Bless Us, O Instagram

The social media site has popularized grain bowls, kale smoothies—and a new form of prayer

Picture of a plate of spaghetti, hands in the background
Miguel Discart/Flickr

Every waiter has seen it. As the dish arrives at the table, laid before the diners’ eyes by careful hands—the steaming materialization of the menu’s written promise—there is a moment of silence. A gasp. “Ahhs” and “Ohhs” escape their lips, bespeaking gratitude greater than any flowery phrase. Pure appreciation flushes across their faces, unadulterated by any ulterior motive, just grace and gluttony. And then someone pulls out a phone to take a picture.

The urge to photograph our food does not discriminate between price points. Whether it’s a greasy burger or a boutique macaron, when we are presented with the gift of food, there is a natural instinct to pause and appreciate the meal in its full, unspoiled form before devouring it. So we stop and then we snap, launching this fleeting food memory into Instagram immortality.

Why has taking pictures of our plates become such a common part of contemporary dining? Especially over the last five years photographing food has evolved from a niche hobby into a generational habit. Social media has elevated our diet choices from private quirks into a cornerstone of public identity.

It is easy to be cynical. We might dismiss these photos as brazen self-promotion or a symptom of millennial self-absorption. Headlines like “Instagram Food Is a Sad, Sparkly Lie” and “Instagramming Millennials Are Burying the World in Food Waste” capture the standard sentiment. Slurs such as “foodgasm” and “food porn” often taint these photos with the suggestion of lechery. Perhaps, though, a more sincere explanation is possible. As odd as it sounds, I do not see pornography in these images. I find prayer.

I believe these pictures are a new incarnation of an ancient instinct: the ritual of tableside grace. Derived from the Latin gratia for “thanks,” grace is a specific type of prayer given before or after a meal to express gratitude and to invoke a blessing. It is an exercise in devoting reverential attention to life’s bounty, and through this enriched attention, achieving an expanded sense of belonging. “It becomes believers not to take food … before interposing a prayer,” Tertullian wrote in the third century, “for the refreshments and nourishments of the spirit are to be held prior to those of the flesh, and things heavenly prior to things earthly.” Grace is more than gratitude—it is gratitude ascendant, aimed above the earthly appetite toward a higher vocation. The Catholic Catechism defines prayer as “the raising of one’s mind and heart to God.” Thus grace gives our gratitude wings that lift the mind from the necessities of the flesh toward the nourishments of the spirit. For many people, photographing their entrées fills the same social role as grace: a ritual of aspirational attention that elevates bodily sustenance into spiritual refreshment through the simple power of a genuine “thank you.”

This ritual takes different forms throughout the world. In Japan, meals traditionally began with the phrase itadakimasu (“I humbly receive”), to recognize all the living beings that played a role in creating the food. A Zen blessing avows, “In this plate of food, I see the entire universe supporting my existence.” The Balinese leave small offerings of rice on a banana leaf for their ancestral spirits before meals; the Inuit honor an animal killed in the hunt by returning the beast’s bladder to the sea. Across these many manifestations, the common theme is a sense of sacramental connection with a Higher Power, whether that power takes the form of God, Nature, World Spirit, or the Arctic Sea. In today’s secular world, there’s a new Higher Power: the Internet.

At my childhood dinner table, no one ate until the family recited, “Bless us, O Lord, and these Thy gifts.” Now, when I reach for the first forkful of food in a restaurant, a friend slaps my wrist away. “Photo first! We need to share this plate with my followers.” Once we sent our prayers to heaven. Now we send them to Instagram.

It is easy to misunderstand Instagram, and write off the site as a forum for selfies and filtered sunset shots. But to do so would be a mistake. More than a social network, Instagram is a uniquely powerful distribution system for sharing experiences. The platform unites a visual medium of presentation with a mass dissemination technology which instantly transmits images to the screens of a billion people worldwide. Unlike Facebook users, Instagrammers don’t have “friends”—they have “followers.” This is the technology of evangelism.

Instagram has done more to ignite the explosion of food photography than any other social media site. Consider a few stats: Instagram has one billion active monthly users; 95 million photos are posted a day; 75 percent of 18-to 24-year-olds use Instagram; and 69 percent of millennials take photos of their food. It’s an equation for radioactive growth. From March 2013 to June 2015, the number of posts tagged #food leapt from 800,000 to 183 million. At the time of writing, the hashtag #food had amassed almost 250 million posts, #foodporn clocked in at 148 million. #yummy racked up 105 million, #instafood stood at 100 million—and each of those numbers will be higher by the time you finish this sentence.

What makes Instagram more generative than other food-photo websites like Yelp or Chowhound is its sharing mechanics. Rather than posting pictures to a specialized forum for mainly friends or other foodies to see, Instagram’s hashtags and algorithms rocket posts beyond your immediate social circle to a worldwide network of potential followers. While a kale salad pic on Yelp sits like a static painting on the wall, on Instagram it can soar through cyberspace, calling out to other kale crusaders across the web. Thus we witness the metamorphosis of food photography from a record of private pleasure into a vehicle for group identity.

Entire ecosystems of eating lifestyles have emerged organically on Instagram. The platform joins like-minded eaters into sub-communities around common food identities. Bakers, brewers, meat freaks, and cupcake fanatics can all find their haven of Internet solidarity. Yet Instagram is not only fertile ground for short-lived trends, but also a thriving habitat for food philosophies.

Healthy eating movements especially flourish in Instagram’s digital climate. The site’s hashtag system helps adherents of restrictive regimens like Paleo and veganism—movements that define themselves by what they don’t eat—express their beliefs in positive terms and find new audiences. For instance, veganism constantly spawns new offshoots on Instagram: #vegansofig sprouts into #rawvegan, which branches into #veganfit, which splinters into #veganathlete, and so on, continuing in an ever-evolving chain of micro-identities. These hashtags grow into a complex ecosystem of sub-beliefs that reach a broad range of people, from body-builders to doughnut lovers, who might not encounter the urge to abandon dairy and meat otherwise. In short, Instagram has become a hothouse for burgeoning systems of food beliefs—even what one might call food theologies.

For this reason, food photography has become an unlikely crossroads where many conflicting threads of contemporary identity can meet. Food is the conduit through which millennials can safely discuss uncomfortable topics like politics, health, and faith on neutral ground. For many young foodies, the redemptive impulse is rerouted from Sunday sermons to dieting credos.

Consider the supra-sensory themes covered in the caption from a post by “Naturally Nina,” (a clinical nutritionist) that shows a bowl of granola and kiwi:

NOURISH TO FLOURISH ✨ ? I remember just a couple of years ago, eating brought about only emotions of fear, guilt + disgust for me.
I avoided it as much as I possibly could, questioned + scrutinised every single ingredient of every food, and every bite was a struggle.
For me, the key to gaining a much healthier relationship with food was too start appreciating food + all it does for me and body ? ?
? It gives me energy, provides my cells with fuel, keeps my hair, skin + nails healthy, balances my mood, powers my brain.
It keeps me alive …

Who knew kiwi could conjure such grand emotions? What’s most striking about this miniature sermon, though, is the heroic sincerity of the tone—a sincerity nearly impossible to achieve in ordinary human interactions. These Instagrammers speak more earnestly about their aspirations through pictures of granola than through any other channel. What the humble breakfast bowl offers Nina is a digital podium to share her gratitude with a larger community—or, in a word, grace.

Let’s turn to the comments. The post has 2,602 likes and 87 comments. These five suffice to set the mood:

• recoverbunnie: Amazingly done, you’re really awesome, keep smiling and have a fantastic day! ? ?? ?
• Amazing pic! And Lovely feed ? ? ?Feel free to visit ours ? ?
• earthlingmona: SO much love for this post! So so important ? ? ? ?
• naturally_nina_@recoverbunnie: thank you so much beautiful soul, and you too! ?
• conscious_craves_foods: ? ? ? ? beautiful bowl and beautiful soul!

The thread sounds less like a comments section than a congregation—testaments from an assembly of sympathetic believers who gather together to profess the power of souls and bowls.

It is tempting to dismiss sentences that mostly consist of heart-eyes emojis as the empty chatter of brainwashed dieters. When I come across a picture of drab quinoa branded #eatpretty, self-delusion is my instant diagnosis.

But I would be wrong. To my surprise, academic evidence validates the benefits of such commentary beyond feel-good cheerleading. A 2016 study from the Journal of Consumer Marketing found that photographing your meals before eating measurably improves the “savoring … of pleasurable (i.e. indulgent) foods.” Yet this effect only works for “less pleasurable (i.e. healthy) foods” when you’re aware that others are also eating healthy around you. Community, not quinoa, is the key ingredient. As superstitious as it sounds, shared beliefs can conjure physiological benefits. Eating in solidarity with other people can instill food with a sustenance that’s imperceptible to the private self alone—an intangible nourishment that one might justifiably call “spiritual.” In this framework, scrolling through #eatclean quinoa smoothies becomes an act of invocation: opening our physical bodies to the influence of our communal beliefs, and training our tongues to follow our hearts. Bless us, O Instagram, and these thy gifts.

On Instagram, we find an apparatus uniquely equipped to realize prayer’s promise of transcendent connection, offering a link not with some distant unknowable Infinite Being but a responsive community of vocal supporters. In times of tragedy, society calls for “thoughts and prayers” not because people think God needs 1,000 co-signers on a petition before authorizing divine intercession, but because we believe, at some deep instinctual level, that the accumulated positive energy from multitudes of sincere human wishes might impart some beneficial impact. While a thousand prayers might not heal broken bones or stop hurricanes, they might sway a fickle tongue or mend a broken spirit, and that’s not nothing. In its own mundane but concrete way, Instagram fulfills the promise of one core aspect of prayer: transmitting millions of disconnected voices onto a common spiritual frequency, and reminding us that our prayers are heard, even if they are not answered.

By this point, I’m certain my essay has lost all the monotheists in the room. Let me clarify a few things. First of all, I am not suggesting that Stacey’s #soblessed cappuccino shots rank beside the Salve Regina among history’s timeless meditations on the eternal. My topic is not the theology but the sociology of prayer. As new technologies of communication emerge, new forms of religious expression often arise with them. The printing press launched the Reformation on the back of Martin Luther’s best-selling sermons; TV broadcasting spawned the televangelist boom. The forms our spiritual impulses take in the digital age will also shape how billions of people seek fellowship and meaning in their daily lives.

On this matter, there is one trait of social-media food photographs that’s worth noting: the absence of people. Only 10 percent of online food pictures include the diner. Sometimes a hand or a forearm sneaks into the frame, but a full face is an aberration. The eater is usually absent. In fact, the entire activity of eating is excised. Gazing down from a God’s-eye view onto an immaculate plate, the meal lies eternally untouched, beckoning every hungry eye to take a seat at the table, to join the everlasting feast.

“Prayer is the road to the crowning experience of human life,” wrote the theologian Harry Emerson Fosdick, “being carried out of ourselves by something greater than ourselves to which we give ourselves.” Though many have forgotten the way to this road in a culture suffocating in self-obsession, for many others there’s a renewed hunger for the selfless. And photographing food, for whatever reason, seems to offer some hungry souls a way to climb onto Fosdick’s road, a stepping stone in the digital wilderness that starts the journey toward self-actualization.

Not long ago I found myself visiting Naturally Nina’s profile, where I stumbled on a recent update. “MANTRA: I am [grateful for] this nourishment,” Nina wrote under a picture of her latest lunch. As I looked at her homely plate of pumpkin and broccoli, I suppressed my skepticism. In its place, a fresh, unfamiliar feeling grew. “Wowww.” “Yummm.” “YAMMMM.” “Preach it girl!!!” “I really needed to hear this post today.” “You’re like an angel to me.” As I scrolled through the comments under many photos, my mind kept returning to the imperative that ended Nina’s post: “[I think] about the NOURISHMENT my body is about to receive. The health and vitality, the energy and the glow it will bring me. ⭐️???? I hope you will do the same.”

And to this, I say: Amen.

Permission required for reprinting, reproducing, or other uses.

Theodore Gioia is a critic living in San Francisco. His work has appeared in The Believer, Los Angeles Review of Books, Virginia Quarterly Review, and the SCHOLAR. His past jobs include host at an Olive Garden and partnerships director of McSweeney’s. He is currently writing a book on California’s evolving food culture.


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