Learn how social media impacts body image and why they should take more accountability.
Why Pinterest’s Weight Loss Ad Ban Matters
Social media is not a passing fad. Platforms like Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram are a pervasive and persuasive force in our twenty-first-century lives, influencing everything from lifestyle and fitness to politics and medicine. These connections can inform and even uplift, like helping to provide a sense of community during pandemic lockdowns and allowing students to connect with mentors. But more harmful messaging, often in the guise of inspiration, can spread like wildfire and do real damage — specifically around weight loss and body image.
It’s okay to want to lose weight to improve your health but the dieting industry rarely takes such a health-centric approach, and social media only amplifies this problem. Have you ever been tempted to try a new diet you read about on Facebook? How about a fat-burning exercise routine in a TikTok video? And then, yes, there’s our Better Eating App, but our focus is on true health and well-being. BEA is not a diet. BEA doesn’t promise you’ll be happy only after you’ve starved yourself down to a sub-zero dress size. BEA meets you where you are, encourages your journey to health and wholeness, and helps you lift yourself up. There’s a big difference between promoting both healthy eating and good mental health, and contributing to a toxic diet mindset based on making people want to fit into an unrealistic mold. It’s time for social media to take responsibility for their influence.
How Social Media Impacts Body Image
Exposure to social media is a fact of life in our always-connected, 21st-century world, which means we’re subject to an increasing flood of images of unattainable and unrealistic beauty. Even when you’re sure you’re savvy about all the Photoshop and Instagram filters, and you know that a single, untouched photo can’t capture the reality of someone’s life or health, it’s easy to be overwhelmed by the unrelenting stream of polished perfection reaching not only for our wallets but for our minds, too.
Positive attention and “likes” are heaped on both celebrities and everyday people who lose a lot of weight and show off their new bodies to hyper-sexualized effect on social media.One recent study of college-age women found that engaging in social media with attractive peers has a negative impact on one’s own body image, resulting in greater dissatisfaction regarding appearance and lower self valuation. When you add anonymous comments from strangers, the results can be disastrous. One teen quoted in a post on the National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA) website mentioned a ten-year-old child who stopped eating after reading online comments about a photo of Demi Lovato: “Things like comments or tweets may seem simple, but they can really impact girls in a negative way by causing them to have unrealistic expectations about what thin is,” she said. “I’ve seen that and experienced that.”
"It’s hard to ignore the unrelenting pressure to try to be perfect when we’re constantly encouraged to compare ourselves to others, ask if we’re “living our best lives” as evidenced by the whiteness of our teeth or the tightness of our abdomens, and engage with the latest diet or fitness craze — all care of the screens in our pockets."
It’s hard to ignore the unrelenting pressure to try to be perfect when we’re constantly encouraged to compare ourselves to others, ask if we’re “living our best lives” as evidenced by the whiteness of our teeth or the tightness of our abdomens, and engage with the latest diet or fitness craze — all care of the screens in our pockets. Despite movements around body positivity and body neutrality, there’s still significant influence around unhealthy “thinspiration” and “pro-and” (pro-anorexia) communities. And therein lies the greater danger of social media’s influence on body image: messages centered on perfect bodies and perfect lives can trigger restrictive dieting, excessive exercise, and disordered eating.
The bottom line: The internet is ubiquitous, and social media is a powerful force that can be used to promote unhealthy and even damaging messages — or it can be used to promote recovery and healing.
How Dieting Ads Make This Worse
You’ve probably heard these numbers thrown around before, that the average American will spend two years out of their lifetime watching TV commercials. The numbers for social media ads, particularly those disguised as inspirational content, are probably even higher. In the first six months of 2021, weight-loss brands spent $372 million on TV, digital, and print advertising, a hefty increase over the same period in 2020, though Allure notes that Pinterest searches for “body neutrality” and “stop body-shaming” have seen a five-fold increase from last year.
Ads that convey weight-loss and thinspiration messages can be overpowering, frequently weakening our own common sense. These ads offer us chips and cookies as substitutes for love while also serving up rich portions of shame for having a healthy appetite, effectively normalizing toxic mindsets and disordered behaviors. People may claim to ignore advertisements, but according to author and ad critic Jean Kilbourne, the messages are still getting through. Many of these ads center on idealized and unrealistic bodies, particularly women’s bodies. At the subconscious level, these messages about food and body image have a negative impact on our relationship with food and create a “toxic cultural environment.”
"Many of these ads center on idealized and unrealistic bodies, particularly women’s bodies. At the subconscious level, these messages about food and body image have a negative impact on our relationship with food and create a “toxic cultural environment.”
It’s inevitable that this bombardment of images of idealized beauty will lead to us comparing ourselves and making note of all the ways we don’t measure up. When it comes through entertainment or advertising, these unhealthy messages deeply influence a lifetime of beliefs and behaviors. Children are vulnerable as well, with half of American girls ages three to six worrying about their weight.
The solution, according to Kilbourne, “isn’t to make girls hate themselves,” but can instead be found in cultivating and encouraging healthy eating habits to support true strength and well-being, so that “our bodies will get to the weight and shape and size that they were genetically meant to be.” Media literacy — teaching people to be aware of the manipulation of images and messages used in media, and encouraging people to actively question instead of being passive viewers — can be a constructive step toward reclaiming your own body image from the influence of advertisers. But isn’t a more effective solution to stop — or at least reduce — the harmful persuasion at its source?
That’s where the Pinterest ban comes in.
What is Pinterest’s Ban and Why It’s Important?
Pinterest’s ban, announced on July 1, 2021, is directed at advertising that uses weight-loss language and images, references body mass index (BMI), idealizes or diminishes particular body types, or features weight-loss testimonials. The social media channel states that this is “an expansion of our ad policies that have long prohibited body shaming and dangerous weight loss products or claims.” Pinterest says guidance from NEDA played a part in developing this policy, and that the change is meant to prioritize “the mental health and well-being” of its users, “especially those impacted by diet culture, body shaming, and eating disorders.”
"Pinterest says guidance from NEDA played a part in developing this policy, and that the change is meant to prioritize “the mental health and well-being” of its users, “especially those impacted by diet culture, body shaming, and eating disorders.”
In 2015, Pinterest blocked searches for content that encouraged eating disorders, and Instagram in 2019 blocked weight-loss and cosmetic surgery ads from being served to users under the age of 18. As NEDA’s own research found an increase in disorder eating during the pandemic, it’s clear that other media platforms and brands should follow Pinterest’s lead. Just this past April, Instagram mistakenly promoted weight-loss content to users with eating disorders.
"I applaud Pinterest for working with NEDA in trying to make their platform less toxic and more inviting to consumers who could easily fall into the trap of disordered eating from overly restrictive diets,” says certified personal trainer and online coach Lariscy Navera. “At the end of the day, being strong is way more sex[y], beautiful, and powerful than being skinny.”
This move is in keeping with Pinterest’s progressive history, including its 2016 prohibition of ads featuring “sensitive content including culturally appropriated and inappropriate costumes”, its 2018 stoppage of political ads, and blocking anti-vaccination content in 2019. When it comes to helping users to improve their body image, Pinterest’s ban on weight-loss ads should be just the beginning. A huge amount of “health and fitness” content still promotes the idea that ultimate health and happiness are based on skinniness.
As part of Pinterest’s July 1 announcement, model Tabria Majors made this statement: “The conversation around body image is always evolving. The body neutrality conversations that are happening now online are a great way to promote acceptance, but we still continue to see unsolicited messaging about our bodies. From magic weight pills, to extreme diet plans and imagery that body shames, it’s difficult to escape these damaging messages I challenge daily. That’s why I’m so happy to partner with Pinterest in their efforts to become the first major platform to ban all ads with weight loss language and imagery. I look forward to creating content on Pinterest, a place where everyone belongs, to promote acceptance and empower others to develop a positive relationship with their bodies.”
Pinterest has challenged other social media platforms to follow their lead: “We encourage others in the industry to do the same and acknowledge, once and for all, that there's no such thing as one-size-fits-all.” Elizabeth Thompson, NEDA Interim CEO, is quoted in Pinterest’s statement: “We are hopeful this global policy will encourage other organizations and companies to reflect on potentially harmful ad messages and to establish their own working policies that will create meaningful change.”
As the developers of the Better Eating App, we fully support this ban for the health and safety of social media users, and for everyone. Our focus on true, comprehensive well-being is at the foundation of our commitment to helping people discover and cultivate a healthy mentality around food.