Instagram has allowed people to construct their identity in ways to send their target audience desired messages. For some people this is just sharing images of their lives with family and friends to show they are happy and out living life. For other, their identity and self-presentation is carefully constructed to be marketable. Health and wellness influencers wield a great deal of power online by promoting a healthy lifestyle to their online communities through their online self-presentation. However, they also can play a significant role in spreading misinformation to their audience. This essay will explore how the rise of the health and wellness Instagram influencer causes the spread of misinformation which may be damaging and outweigh any positive impact they have on their online community.
Through Instagram, users have the ability to shape their online identity in the way they want to be seen by their followers. Instagram influencers can use construction of Instagram identity as part of their account strategy so that they spread their messages to a larger desired target audience and grow their online community. This idea of construction of identity can be dated back to 1959 with Erving Goffman who first proposed that people function as performers. Goffman explored this concept by suggesting that people will manipulate their identity depending on their audience in both verbal and non-verbal manners. Sometimes, people may repress or even completely remove certain personal information about themselves so that they can portray their desired self (Hong, Jahng, Lee & Wise, 2020). Having a self-brand can be an important asset in the digital world (Grénman, Hakala & Mueller, 2019). Instagram influencers use self-presentation to create a brand for themselves which is marketable to their audience. Instagram influencers will usually find a niche that they want to fit in, and then will create their identity around this niche. By sticking to a niche, an influencer can create a higher profile amongst the community of that niche and avoid detection by those not in their target audience. This means that their message is only spread to those who they actually want to target. One such niche of Instagram influencer are those in Health and Wellness.
The health and wellness influencer is a person who promotes a positive, holistic and healthy approach to their daily life to their online community (Grénman, Hakala & Mueller, 2019). The wellness industry is estimated to be a $4.2tn global market, where consumers have the ability to incorporate wellness products, activities and lifestyles on a daily basis (“2018 Global Wellness Economy Monitor – Global Wellness Institute”, 2021). This is obviously a lucrative industry that has great marketing potential. With food fitness and health being amongst the top themes on Instagram, brands use Instagram influencers part of an integrated marketing strategy to capture the most of their target audience as possible (Folkvord, Roes & Bevelander, 2020). The wellness industry on Instagram predominately has an audience of young people and women and these influencers present themselves in specific ways to target this audience and their values. The online self-presentation of a health and wellness influencer includes promoting healthy eating, exercise and self-care through the sharing of images and videos through their Instagram feed and Instagram stories. To demonstrate that they are fit and healthy, influencers will control their perceived body image largely by staging themselves on their Instagram feed in close-fitting sportswear (Pilgrim & Bohnet-Joschko, 2019). This portrays to their audience that they are working out and therefore promoting a healthier lifestyle. Health and wellness influencers will often post images of vibrant coloured food, encouraging their audience to eat healthier or include their morning routine which incorporates meditation to inspire their community to practice more mindfulness. These are some positive outcomes of a wellness influencer, but trouble can begin to occur when they begin to position themselves as experts in the field of health with no supporting education.
Grénman, Hakala & Mueller (2019) explore the idea that a presented identity needs to represent a true and authentic self, however we can see through Instagram’s facilitation of self-presentation that influencers, and any user in general have the ability to construct their identity in any way they see fit. In fact, it can be argued that Instagram allows people to be able to create a false narrative of self if that’s what the user desires. This can be seen when looking at Instagram user Belle Gibson.
Belle Gibson was an Australian blogger & wellness Instagram influencer with over 200000 followers, who also had an inspiring backstory. Gibson claimed to have cured her terminal brain cancer through her diet and wellness regime, a regime which she sold to her online community in the form of her “expertise”, sponsored posts and the App she created (Stirrups, 2018). Eventually, her story became unravelled, and it was revealed that Gibson never suffered from Cancer, the lifestyle she had sold to her followers stemmed from a lie. Instagram had allowed Gibson to present an identity to her audience that was assumed to be authentic and marketable (Iqani & Schroeder, 2015). Through Goffman’s idea of impression management, Gibson was able to re-construct her identity when the news broke that she’d been falsifying her narrative (Goffman, 1959). In interviews Gibson would present herself as a victim, a survivor and a young mother who was part of a community, these all being positive characteristics to try and draw out pity and sympathy from her audience. Through this example of Belle Gibson, it can be argued that Instagram influencers can construct their identity position themselves as experts or a source of truth in their niche, however narrative may be false or allow for the spread of misinformation to their communities.
Thanks to the Internet, knowledge and expertise are no longer limited to those who have studied in the field (Lavorgna & Sugiura, 2018). Anyone with access to the Internet has the access to the same information, however with anyone being able to post on the Internet, the reliability of sources of information can be questionable and lends itself to the spread of misinformation. Health Instagram influencers position themselves as having authority in the world of nutrition by posting aesthetic images of recipes, routines and in line with what they see as healthy (Gil-Quintana, Santoveña-Casal & Romero Riaño, 2021), However, as a majority of influencers have positioned themselves in a way of a leader, the followers in the community may take what they say as a source of truth and think of them as an expert in the health field. When this is not the case. Time and time again there have been diet fads diet-related misinformation spread throughout Instagram thanks to influencers and the lack of scientific research backing the health claims that they are making. We see examples of this in trends such as the 2019 Celery Juicing, made popular by Kim Kardashian who said it helped cure her psoriasis and promoted by countless influencers through Instagram for its ability to restore various ailments and increasing overall wellness (Kwong, 2019). Except, none of these claims are backed by science. What Marika Day, an accredited nutritionist and dietitian, says celery juice can help hydrate you, send you to the toilet but what is isn’t is detoxifying and not a cure for all ailments (Day, 2021). Influencers can help spread misinformation by sharing advice that their followers take as truth when in reality they do not have the expertise they present.
On Instagram, hashtags are used on posts to categorise content and make it more discoverable. Some Instagram influencers may use hashtags for these strategical purposes to make their content more visible and expand their online community; however, the hashtag tool has been shown to be an instrument for the spread of misinformation. A recent example of hashtags being used to spread misinformation can be seen through the #immuneboost hashtag that has gone hand-in-hand with the coronavirus pandemic (Wagner, Marcon & Caulfield, 2020). Wagner, Marcon and Caulfield (2020) looked at Google Trends data and they noticed that consumer demand for immunity boosting products increased in February 2020 when concerns around the coronavirus had escalated. At the same time, the hashtag #immuneboost increased on posts over a month’s period by 46%. They note that “immune boosting” is already a scientifically questionable concept as there is no evidence that any product or practice that may indeed boost immunity will protect against Covid-19. In their analysis they explain that this is therefore already spreading misleading information. A deeper analysis of the content using the #immuneboost hashtag uncovered that a lot of posts were Instagram influencers either just promoting their own presence by using a popular hashtag or using the hashtag to promote a product that they were sponsoring. Therefore, this example demonstrated that hashtags was to spread inaccurate information for commercial gain. This demonstrated that hashtags can be used to spread misinformation and cause confusion to online communities.
Instagram allows for any user to position themselves as a leader in a field as any person can manufacture or construct their presentation of self in they way they want. Instagram influencers are able to impression manage their self-presentation in a way where their online community sees them as a reliable source of information. This can lead to the spread of misinformation which is damaging to the people who follow them With Instagram and Facebook recently tackling down on political misinformation, it will be interesting to see if and how this is spread to other niches. Will there be a time when only health experts can give advice and information to users on the internet? I would like to think that in the future people will begin to think more critically about the content they consume and listen to those who are educationally backed experts in their fields and that more people call out misinformation when they see it.
2018 Global Wellness Economy Monitor – Global Wellness Institute. (2021). Retrieved 23 March 2021, from https://globalwellnessinstitute.org/industry-research/2018-global-wellness-economy-monitor/
Day, M. (2021). Can Celery Juice Heal Your Gut? — Marika Day. Retrieved 28 March 2021, from https://www.marikaday.com/blog/celeryjuiceandguthealth
Folkvord, F., Roes, E., & Bevelander, K. (2020). Promoting healthy foods in the new digital era on Instagram: an experimental study on the effect of a popular real versus fictitious fit influencer on brand attitude and purchase intentions. BMC Public Health, 20(1). doi: 10.1186/s12889-020-09779-y
Gil-Quintana, J., Santoveña-Casal, S., & Romero Riaño, E. (2021). Realfooders Influencers on Instagram: From Followers to Consumers. International Journal Of Environmental Research And Public Health, 18(4), 1624. doi: 10.3390/ijerph18041624
Goffman, E. (1959). The presentation of self in everyday life. New York, NY: Double Day.
Grénman, M., Hakala, U., & Mueller, B. (2019). Wellness branding: insights into how American and Finnish consumers use wellness as a means of self-branding. Journal Of Product & Brand Management, 28(4), 462-474. doi: 10.1108/jpbm-04-2018-1860
Hong, S., Jahng, M., Lee, N., & Wise, K. (2020). Do you filter who you are?: Excessive self-presentation, social cues, and user evaluations of Instagram selfies. Computers In Human Behavior, 104, 106159. doi: 10.1016/j.chb.2019.106159
Iqani, M., & Schroeder, J. (2015). #selfie: digital self-portraits as commodity form and consumption practice. Consumption Markets & Culture, 19(5), 405-415. doi: 10.1080/10253866.2015.1116784
Kwong, E. (2019, Dec 31). Take a break from Instagram in 2020: Obsessing over health and beauty influencers can make you unhealthy. Toronto Star https://link.library.curtin.edu.au/gw?url=https://www-proquest-com.dbgw.lis.curtin.edu.au/newspapers/take-break-instagram-2020/docview/2331403027/se-2?accountid=10382
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Pilgrim, K., & Bohnet-Joschko, S. (2019). Selling health and happiness how influencers communicate on Instagram about dieting and exercise: mixed methods research. BMC Public Health, 19(1). doi: 10.1186/s12889-019-7387-8
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Wagner, D., Marcon, A., & Caulfield, T. (2020). “Immune Boosting” in the time of COVID: selling immunity on Instagram. Allergy, Asthma & Clinical Immunology, 16(1). doi: 10.1186/s13223-020-00474-6
19 thoughts on “Exploring the construction of identity in health and wellness Instagram influcers”
Great paper! I really enjoyed reading, and you made some really interesting points which really got me thinking!!!
As someone who loves health and fitness as much as I do – as well as social media, I love the merge between the two. I think the ability for not only influencers, but everyday people to create their own image and sense of identity.
Do you think we are too focused on what others think of us due to the need to share what we are doing on social media? I think it is something that can at times drive us to be better, but can also negatively impact us and lead for an overreliance on what other people are doing?
Thanks for your sharing on examples of Instagram’s spreading of misinformation on health and wellness which have confused the online communities.
I think it is time that only the subject matter experts are allowed to give advice and information to users on the Internet. Indeed, it is unethical for those who spread lies on the Internet.
I enjoyed reading your paper and i strongly agree with some argument you presented. It is a well written paper, however, I disagree with a statement which is “Health Instagram influencers position themselves as having authority in the world of nutrition by posting aesthetic images of recipes, routines and in line with what they see as healthy”, because influencers post about content and state that is sponsored and others state that it is what work for them so it is up to the audience to decide what they will do with the knowledge they’ve been provided. Majority of the fitness influencers are coaches with certified qualification as they mention it in their biography and post content where it can be seen that they are guiding other people. I think that majority of the influencers motivate people to workout and stay healthy. As per the part for “diets” and “well organized plate” – I think that boost more about being healthy which is a must for any human kind and influencers posting about diets plans can be easily seen if its fake or not because every body function in a different way and I’ve seen a lot of coaches giving out some solutions on how to be on calorie deficit but also mention that it all depends on the body type.
I’ve found your paper very interesting. You have tackled a topic which I have noticed since a very long time and it is good that someone has took the initiative to talk about it.
It is indeed true that there is a lot of misinformation being displayed by influencers, some of them would promote anything just for money. And I think this is very disgusting! Influencers are supposedly positioned to develop trust within their audiences.
This article by Adam Forrest (2019) even argues that research about how influencers give bad diet and fitness advice eight times out of nine.
Hi Claudia, I really enjoyed reading your paper. It made me think of Jameela Jamil and her campaign to restrict Instagram influencers touting weight-loss products and cosmetic surgery on their profiles. After years of lobbying, Instagram now restrict posts promoting such products so under-18s can’t see them, and remove anything that promises a “miracle” solution for weight-loss.
I agree with your argument that Instagram allows any user to position themselves as a leader in a field – just take a look at any of the Kardashians, and you will regularly see them promoting skinny tea drinks and lollipops. It is disgusting to think that they knowingly post this misinformation on their profiles, regardless of the negative health affects this will have on their followers, so they can make money. Many of their followers do consider the Kardashians reliable sources of beauty and health inspiration, particularly when they see hundreds of photos on them looking beautiful and skinny. What they don’t see is the plastic surgery, professional hair, makeup, lighting and filters that are also used to make them look flawless in their photos.
I would hope that future generations who grow up with social media, learn to understand that what they see online is not reality. Unfortunately I feel that the constant barrage of unrealistic beauty standards will continue to have a detrimental affect on young people’s mental health until the industry is regulated more stringently.
I have been thinking about this topic for the past few months, as I myself follow a lot of health and fitness bloggers/influencers on the social media platforms Instagram and TikTok. It is interesting to see the hundreds of different types of diets and ways of eating that these people spread information on. One minute an influencer is saying one thing, and they say it with such confidence that you believe them, and then the next influencer says the complete opposite. This makes it quite obvious that there is a lot of misinformation spread around social media channels, and that these people saying these facts have probably just found it from google or from another influencer! It is quite dangerous as it can lead to dangerous outcomes for people who follow their information, when it isn’t even scientifically correct.
The discussion in your paper regarding Belle Gibson was very eye opening to me, as I haven’t heard of this before! This is outrageous and definitely gives a bad reputation to health and fitness bloggers as a whole, because this gives you less faith in the community and whether or not the information they are portraying is real or if they are just doing it for the likes and followers.
I have multiple people that I follow, some of my favourites being the likes of @evidencebased_training , who posts regularly with evidence based information, hence the name. Do you have any that you recommend who share factual and interesting information regarding the health and fitness area of content?
Thank you for taking the time to read and comment on my conference paper!
I definitely agree with what you have said. We need to carefully consider the content we consume and whether it is reliable or not. I worry that a lot of people on social media may not have developed critical thinking and would not have the ability to make informed decisions on the content they consume. Do you think it should be up to the consumer of the content or the person posting the content to ensure that the content itself is factual?
I wonder if social media platforms will ever have the ability to regulate health and wellness information? Who would define false information, how much information would be deemed false or harmful, and how would it actually be censored?
One of my favourite people to follow on Instagram for evidence-based diet information is Marika Day (@marikaday). She is an Australian Nutritionist + Dietitian whose main focus is helping those who have IBS and Coeliac (Marika is coeliac herself). I really enjoy her “myth-busting” type posts where she clarifies health myths and always backs up her statements with peer-reviewed studies. I also really like her “swaps” videos where she shows healthier food swaps we can make at Coles & Woolworths. She never posts about restriction but rather making healthier choices for your own body which I love! She also runs a business, Gut Started, which aims to help people with Gut & IBS issues. This account posts the same style of content on Instagram @gutstarted.
Thanks again for reading my paper.
This was an interesting read and I have definitely become aware of the spread of misinformation by health and wellness bloggers recently. I’ve noticed that there are a decent amount of them that are spreading anti-vax rhetoric and claims that Covid is some sort of hoax. Did you come across any of this in your research?
Here’s a link to my paper if you’re interested: https://networkconference.netstudies.org/2021/2021/04/27/misogynistic-radicalization-of-users-in-the-online-incel-community/#comment-1286
Thank you for taking the time to read my paper.
I did come across a lot of new research into the spread of health misinformation related to COVID. Social media platforms Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and Tik Tok and all announced that they work to restrict content spreading COVID misinformation but there is a sentiment lingering that COVID isn’t as bad as it seems. Do you think that social media has done the right thing by trying to censor misinformation?
As India is going through its terrible second wave of COVID-19, I have read that the Modi Government is cracking down and removing posts/accounts of people criticizing its handling of the COVID crisis. You can read more about India’s social media censorship of the COVID crisis here
I think the censorship of misinformation will be a difficult task that would need to have it’s own rules and regulations but who would actually conduct this? How can we censor while also allowing social media users to have freedom of expression?
Thanks again for reading my paper.
Your Bibliography: Dixit, P. (2021). COVID-19 Is Devastating India. Its Government Is Trying To Censor Social Media.. Buzzfeednews.com. Retrieved from https://www.buzzfeednews.com/article/pranavdixit/covid-india-online-censorship.
I think social media does have a responsibility to take measures to slow the spread of misinformation, but it’s just something they won’t ever be able to get perfect. No one has access to perfect information on anything and it would be wrong to think that the people running social media companies are a perfect authority on all things Covid-related. I think a light touch is needed where necessary I suppose. But they should be really careful about being to heavy handed in the blocking of content that they disagree with. Sometimes its better to expose and debate bad ideas instead of just sweeping them under the rug.
Really interesting paper, this topic has been an interest of mine for a while. I really like that you included the case study about Belle Gibson, as prior to reading this part of the paper, I was beginning to think about how I see a lot of influencers discredit their authority when they post certain things such as when they post recipe ideas or their workout routine they say a ‘disclaimer’ for example, ‘I am not a professional.’ but this case study brought to light that most don’t do this and even if they did, they are still manipulating their audience to feel bad about certain things to do with health and fitness in their lifestyle.
My paper addresses a similar issue, the spread of health and wellness misinformation specifically on the platform, TikTok. Would love if you could have a read.
The link to my paper is: https://networkconference.netstudies.org/2021/2021/04/26/tiktok-influencers-spreading-bad-health-habits-and-promoting-a-starving-gen-z/
Thanks for taking the time to read and commenting on my paper.
You’ve raised a good point about how some influencers discredit their authority by saying “I am not a professional” or “this is just what works for me”. I instantly thought of Sarahs Day, where she posts health/diet-related advice (and her Sunee cooking app!) but does always ‘disclaim’ that she isn’t a professional.
I’m not sure if that’s good enough when she is spreading advice to millions of followers?
I’m heading over to read your paper now!
Thanks again for reading,
Hey Claudia !
This topic has been in my thoughts for a long time. Most people follows a specific influencer and sometimes the information they put out there are false or misleading. This reminded me of an article I read last year regarding a celebrity/influencer mentioning that 5G helps the corona virus to spread etc.. which can be misleading for those individuals who believed in that statement. But overall I’ve really enjoyed reading your paper! 🙂
If you have time feel free to check out mines: https://networkconference.netstudies.org/2021/2021/04/28/how-social-media-such-as-twitter-and-discord-can-help-individuals-with-mental-illness-and-build-communities-online/
Thank you !!
I love seeing how much of us talking about the same subjects but having different opinions! I really enjoy reading you paper. But I have one question when you talk about influencers constructive an identity, do you personally think it is a good thing for their audience and for the influencers himself?
Also I really enjoy the part where you talk about hashtags as it was very informative, we have the tendency to see hashtags only as a symbol in front of a word and forget the power it has.
Really nice paper!
I really encourage you to have a look to my paper as I talk about influencers too and many key terms you used in your paper I used them too! and give me your views about my paper, I am willing to hear from you soon.
here is my link : https://networkconference.netstudies.org/2021/2021/04/26/performance-of-ideal-self-online-having-a-detrimental-effect-on-social-media-influencers-identity/
This is a very interesting and well written paper! It is true that today, especially in Western societies that there is a “narcissism epidemic” and that people very often go to social media, like Instagram, to find influencers who have what society approves to be “the perfect body”. It is sad that to see that some influencers use their accounts to promote fake health products that could potentially be of harm to people sometimes because an advertiser will pay them a large sum to do so. I believe Instagram should set up a system that fact-checks brands before allowing advertisers to reach out to influencers to avoid the spread of misinformation.
By the way please feel free to check out my paper here: https://networkconference.netstudies.org/2021/2021/04/28/social-media-free-speech-policies-are-a-myth/#comment-446
I loved reading this paper. You spoke on an issue that I too am passionate about, and you did it well. It is interesting how much social media influencers have an effect on their followers, and how some are happy to share information that even they aren’t sure is true. This reminds me of the YouTube videos I often see regarding nutritionists reviewing Sarah’s Days’ eating habits and her “Sunee” app – where they tend to be disappointed about the range of dieting recommendations that are incorrect.
Thanks for a good read,
I find this topic really interesting.
I strongly agree that the health and wellness is something highly marketable on Instagram through Influencers. The other day I saw Sky Wheatly shared an Instagram story saying that she has lost so much belly weight just a week after the arrival of her baby, and promoting an online training and nutrition program. Many spoke up about their concerns on this story. Why not share the company you are working with and your goals with them, if possible, rather than sharing that you “need” to instantaneously have your pre-baby body back when having postpartum belly is normal? I think sometimes Influencers see a chance to make money, even if it goes against things that are completely normal and healthy.