I’ve lost count of the number of people I know who are glued to the recent revelations about Tanya Zuckerbrot’s F-Factor diet and Teddi Mellencamp’s All In program. As someone who considers herself in the midst of recovery from a lifetime of disordered eating (which you can hear me discuss on the Diet Starts Tomorrow podcast), learning the inner workings of these businesses has been appalling and full of triggering details.
For anyone who hasn’t been following along with the latest in the diet industry, this all began when @deuxmoi, and later fashion and lifestyle influencer Emily Gellis, started posting DMs that followers had submitted about their experiences with the F-Factor diet. These included rashes, hives, and gastrointestinal issues that they attributed to the 20/20 powder products, as well as personal experiences with disordered eating that they claim resulted from the diet. A few weeks later, individuals started submitting stories to Emily about the All In by Teddi Mellencamp program, claiming that the program consisted of extremely restrictive meal plans (estimated to be under 700 calories each day). They also revealed a grueling 60-minute daily cardio requirement and shared aggressive text messages they received from uncertified coaches threatening to drop them from the program (without a refund) for forgetting to send photo evidence of their meals, workouts, and daily weigh-ins.
There’s one lesson I’ve learned from all of this, aside from realizing how normalized these dangerous dieting behaviors are. And surprisingly, I’ve learned it from the defenders of these programs in various Instagram comments sections (the most in-depth reading I’ve done in weeks). The most common defense I’ve seen is “if you don’t like it, just don’t do it!” Leave Tanya alone!!
While I don’t actually agree in this particular context, I get their message and consider myself warned for the future. It’s our choice to follow individuals on social media and endure the risks inherent in buying what they’re selling. By now we should all have learned: you can’t buy a “lifestyle” from someone whose life you don’t live—no matter how hard someone on the internet or even our beloved Bravo network tries to sell it to you.
Aside from the casual glorification of starvation (when logged into a calorie tracker, meal plans on both programs often amount to a daily caloric intake of 1,000 calories or less), the most striking commonality between the diets is the implicit message of their marketing: follow the plan I’m selling, and you will be a success, just like me. This is hardly new to advertising, and especially not to advertising diets. Another is that both diets are branded as lifestyles, which conveniently solves for the recent cultural shift that it’s no longer trendy or completely socially acceptable to push a diet plan. (See, for example, Weight Watchers’ 2019 rebrand to to WW, standing for Wellness that Works—but even before that, their coaches would insist in meetings that WW was not a diet, but rather, a lifestyle change. Diets fail. Lifestyles are sustainable). People generally know by now that crash diets don’t work, and if F-Factor and All In were to publicly market a diet plan of eating mainly crackers or soup, I’d like to think no one in their right mind would pay the astronomical prices these programs cost (upwards of $10,000 for a package with F Factor, $599 for the two-week jumpstart program with All In).
So how do they convince customers to pay thousands of dollars to roll the dice on potentially giving themselves a lifelong eating disorder? By telling them that they’re actually paying for a sustainable lifelong “lifestyle”, of course. The mission statement for All In reads, “To provide our clients a pathway to self-accountability through personal one-on-one support, guidance and tools that inspire a complete—and lasting—lifestyle shift toward health, fitness and achieving one’s best self.” In the “What is F-Factor” section of the website, it reads, “The F-Factor Diet will inspire you to discover new foods and adopt new habits that will become part of your new and improved lifestyle.” (Emphasis mine.) In other words: We can look and live like the founders if we do what they do and stick to these programs, which conveniently funnel thousands of dollars into their pockets!
But it’s simply not possible, because no matter how many new ways the diet industry tries to package this message, the diet someone eats is actually not their lifestyle. For example, Teddi Mellencamp’s actual lifestyle has to be at least bolstered by her father’s fame and $25 million net worth (even if not directly, the name recognition had to have contributed to her landing a spot on RHOBH). The product that her company All In is selling as her “lifestyle” is actually just a plan to eat soup for dinner and the promise of abrasive texts from a self-identified coach with no certification. And the sickness you feel from doing an hour of cardio on less than 1,000 calories will ideally be mitigated by the dream that you might one day look more like the most boring Real Housewife.
Eating one cup of soup every night will never buy you a $22 million apartment or birth you three adorable children to spend Thanksgiving with in St. Tropez, so that you can pose for an Instagram photo that you will predictably caption “so grateful.” If anything, eating only one cup of soup every night will make it so impossible for you to function that you’ll be unable to perform at your job that pays for the lifestyle you actually live.
Another, more literal way they get customers on board? Shrouding the realities of the plans in secrecy, relying on legal documents such as NDAs and cease and desist letters to silence naysayers. According to messages shared to @deuxmoi and Emily Gellis’s IG stories, All In requires prospective clients to sign NDAs before joining the program and being informed of the diet plan (i.e., they are agreeing to pay for the plan without being fully aware of the exact details of what the plan is). F-Factor was known and admitted to deleting negative reviews on its site and comments on social media, and Zuckerbrot has also sent cease-and-desist letters to people she says “slandered” the company on social media. It doesn’t really seem to fit in thematically with the whole community of women lifting each other up as promised by these “lifestyles”, does it? And they’re certainly not the type of documents typically required by most registered dietitians, nutritionists, therapists, or even coaches like life coaches or executive coaches. In fact, professionals like RDs or therapists are bound by some sort of privilege to protect the client’s sensitive info—not the other way around. Most people don’t have lawyers on retainer to review these things and typically have no idea what they’re signing, why they’re relevant, or what the implications are. They just want to lose three pounds! So they sign the documents.
The sad truth is that there are people who have no qualms about profiting from people’s pain, even if indirectly or well-intentioned in their own minds. Do I believe that anyone sets out to give people eating disorders? No, even if solely for the selfish reason that doing so would cause serious harm to their reputation. I believe these women genuinely believe in what they’re selling. Their issue is that the rest of the world has shifted around them and they aren’t yet able to look in the mirror (the figurative one; I’m sure they’re good with the literal one) and see that what they’ve been selling has caused pain, even if not to every single customer. It’s yet another classic case of: it’s not the intent, it’s the impact. If you’re going to take up the mantle of glorifying your own lifestyle such that you’re literally profiting from it, the flip side of that is apologizing and taking accountability when that lifestyle has had consequences.
When so many of Tanya Zuckerbrot’s defenders insist that Emily Gellis and anyone who disagrees with the F-Factor diet is just “jealous of Tanya’s perfect life”, it immediately conjures for me the final scene of The Devil Wears Prada, where my personal queen Meryl Streep so assuredly tells Anne Hathaway that “everyone wants this, everyone wants to be us” right before Anne exits the car. This is the essential premise behind the marketing messages of F-Factor and All In: do this diet and you will live the same amazing life as the founder, which is the life we are sure you want, because everybody does. It may have taken literally decades, but just like Miranda Priestly’s vicious and abusive management style was shown the door in 2020, so many women are finally walking out on this outdated mindset that has trapped us in a world of obsession and inadequacy.
At the same time, we can’t sit around waiting for it. It’s up to us to draw the line. Stop following people who want you to believe you can be like them if you buy something, or when you change yourself in some way. Especially if they tell you to change in a way that puts money in their pocket. Fool us for decades, shame on the diet industry. Fool us after all this has gone down and we’ve been shown the light, we have some serious unfollowing to do.
Image: Tinseltown / Shutterstock.com
Even if you are not tuned into the diet industry and its happenings (for which you are 100% better off), you may have heard about the problems with F-Factor, the high-fiber, high-protein diet started by Tanya Zuckerbrot and followed by the likes of Katie Couric and Olivia Culpo. To sum up the issues briefly, a little over two weeks ago (over the course of which I aged at least two years), the NY Times published a story detailing the efforts of influencer Emily Gellis to expose allegedly harmful practices and products of the F-Factor diet and its founder, Tanya Zuckerbrot. Gellis began posting anonymous accounts, and later on-the-record accounts, on her Instagram story of people claiming they had either gone on the diet, consumed the F-Factor products (including high-fiber, high-protein powders and bars), or both, and suffered distressing side effects. These reactions ran the gamut from rashes to lactose insensitivity to G.I. issues and more. That was just one problem; the issue was threefold.
The second complaint was that the F-Factor program itself was nothing short of an eating disorder, with Instagram users describing the diet as a highly restrictive one in which even fruits like bananas were frowned upon, if not outright banned, due to their carb content. (Because we all know someone who’s gained weight from eating too many bananas.) Former F-Factor clients said the program exacerbated or caused disordered eating habits—and that’s only prong two. Prong three is that the reason this information took so long to come out was because of allegations that Zuckerbrot would use various tactics including sending cease and desists to silence detractors, as well as deleting negative comments on Instagram. And now, a new article in Business Insider detailing alleged incidents of shaming and food-policing of former employees at the F-Factor workplace rounds out this picture.
Or, if you didn’t follow any of that: the F-Factor products are causing harm, the diet itself is problematic, and F-Factor is a toxic place to work, allegedly.
Zuckerbrot, for her part, has categorically denied that her products are harmful, eventually releasing a Certificate of Analysis for F-Factor’s chocolate protein powder. She has also refuted any claims that the diet promotes disordered eating and is rejecting allegations that F-Factor was a hostile work environment.
Zuckerbrot told Business Insider in an interview that the bad press about her is “shocking” and “horrible”, saying, “If you Google my name, up until the past three months, you’ve never read of any complaints or negative comments”. The comment is reminiscent of her persistent claims that of the 170,000-something purchases of F-Factor products, the company only received about 50 complaints. So what’s with these complaints, that as Zuckerbrot puts it, are only mysteriously appearing “10 years later while a smear campaign about is occurring”?
Indeed, according to Jessica Rossman, F-Factor’s Sr. Associate Brand Manager, “people are just trying to take her down.” She says the recent slew of bad press is “absolutely disgraceful,” adding, “these allegations are wild.” While Zuckerbrot feels she’s being personally victimized (I paraphrase), multiple former F-Factor employees told Business Insider that they were actually victims of food shaming and inappropriate behavior at work. They said they feared retaliation or retribution from Zuckerbrot for going public with their claims about the work environment at F-Factor. Zuckerbrot has hired Michael Cohen’s attorney Lanny Davis to correspond with reporters covering the F-Factor allegations, and she’s sent cease-and-desist letters to at least six associates and former employees who decided to speak out publicly against her and the company. She told Insider that the allegations against her are “all either false or misleading”.
So let’s go through some of these allegations.
Sarah (not her real name), a dietician who used to work at F-Factor, told Insider that she was met with judgmental comments from Zuckerbrot within minutes of eating her first homemade lunch on her first day on the job. The lunch was whole-wheat pasta and turkey meatballs. She claims Zuckerbrot said to her, “I can’t believe you’re eating pasta. We never do that.” Another employee who witnessed the incident corroborated her account. Zuckerbrot said, “Healthy eating was encouraged, but not policed” in the office, clarifying that when clients would come in, out of respect for them, staff would be encouraged to put unhealthy foods out of sight.
Even though Zuckerbrot claims that you can eat whatever you want on F-Factor, telling Betches co-founder Aleen Kuperman on a January 2019 episode of the Diet Starts Tomorrow podcast, “I get to eat mac ‘n cheese. I get to have jalapeño cheddar biscuits. F-Factor gives you carbs,” claims of both followers of the diet and former employees paint a different story. For one, there are the claims that even fruit is demonized on the diet, leading Zuckerbrot to go on IG Live earlier this week to make a smoothie using half a banana, remarking that half a banana has the same amount of carbs as a slice of white bread. Similarly, former employees claim the “you can eat carbs” attitude F-Factor and Zuckerbrot proudly tout did not extend to the office. In one alleged incident, cupcakes that were brought into the office for someone’s birthday were packaged up before anyone could eat them, with Zuckerbrot instructing the person whose birthday it was to take them home. A former intern also told Insider about a team holiday dinner at a restaurant that served popovers, recounting how the team were sneaking them under the table because they didn’t want Tanya to catch them eating the popovers. Zuckerbrot said the cupcake allegation was “false” and also told Insider that she “enjoys popovers and eats them from time to time,” adding that she “feels badly that someone felt uncomfortable eating popovers in front of her.”
There are other examples like this—one where the dietician claimed the team went out to lunch at Bloomingdale’s, and a secretary tried to order frozen yogurt (frozen yogurt!) but took it back upon receiving a pointed glare from Zuckerbrot. Zuckerbrot’s rep claims she “never would have done this,” though, since she loves froyo, “particularly the chocolate flavor ‘Forty Carrots’ from Bloomies.” You get the gist: all these very specific and detailed allegations are completely false, and in fact, Tanya would never discourage anyone from eating because Tanya loves !
In response to growing calls for an apology or acknowledgement of any kind, for either the disordered eating practices or the products or both, F-Factor announced on their Instagram that they have dedicated a new page on their website where they “correct the record and provide factual support to the most common questions receive”. The webpage is appropriately located at the URL ffactor.com/facts. On the page, F-Factor maintains that out of 174,000+ orders over the past 2 years, they have only received 50 health-related complaints. They insist that F-Factor products are safe, “manufactured in the United States, are NON-GMO, and use only natural ingredients”, and repeat Zuckerbrot’s earlier claims that the products contain trace metals only because they are natural. There is also a link to the Certificate of Analysis for the chocolate, vanilla, and unflavored protein powders, with certain information redacted.
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Additionally, there is a section dedicated to dispelling the claim that F-Factor encourages “unhealthy weight loss and even possibly eating disorders”, quoting portions of the book, including one part that states participants on Step 2 (of 3) can choose how many carbs they want to eat. There’s also a part that encourages followers to eat vegetables (though above the quoted passage, the site specifies that means “non-starchy vegetables”, which can be eaten in unlimited quantities at any stage of the plan).
Instagram users still aren’t satisfied, and many are clamoring for an apology. One commenter wrote under @f_factor’s newest post, “You know what’s so crazy about all of this? The fact that as a company you can’t just say hey, we’re sorry if our products have caused you any harm.” Another Instagram commenter asked, “Why haven’t you issued an apology yet?”
Instead of apologizing, Zuckerbrot went live on Instagram on Wednesday to express her shock and dismay that people are accusing F-Factor of promoting disordered eating. She also urged users not to trust nutrition or diet advice they see on Instagram—even her advice.
This article has been updated to correctly reflect Rossman’s title at F-Factor.
Images: Sylvain Gaboury/Patrick McMullan via Getty Images; @f_factor / Instagram
Content warning: This article may be triggering for people who have struggled with eating disorders.
If you’ve been on social media the past few days, you’ve likely seen the controversy between fashion and lifestyle influencer Emily Gellis Lande and Tanya Zuckerbrot, MS, RD, CEO & Founder of F-Factor. It was detailed in an explosive piece in the New York Times, but if you can’t get enough of this story or reached your monthly article limit, allow me to break it down.
First, some background: If you’re not familiar with F-Factor, you can take a scroll through its Kelly green-soaked Instagram feed to get the general gist: Yay, increased fiber consumption and lower body fat! Make a tuna-fish GG-cracker sandwich! F-Factor has been around since 2006, when founder Tanya Zuckerbrot, MS, RD published The F-Factor Diet: Discover the Secret to Permanent Weight Loss. The diet consists of three steps of high-fiber, high-protein, low-carb eating (with step 3 being maintenance). The face of the brand is Tanya Zuckerbrot, a registered dietician who flaunts a lavish lifestyle on her Instagram account. If you go to their website, you’ll find that the F-Factor approach and suggested meals “focus on combining lean protein with high-fiber carbohydrates, which are low in calories and keep you feeling full throughout the day.” As Zuckerbrot explained in a January 2020 episode of Betches’ Diet Starts Tomorrow podcast, “fiber and protein in every meal makes losing weight no big deal.”
For some people, though, going on F-Factor proved to be a huge deal for their health. For months, I’d read and heard horror stories from people who claimed to be former F-Factor clients, specifically via Twitter, as well as the gossip-curating Instagram account DeuxMoi, which shares insider info and screenshots about various celebs and influencers.
And then Gellis began to share stories on her Instagram, too. Although she herself had never personally been on the diet—she told Betches, “I did try the powder one time and I was not a fan”—she got involved after reading an anonymous account (originally posted on the aforementioned DeuxMoi page) from a woman who claimed to have previously been on the F-Factor plan. The woman said Zuckerbrot had advised her to consider going off her antidepressants because they could be contributing to her weight gain and retention. Gellis, who’s passionate and outspoken about the importance of mental health care, became furious.
Zuckerbrot told the New York Times, “This is a lie, this never happened and it never would happen.”
Gellis began to sound off on her Instagram Stories, and it quickly snowballed from there. Currently, you can find 11 Instagram highlights and counting dedicated to discussing Zuckerbrot and F-Factor on Gellis’s page.
Gellis initially kept the identities of her sources private, since many felt more open to speak out when they were kept anonymous, but as of Tuesday, Gellis began sharing on-the-record accounts from people who were willing to come forward publicly. “I’ve received about a thousand messages a day for two weeks straight,” Gellis told Betches. Former F-Factor clients began recounting to her that the highly restrictive regimen eventually led to disordered eating habits. Others complained about severe side effects from the products (which include protein powders and bars that were introduced in 2018), like migraines, gas, cramping, diarrhea, rashes, nausea, urinary tract infections, severe chest pains, and even heavy-metal poisoning.
While many supported Gellis’s first attempts to speak out, with it came attacks. “I was soon met with extreme cyber-bullying attacks from private accounts threatening to ‘expose my past’ if I continue talking about this woman and her company,” Gellis explained. They’re all “burner accounts with 0 followers, 0 following, 0 posts and wacky names. New accounts pop up daily.”
Zuckerbrot eventually publicly addressed the backlash in an IGTV video, claiming she was being “cyber bullied” by two anonymous accounts in particular, both of which have since been shut down.
In response, Gellis said on her Instagram that “to turn a conversation about people who have been harmed by your products and turn it into a conversation about cyber bullying is a low I didn’t expect the F-Factor team to go .”
In any case, the attempts to silence Gellis backfired: When she began to share the threatening messages she was receiving, there was an outpouring of support. “Women started to rally around me because they had been silently suffering, and they didn’t want me to go down alone.” She’s continued to share stories every day since—especially those of people who’ve had their voices ignored on the F-Factor Instagram page, which is notorious for deleting comments from dissenters. (Zuckerbrot admitted to Insider that F-Factor deleted some negative comments from its Instagram page “when it was slander,” saying, “we felt we were following community guidelines”.)
Many of the women messaging Gellis about the diet allege that it is way overly restrictive, and, categorically, “an eating disorder”. Three F-Factor-approved meals, for example, usually clock in at around 1,000 calories a day, or even under that. One woman told Insider she experienced amenorrhea, the pausing of her period, which can be linked to anorexia. Eventually she ended up needing treatment at a NYC treatment center for six months.
Zuckerbrot told Betches, “The F-Factor program is more than 1,000 calories per day (and often more than that based on the client’s needs, their sex, their weight, their height and their activity factor).”
The problems for some F-Factor followers didn’t end when they quit the diet, though. Some allegedly had to go to the hospital for refeeding syndrome, which is when “you’ve been eating such a low amount of calories for such a low amount of time that your body goes into shock when you start eating more calories and refeed your body,” Lauren Sharpe, a registered dietician who’s treated former F-Factor clients, said in an Instagram Story about the diet. “Your electrolytes, everything goes out of balance and can literally lead to a heart attack.”
Zuckerbrot denied that any former clients had to go to the hospital for refeeding syndrome from following F-Factor, telling Betches that “refeeding syndrome occurs when a malnourished person begins feeding after a period of starvation or limited intake,” but “The F-Factor Diet is a nutrient-dense program that if followed correctly could never lead to malnourishment.”
Zuckerbrot told Insider that she had never been made aware of people who had developed eating disorders as a result of F-Factor. On the January 19th episode of the Diet Starts Tomorrow podcast, when asked, “does your diet create disordered eating habits?” Zuckerbrot responded, “I hope not.”
One DMer—in a screenshot available in Gellis’s Instagram highlights under the catch-all name “Discussions”—calls it “the devil’s food,” and another says the powders, bars, and GG crackers “literally destroyed stomach.” Many people allege the products gave them rashes all over their bodies. (“It looked like someone drew on me with a red sharpie.”) Others say the diet instilled in them a lasting fear of fruit and carbs and other disordered eating habits even after quitting the regimen, and some are seeing gastroenterologists, worried about permanent gut damage.
Another former client who wishes to remain anonymous told me she’s “85 percent sure” the diet permanently wrecked her metabolism and digestive system, even though she was only on it for two months. “I’ve become way more resistant to lactose than I was before, and I struggle to lose weight now even with diets I tried before, so I attribute it fully to F-Factor.” Zuckerbrot told Betches it is “medically impossible” for F-Factor to cause a lactose resistance, adding, “No diet can cause lactose intolerance as lactose intolerance is caused by a deficiency of the lactase enzyme.”
Another woman who was on the plan from 2017–2018 told me her hair was falling out in clumps while she did F-Factor, and she still feels the physical and mental effects to this day. “I still don’t go a day without counting the carbs I’m eating. I still feel like a failure sometimes for not being able to stick to a rigid, low-calorie plan. I know this is not how the diet is marketed, but this is the reality.” Zuckerbrot said F-Factor has never “received a formal complaint from a client that their hair was falling out in clumps as a result of the program,” acknowledging that one of the many causes of hair loss can be a Very Low Calorie Diet (VLCD), where calorie consumption is severely restricted—typically to under 1,000 calories per day. She said, “The F-Factor diet is not a VLCD.”
The woman also said her F-Factor dietician told her not to go to SoulCycle when she was on the diet because she’d “be too hungry after.” She said, “I was too afraid I would accidentally eat something off-plan if I went out with my friends, so I stayed in. I spent that whole year inside, and my entire value was tied to how much weight I lost that week.”
Zuckerbrot told Betches that while conversations between clients and Registered Dieticians are privileged, “it is not our philosophy to discourage anyone from exercising,” pointing to chapter 10 of the F-Factor book, entitled, “Exercise To Empty Your Glycogen Stores”, which is dedicated to the benefits of exercise.
Of course, the evidence of the diet having adverse effects is entirely anecdotal, so you can do with it what you will. If you’re an F-Factor stan and you have no reason to believe the products are harming you, there really isn’t any concrete evidence to suggest otherwise.
However, there is one warning label on the F-Factor products. It’s a Prop 65 warning, which warns that consuming the product can lead to exposure to chemicals, including lead. Passed in California in 1986, the Proposition 65 law “requires businesses to provide warnings to Californians about significant exposures to chemicals that cause cancer, birth defects, or other reproductive harm.”
F-Factor claims their products comply with Prop 65, “the lowest lead standard in the world,” and Zuckerbrot denied that there’s a dangerous amount of lead in her products. In an IGTV video on her personal Instagram, she said, “the Earth’s soil contains heavy metal, and therefore anything grown in the soil—including strawberries, cucumbers, spinach, rice—can contain trace amounts.” She posited that F-Factor products may contain trace amounts of lead because they are made with all-natural products. She told Page Six, “In over two years we have received less than 50 complaints asking for refunds. This rumor that I somehow created a product that’s harming people’s health is so malicious and frankly unfounded,” and in a post on the F-Factor account said that any adverse physical reactions may have to do with a personal whey allergy. Zuckerbrot told Page Six she’s now working on a vegan protein powder for those who have a whey intolerance for this very reason.
Amidst the social media outcry, F-Factor critics were also urging the company to release its Certificate of Analysis (CoA), which is a company document for consumers that includes “specifications on characteristics such as purity, strength, composition, and appropriate limits for ingredients in which there is a known or reasonable expectation that a contaminant or adulterant may be present.” In response, F-Factor said they “view the CoA as a confidential document that contains proprietary information about our formula, and therefore, it is our company policy not to disclose this document.”
One of Gellis’s followers said this is BS. “I work in biotech, and there is never a time, especially now pivoting to COVID diagnostics, that you don’t release a CoA. I would never work for a company that wouldn’t share these details, as they trickle down into everything.”
In a statement on the F-Factor Instagram account on August 22, the company said that “as a result of misinformation generated by a handful of people on social media,” they’d release their CoA “within the next few days.” According to the statement, Zuckerbrot finds it “extraordinarily upsetting that some of you have been caused worry by false and malicious assertions, most of them made anonymously.”
Finally, on August 28, F-Factor released the CoA for the chocolate fiber protein powder with “minimal information redacted”, again insisting it contains “proprietary information”. However, F-Factor also makes vanilla and unflavored powders, as well as a number of protein bars, for which the CoAs were not released.
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Even with the one CoA released, something tells me this is not the last we will be hearing about F-Factor or its founder.
Additional reporting by Sara Levine
Images: Fernando Leon/WireImage for Emily Cho; Nicholas Hunt/Getty Images; @f_factor / Instagram