Here’s a question: How many times have you scrolled across #foodporn and automatically double-tapped, without reading the content?
It’s such a widespread phenomenon that my food Instagrammer friend, Aries Ong of @ironsage, often laments: “Even when I’ve condemned the food in my captions, if the picture looks instaworthy, people would still go and eat there. A lot of comments will be ‘that looks SO GOOD’ even though I just said that the food tastes bland.” The media is not without blame either. When I was working at a women’s magazine, there was a lot of pressure from the top to keep followers and likes rolling in. So the tried-and-tested formula—#foodporn—it is.
The numbers obsession is so ingrained that whether I’m dining out for work or leisure, I’ll order at least one photogenic dish to have something to post. All that trickles down. The more something trends, the more we want a snap of our own. Our #fomo can be so strong that even when we hear disparaging remarks, we adopt an it-can’t- be-that-bad blind faith. Let’s face it: We’re all suckers for beautiful things. While we may not strive for perfection, we’ll definitely filter the heck out to put our best feed forward. Even when the #instaworthy food is lacklustre, we don’t usually talk about it openly—not until asked—because of the cognitive dissonance involved in posting (and tacitly recommending) a dish that we inwardly dislike. F&B operators, cafes especially, have been quick to take advantage of our #foodporn obsession. But how many of us have had truly wonderful cupcakes?
Does anyone actually like the taste of fondant, or the mountain of froth on 3D latte art? Last year’s #instafood trends—galaxy cakes and rainbow cakes—were really food colouring tricks. And it looks like a wave of glitter cappuccinos will be brewing our way too.
There are some exceptions to this need for visual perfection. Even the likes of char kway teow and carrot cake might get a free pass because hawker grub is so comforting, and so intertwined with our memories and identities. Foods from our travels are exempt too, no matter how un-photogenic, because of their exotic quotient. And of course, home-cooked food is also accorded special privileges because our immense sense of pride overrides any self-consciousness about bad lighting and ungainly plating.
But the exceptions are rare, and ugly food posts are at best confined to fleeting mentions on Instagram stories. All of this inevitably leads to a lack of food diversity in our feeds. Desserts and drinks keep coming up, because they lend themselves to visual manipulation easily. And there’s a Eurocentric slant, because most Asian fare —Japanese food is an exception—like Chinese stir-fries and Indian curries look messy or dull.
Just like how there’s a growing discussion on the need for diversity and realness in the entertainment industry, maybe it’s also time to think about embracing diversity and imperfections in the food pictures we post: To acknowledge that food’s culture and familial ties are as equally important as (or more so than) its looks; to celebrate and remember the humble everyday foods that nourish; and to remind ourselves that there’s more to life than chasing perfection.
This was first published in Wine & Dine’s Jan/Feb 2018 issue – Embracing Clean & Green, ‘Bytes’.