How Fresh Produce Became Trendy

Why fruit and vegetables are the latest social media prop, and what the messages they're sending mean right now.

Maitane Romagosa / Thrillist
Maitane Romagosa / Thrillist

In 2017, hot girls everywhere posted “pasta selfies” on Instagram. This summer, Harry Styles sang about a watermelon sugar high while rolling around with women who ate fruit like it was their last meal. When Dakota Johnson gave her iconically soothing house tour for Architectural Digest, she pointed to bowls of decorative limes and said “I love limes. I love them.” The $450 strawberry-sequined dress that took over TikTok was a window into a world of “cottagecore.” Oprah’s gigantic quarantine cabbage became a meme. Fruit and vegetables are the latest social media prop, and they’re sending messages that go beyond their traditional associations. 

Though difficult to pinpoint exactly why these images are proliferating our feeds, it seems as though Instagram is reflecting an overall shift towards all things natural.

It goes without saying that fruits and vegetables have always been a part of our artistic vocabulary. The classic subjects of still life paintings, fresh produce has symbolized everything from the promise of youth to sensuous delight. And it’s translated to fashion as well; eighteenth-century aristocrats wore waistcoats embroidered with berries. But in the last few years, fruit and vegetable prints became playfully ironic, with names like Prada and Gucci touting excess at its best. On Instagram, the brand that brought “food as fashion” to the forefront was Susan Alexandra

“I am, like, really obsessed with cabbages,” says the woman behind the line, Susan Korn, over the phone. “I think they’re almost as beautiful as flowers.” 

Her iconic watermelon-beaded bags and cherry-shaped earrings, which have been worn by every it-girl, continue to spread an infectious joy well into the COVID era. For the brand’s latest photo series, Korn cleverly paired the saccharine accessories with historically “ugly” winter vegetables. 

“I think the fruit imagery has been resonating with people because it speaks to a sweeter time,” Korn explains. “During quarantine we were all tapping into our homespun roots. We were growing little gardens and cooking a lot more, and really saving space for things that come naturally.”

Instagram account @fruitassembly is creating modern still lifes, arranging everything from dragon fruits to pears in beautifully minimalist compositions. Artist Gab Bois (@gabbois) is reconceptualizing birthday cake with broccoli and making bras out of tomatoes.  

During the darkest days of confinement, teens on TikTok began romanticizing countryside living: that is, wearing frilly house dresses, picking wild mushrooms, and spreading strawberry jam on homemade bread -- all within a vintage, sun-lit filter. And this “cottagecore” aesthetic is evoked on Instagram with each passing socially-distant picnic photo featuring a perfectly-curated fruit spread. 

But the notion that we should embrace all that nature has to offer is not just a fashion aesthetic. It’s also at the heart of Insta-friendly brands like Imperfect Foods or Misfits Market, who work closely with farmers to rescue irregularly-shaped produce from going to waste. As influencers unbox squiggly cucumbers, conjoined carrots, and grapefruits with mohawks, they reignite our excitement for quirky, pastoral pleasures. 

Bianca Valle, artist and nutritionist, put it this way: “If we think about our roots, we were hunter gatherers at one point, and our whole lives revolved around seeking out food. So it just seems rational that natural food lights us up. When we see fruits and vegetables, we’re like ‘oh my gosh so amazing!’ because they’re the source of life.” 

The gravitation towards farm-fresh produce is also coinciding with a growing concern for our planet. “With social media, people are getting smarter and smarter and the world is becoming less vast” Valle explains. “The reality is that we were blind to how poorly we were treating our earth, and now we’re jumping on board to save it. Regardless of it being a trend or not, I think these are just awakenings.” 

But of course, the presentation that one is living a sustainable lifestyle -- whether that means tagging a sustainable fashion brand or snapping a photo at the farmers market -- also comes with a kind of social capital. It’s a spread of awareness that doubles as proof of doing one’s part. 

“With the rise of social media, I think people became obsessed with exterior beauty -- nice skin, slender bodies, having a glow, looking nice in photos”  Valle says. “And I think people kind of tapped into this very crazy concept -- which isn’t crazy at all -- that healthy food makes you glow. When you feed your body good and beautiful things, it’s quite a concept that in turn we look beautiful.”

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Jessica Sulima is an editorial assistant at Thrillist who wouldn't be opposed to a bell pepper shoe. Follow her on Twitter @jessicasulima