Thanks to the onslaught of terrible news last week — from Bill Cosby’s sudden release from prison to the ocean being on fire, again — you may have missed the smallest glimmer of good news in the fight against anti-fatness and diet culture. I know I almost did.
Despite the reams and reams of studies that show diets don’t work and can actually worsen your health in the long run, the diet industry keeps getting away with its ads.
Turns out, Pinterest has moved to ban weight loss ads from its platform, and Norway passed a law requiring labels on retouched photos posted to social media. Are these relatively small moves in a world saturated with anti-fat messages? Sure. But is it possible this means some corners of society are finally recognizing the real harm that diet culture and unrealistic beauty standards perpetuate? Absolutely.
There’s a good reason we don’t typically see ads for harmful products like tobacco. It’s because clear evidence from reputable sources like the World Health Organization shows tobacco ads increase the likelihood that people will start or continue to smoke, and in turn total bans on those kinds of advertisements decrease tobacco use.
Yet despite the reams and reams of studies that show diets don’t work and can actually worsen your health in the long run, the diet industry keeps getting away with its ads. Propelling those diets are dynamics like those reported in a 2019 study of college-aged women, which found that the “thin-ideal” is widespread on social media and can in turn "promote unhealthy measures, such as dieting, increase body dissatisfaction and disordered eating attitudes."
I honestly never thought I would see the day when weight loss ads or doctored photos would be regulated like tobacco. But when private companies like Pinterest step up to impose their own restrictions on weight loss advertising and governments like Norway crack down on misleading images, it gives me hope that perhaps the dangers lurking behind diet culture are starting to be recognized.
Weight loss ads and manipulated social media images send the message that you must be thin — or at least striving to be — or you are a failure. And it works. The weight loss market is an approximately $70 billion industry. In other words, diet companies are incredibly effective at making people — especially their target audience of young women — feel so terrible about themselves that they’re inclined to throw their money at whatever is being sold to them.
We’ve been force-fed (pun intended) the idea that we should push ourselves to the brink, even to the point of self-harm, to achieve a more palatable body type. There was a time not so long ago when cigarettes were sold as an effective tool for weight loss. Lucky Strike ads would implore women to “avoid that future shadow,” as a beautiful model ran from the dark, fat outline behind her. Now, instead of cigarettes and a fat shadow monster, we have Photoshopped influencers sucking on flat tummy tea lollipops and intermittent fasting ads featuring computer-generated bodies growing and shrinking in size.
As a fat woman, my own experience with weight loss products has run the gamut — from stealing my mother’s Slim Fast cans when I was in elementary school to obsessively counting every Weight Watchers point I could in college. And because I’m old enough to remember making physical vision boards before there even was Pinterest, I also was one of those women who covered her refrigerator with magazine cutouts of thin bodies as a reminder not to eat.
Eventually, in my late 20s, I managed to stop that behavior — but not before I experienced a few horrific years of disordered eating and reliance on over-the-counter weight loss pills that did a number on my mental and physical health. I consider myself lucky that I was able to stop at all. But I’m not sure I would have been able to if social media was as prolific then as it is now.
Last year, Americans spent more than 1,300 hours on social media on average. Given the strong link between increased social media use and negative body image issues such as dieting, self-objectification and body surveillance, it’s so much harder to avoid anti-fat and weight loss content than it used to be.
In an apparent acknowledgement of these risks, Pinterest said it will now ban all paid advertisements that include weight loss language and imagery, as well as disallow ads that idealize certain body types or reference the body mass index. Pinterest's head of policy was quoted as saying this change was an effort to prioritize their users’ “emotional and mental health and well-being, especially those directly impacted by eating disorders or diet culture or body shaming.”
Similarly, Norway has amended its marketing laws to require ads and paid content on social media be labeled if a person’s body size, shape or skin has been altered or exaggerated, including the use of filters. Violators can face heavy fines and even imprisonment.
When I heard about these efforts by Norway and Pinterest, I asked folks who follow me on Instagram how they feel when they see a weight loss ad pop up in their feed. The answers I got weren’t surprising: They felt angry, manipulated, sad, guilty, annoyed, inadequate and full of shame. This isn’t a scientific study, of course, but I personally have yet to hear anyone say weight loss ads make them feel positive, happy or inspired.
A huge part of my own healing and recovery from disordered eating and obsessive weight loss was to change the sort of content I consumed on a daily basis. This is no small task. You usually don’t realize how many of the images and videos scrolling by are riddled with implicit and explicit anti-fat messages that can trigger old harmful thoughts.
We’ve been force-fed (pun intended) the idea that we should push ourselves to the brink, even to the point of self-harm, to achieve a more palatable body type.
Now I have a habit of muting or unfollowing accounts (including friends, if needed) if they are posting about weight loss, their “summer bodies” or losing the “quarantine 15.” I get some small (albeit probably fruitless) joy from reporting all weight loss content I come across as harmful or misleading, because retouched photos and ads for weight loss products are just plain lies. These small steps have made a huge difference in how many times a day I feel bad about myself. But it’s something I have to constantly be on alert for whenever I open a social media app.
Small moves like the ones Pinterest and Norway have made are certainly encouraging that maybe one day I won’t have to do all that on my own. Maybe, if we’re lucky, this is just the beginning. I hope we soon see more platforms, companies and governments follow suit and recognize that pushing a thin body ideal and weight loss at any cost benefits absolutely no one but the diet industry.