Cheesy photos redefine Instagram feed

Skylar Ganz, one of five friends who started the Freshmen15 Instagram feed, samples some dishes at La Panineria Italiana in New York.
Skylar Ganz, one of five friends who started the Freshmen15 Instagram feed, samples some dishes at La Panineria Italiana in New York. New York Times

Most Fridays this semester, Sydney Greenberg, 19, would rush to her sorority house on the Tallahassee campus of Florida State University to arrive in time for lunch. The menu theme was “Fried Friday,” and Greenberg wanted to get at the massive bin of mozzarella sticks before any of her Delta Gamma sisters did.

The goal: to get a perfect photograph of the fried cheese. “Mozzarella sticks and mac and cheese are big winners for us,” she said.

Photographs of melted cheese (on pizza, noodles, chili fries) tend to be popular on Freshmen15, the Instagram feed that Greenberg started about a year and a half ago with her five best friends from high school. A slice of pizza may rack up 12,000 likes. Cheese-smothered garlic bread gets 10,000.

A photograph of a vat of the cheese sticks at Greenberg’s sorority house, posted with the caption “I mozz-a-really start my spring break diet #freshmen15 # EEEEEATS,” garnered more than 6,700 likes. Freshmen15 has more than 130,000 followers, packing on more at a rate of about 1,000 a week.

“Our followers love cheese, anything with cheese, and the more melted and gooier, the better,” said Skylar Ganz, 20, who goes to John Jay College in New York City.

Sure, Instagram is a destination for foodie fetishists, populated by posts of vegan hot dogs, kale smoothies and perfectly sliced avocado fanned out upon seven-grain toast.

But increasingly, in weeding through well-lit images of quinoa in ceramic bowls, Instagram surfers are enjoying a mounting backlash, with sites like Freshmen15 giving people an opportunity to celebrate an appreciation of Lucky Charms-infused Rice Krispies Treats and other kinds of fattening food that create anxiety and shame among people, women especially.

Instagram accounts like Freshmen15 (tagline: “We gain weight for a reason”) focus on the joys of un-self-conscious indulgence.

“My friends and I try to embrace women’s bodies for what they are,” said Nikki Seligsohn, 20, who attends the University of Pennsylvania. “We love going out to eat, we go for late-night pizza, we all love food.”

The six women decided to start the Instagram account, named after the well-known tendency of first-year college students to gain weight, on a lark while they were still home in Boca Raton, Fla., before moving to different towns and cities. The idea was to stay in regular contact while sharing with one another the delicacies of college life.

What they didn’t expect was the way that strangers would gravitate toward their snaps of cookie-dough-covered birthday cake and baked macaroni and cheese. The women have become fattening-food aggregators of sorts, choosing photos to post (often about five a day) from food they come across themselves, other pictures they see on Instagram and images that are submitted to them.

There are perks. Ganz sometimes gets invited by restaurants to sample their menu free, and this winter she and a friend, Maggie Carlson, sat over prodigious plates of prosciutto and heaping bowls of mozzarella at La Panineria Italiana in Greenwich Village in New York City as they snapped photos, tasted sandwiches and talked feminism and body image.

Ganz has struggled with eating disorders, and she believes the Instagram feed has been essential to her recovery. The very idea of broadcasting the fact that she is eating fattening food, via Instagram, seemed almost revolutionary.

“It used to be that I wasn’t present when I was eating, I wasn’t enjoying food, I was using my energy and focus on trying to stay skinny,” she said. “But I feel like things are shifting in our culture. Kale is over.”

Between bites of a cannoli, Carlson agreed. “Everyone is fat in college,” she said. “I tell my sister, ‘Don’t even try to lose weight until grad school.’ ”