• Holly Eliza Temple

The millennial quest for purity

In the last several years, we saw the appearance, rise and sustenance of a lifestyle, née diet, which promised us glowing skin, the ideal body, happiness, health - and overall purity as human beings. Most of us now know that the clean eating and overtly healthy lifestyle trend is not the answer to all of our problems, so why are we still taking photos of our breakfast smoothie bowls, searching for gluten-free products in Tesco and following self-proclaimed wellness gurus on Instagram?

Us younger adults seem to have been the most affected by these trends, what with millennials and Gen Z-ers being labelled as more altruistic, thoughtful and mindful in their consumer habits. WGSN stated that Gen Z require “brand transparency” from their foods – they want to know what is in their food, where it came from and what exactly it’s doing to their bodies and the environment. Not only that, but millennials’ minds and opinions are a lot more malleable than say, our parents, who may already be set in their ways. We can still totally shape and shift our lifestyles however we choose, whether that be for our health, our future, others’, or that of our planet. Research by Amplify brand director Krupali Cescau for The Future Laboratory labels today’s youth as “generation sensible”, stating their evidence “points to a virtuous generation with the lowest rates of teen-pregnancy, alcohol and drug use, and a tendency towards flaunting vegan foods on their social platforms”.

While veganism is not exactly a new invention (and is not harmful in its intent), its growth as a viral diet is largely down to Instagram influencers and the constant sharing of information, photos and lifestyles that appear aspirational to young people. This easily accessible and often unofficial information is largely what turns ethical movements such as veganism a little sour. A 2016 Guardian article by Sarah Marsh titled ‘The rise of vegan teenagers’ tells us that the number of UK vegans has risen by 350% in the last ten years, and 42% of vegans are aged 15-34 – not a bad thing, huh? The article features quotes from young vegans on their experiences of an ethical, plant-based life.

Expecting to be heartened by the childish innocence of young people speaking of their love for all animals and planet Earth, this was actually the part of the article that sent shivers down my spine. Coleen, 14 years old, tells the Guardian, ‘I was watching a lot of YouTube at the time as I was really interested in healthy eating and wanted to lose weight.’ Megan, 17, says she ‘mainly did it for health reasons and to lose weight’ going on to say, ‘young people like to have control over something, and what you eat is one thing you can have control of.’ 15 year old Isabella says she watches ‘inspirational’ vegan YouTubers. ‘A few of my favourites are Bonnie Rebecca and Freelee the Banana Girl.’

For those of you unaware of the Other World that is clean-eating influencers, Freelee is an infamous vegan YouTuber who promoted her Raw til 4 diet, and claims she lost 40lbs by eating “on average” ten bananas a day for ten years. Her videos mainly consist of What I eat vlogs which frequently depict mono-meals (a meal made up of entirely one food, e.g. five mangoes, two pineapples, or yes, you guessed it, ten bananas), or calling out and attacking other vloggers for not being “real vegans”. The fact that a 15-year-old girl is letting her lifestyle choices be influenced by such a questionable online personality, who several dieticians have spoken out against, is concerning to say the least.

Ruby Tandoh, an advocate of eating what you love, who has spoken out against perpetrators of the health and wellness diet craze numerous times, spoke to Nigella Lawson around this topic. Lawson said, ‘I despair of the term “clean eating”...it necessarily implies that any other form of eating – and consequently the eater of it – is dirty or impure and thus bad’ (VICE). And that is largely it, isn’t it? Changing attitudes towards food, eating and health are often reflective of how we want to feel about ourselves. With the rise of social media and constant documentation of our activities online, this now also includes how others feel about us. If we present ourselves as eating clean, unprocessed, whole and natural foods, are we perhaps better people than those who succumb to McDonalds? Are we healthier? More in tune with our bodies and the environment? In your average case, probably not. So why do so many of us believe the wellness gurus that tell us we can be the best version of ourselves by following in their tanned, toned and slender footsteps?

Tandoh writes of how she, like many other ED sufferers, used this wellness craze as an excuse to keep her eating disorder going. “When I found ‘wellness’, I thought I’d found a way out of the storm...At the same time, I wasn’t ready to float untethered from my world of food neuroses. Wellness was alluring precisely because of the restriction it promised.” Ruby’s experience of entering the rabbit hole of wellness and becoming even more lost is all too familiar. After several experiences of anorexia entering and leaving my life, interspersed with bouts of binge-eating, bulimia and borderline “normal” episodes of nutrition, I discovered a wealth of Instagram accounts, blogs and e-books that all promoted colourful, exciting foods, health, happiness and most of all, a thin body - neatly packaged up in meal plans, exercise regimes and tips for mindful eating - which included putting your cutlery down between every bite, or taking a mouthful of water (common disordered behaviours often promoted in dreaded pro-ana communities). It looked like everything I had been waiting for in my years of chaotic starvation, purging and compulsive behaviours. In what I have seen, the clean-eating craze often seems to target those already preoccupied with food, their health or self-image, promoting an organised, aspirational and most of all, pure way of living. Is it any wonder that there is an easy-to-observe link between those with a disposition towards eating disorders falling into a clean or plant-based lifestyle?

There are even more similarities between the promotion of these diets and disordered eating. The language used by clean-eating gurus is terrifyingly similar to the words used by those with EDs to describe food (and often themselves after consuming it) – labelling food as “bad”, “evil”, “toxic”, “poisonous”, “gross”, “cheap”, “fat” or “disgusting”. Tandoh reminds us that Ella Mills, of Deliciously Ella, “begs us to treat ourselves when the craving takes us, but that given enough time, those treat foods will begin to seem ‘kind of gross, actually.’” This is a behaviour that many ED sufferers adopt; convincing oneself that certain foods are so evil, so poisonous that we can put our bodies off them entirely. At my worst moments of anorexia I have been repulsed at the thought of bread, cake, chocolate, oil, pasta, even peanut butter or bananas – often fuelled by online health and wellness advice.

It is not simply a whole food, plant-based diet that puts those with a tendency for restrictive eating at risk. Tandoh also notes that Madeleine Shaw, author of Get the Glow, calls gluten ‘sandpaper for the gut’ and Amelia Freer of Eat Nourish Glow blames gluten for everything from ‘head fog’ to joint pain, promoting gluten-free as a lifestyle rather than simply a health requirement for sufferers of coeliac disease. This has surely been partly responsible for the notable increase in gluten-free products and those leading a gluten-free lifestyle. This is summarised (namely in the title) in the article by Amanda MacMillan, ‘The Gluten-Free Trend is On the Rise, Even Though Celiac Disease Diagnoses Aren’t’. MacMillan recounts results which pick out the most pronounced rise in three groups: white people, women, aged 20-39.

This sounds about right, when you consider who the health and wellness industry are targeting – young, Western women are perhaps more likely to be influenced by trends encouraging them to change their lifestyles, eating habits and mindsets in order to become healthier, happier and more beautiful. There is a competitive nature in there somewhere too, with a race to be the best at the diet, the lifestyle, to rub the most coconut oil in one’s hair or to smash the most avocados on one’s Ryvita…to make one a better individual than the rest of the population. The craze is, inherently, based on a ‘belief system’, concludes Bee Wilson in the Guardian article, ‘Why we fell for clean eating’ – that the general diet of the population is “impure”.

In 2014, Jordan Younger, formerly The Blonde Vegan online, came to terms with the fact that she was struggling with orthorexia, a restrictive eating disorder in which the sufferer develops an obsession with healthy eating. However, she had also been promoting her vegan lifestyle online and had sold 40,000 copies of her raw, plant-based cleanse programme. Younger decided to transition away from veganism for the sake of her mental and physical health. Wilson states that “within hours of announcing her new diet, Younger was receiving irate messages from vegans demanding money back from the cleanse programmes and T-shirts they had bought from her site.” The online influencer even received death threats.

This almost mob mentality of people following and looking up to those presenting a perfected, clean and h***thy lifestyle is one aspect that has brought backlash against the movement. Professor of the School of Public Health at University of Alberta, Timothy Caulfield says, ‘people take these things as if there is no debate, it’s almost like a religion,’ in an article for VICE by Shayla Love. Clean-eating is just one of several “post-truth” trends, in which we are ignoring or indifferent to facts and expertise, and are more willing to listen to and even idolise influencers or more attractive imagery.

However, we can hopefully expect a dying out of fruitarian diets, raw ‘til 4s and bizarre YouTube-based nutritional advice with the rise of mindful and intuitive eating. Amplify’s Krupali Cescau says “it’s here that we’re witnessing the Buddha bowl backlash, as young consumers welcome the revival of junk food with a vegan twist, such as jackfruit burgers and seitan chicken nuggets”. Trending fast-food chain by Chloé is snapped and posted all over Instagram for its sustainable, vegan menu and its “goal to redefine what it means to eat well”. DADA Daily is a “chic, functional snack food” brand recognisable by it’s high-end art direction and branding, and fashionable flavour combinations such as Crispy Almond Butter Brussels Sprouts or Matcha Latte Truffles. Young consumers are still prioritising nutritional value, functional ingredients and balanced diet requirements, but also want “inspirational snacking experiences”, flavour and diversity (WGSN). Gen Z are labelled as mindful eaters, with a future focus on food as medicine, but with us still all holding on to the trend for Instagram food photography, it’s got to still be a little bit about the showing off.

Image by Conor Nolan for FILLER.

© 2020 Holly Eliza Temple.

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