting their practices to variable weather conditions, farmers on Instagram also need to cater to audiences, from local customers looking for produce updates to global farmers interested in sustainability.

In short, farmers use Instagram to show followers what daily food production is like, though, in the name of marketing, these images are largely centered around positivity.

But in the Pacific Northwest, farmers have created a “darkgram,” a private network in which photos of farming failures—crates falling from a truck, insects preying on crops, etc.—are shared.

“Crises, failures, and panic-inducing moments abound on the farmer darkgram in visual form, with comments that provide sympathy, similar stories, and most importantly, advice from local farmers as they share what one private account called ‘unedited farming,’” Andersen writes. Such farmer “finstas” are able to offer a localized space for learning and innovation.

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Jessica Sulima is a staff writer on the Food & Drink team at Thrillist. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram