Instagram to make Diet Ads viewable for ages 18 and over—Why They should Remove Them Altogether

by Carolyn Hersh, LCSW

Instagram to make Diet Ads viewable for ages 18 and over—Why They should Remove Them Altogether
Photo by NeONBRAND on Unsplash

On September 18th, 2019 Instagram instituted an official policy that all ads promoting diet and weight loss products would only be able to be viewed by users 18 and over. Any ads that have false claims can be reported and subject to removal. This is a huge victory in the world of challenging diet culture. For years, celebrities and social media influencers have been advertising diet and weight loss products that, for the most part, are bogus, promise false results and can be just downright dangerous to someone’s physical and mental health.

Most celebrities who promote these products are doing so for a paycheck and not because they are actually finding these products useful. Unfortunately, advertisements like these can impact impressionable viewers, especially those struggling with poor body image, disordered eating and eating disorders. And while the celebrities may say, “Take this and look like me,” the reality is that these products have no true evidence that they can change anyone.

Emma Collins, Instagram’s public policy manager, made a statement after this policy went into effect, “We want Instagram to be a positive place for everyone that uses it and this policy is part of our ongoing work to reduce the pressure that people can sometimes feel as a result of social media.” While this is a great step forward, it does feel like the next step should be eliminating diet and weight loss products altogether.

There are some major problems with advertising weight loss products. As a Health at Every Size® activist and promoter of body positivity, I can tell you that these products merely reinforce the idea that your body isn’t good enough. They teach that there is only one ideal body, and usually, it is the body of the celebrity promoting the product. It can be really dangerous to tell people that tea will flatten their stomachs or a lollipop will give them curves in the “right” places.

These advertisements put people at risk for developing eating disorders. They promote the very behaviors that are symptoms of eating disorders. These products try to normalize appetite suppression or compensating for what one has eaten via a laxative pill or tea. The messages are not health-promoting. They reinforce diet culture beliefs of certain foods being bad and needing to atone for eating.

A major issue is that there is absolutely no evidence that the products being advertised actually help with weight loss, detoxing your body of toxins, or changing the shape of your body. Most of these products are not even approved by the United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA). The FDA is charged with regulating medications and while there are a few that have been approved, most that are advertised on social media are not. Most of these products carry false claims and use ingredients that can be more harmful than helpful. And that is a huge problem.

We do not often see celebrities sharing disclaimers of potential side effects from using these products. Diet pills may increase heart rate, heart palpitations, the likelihood of a stroke, and even death. The detox teas carry the risk of dehydration, electrolyte imbalance and stripping our guts of the nutrients we need. Side effects can also include an increase in stomach cramping, bloating, and diarrhea. Our bodies were designed to naturally flush out toxins. It is why we have a liver. And for those users of the products looking for a way to lose weight, well the weight “lost” from these teas are usually just water or stool mass. These products place a huge toll on the body and put vital organs at risk.

For these reasons, we should not only be protecting social media users who are under 18. We should be protecting everyone from viewing these ads. Adults are probably more likely to purchase these products and adults are just as susceptible to false promises as adolescents. It is great that places like Instagram are giving us a choice if we want to view these ads. It is definitely a step in the right direction. But, there is nothing safe about these products. From taking a physical toll on our bodies to mentally placing shame on our bodies there is no room for diet pills, detox teas, or any other weight loss product.

If you are currently struggling with how you feel about your body, help is available through support groups, therapy, and even body-positive accounts and groups on social media. The wonderful thing about social media is that there is a community for promoting Health at Every Size® and working on self-love and acceptance. Most of these groups do not cost anything and can have to have positive effects on your mind and body.

March Against ED and Eating Disorder Lobby Day 2015

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In front of the Capitol before the March Against ED with travel buddy and colleague, Alli Spotts-De Lazzer

In October I attended the second annual March Against ED (AKA “MOM March”), followed by Eating Disorder Lobby Day for the Anna Westin Act (H.R.2515/S. 1865) in Washington, DC. The Act is the first eating disorders-specific bill to receive bipartisan support at introduction, which is exciting. There is hope that the bill will be passed this session.

On the day of the March, approximately 300 people assembled on the lawn of the Capitol building to use our collective voices to raise awareness about eating disorders. It was one of the most powerful awareness events I’ve attended.

More a rally than a march, the day was well-orchestrated and moving. Most participants wore purple shirts, while green shirts were worn by those who had lost a loved one to the illness. During the program, we were all asked to give a hug to someone in a green shirt. Activist Kitty Westin – mother of Anna Westin – said, “We don’t want anyone else to wear a green shirt.” Participants carried posters with photos of loved ones that they were “marching for.” The stories and photos of lives lost were a sad and poignant reminder of the brutality of eating disorders. Yet each speaker reminded us that with access to appropriate treatment recovery is possible. The overall tone of the day was hopeful: we celebrated the progress made to date and felt the power of our united efforts.

eating disorder advocacy
Former Representative Patrick Kennedy

Speakers included mothers of children both recovered and lost to the illness and recovered, advocates, a pediatrician, and former U.S. Representative Patrick J. Kennedy, the lead sponsor of the Mental Health Parity and Addiction Equity Act of 2008 (“the law that said the brain was part of the body”). Representative Kennedy encouraged participants to continue to fight for insurance coverage. He noted that “Not only do eating disorders have the highest mortality rate of any mental illness, they’re also the most discriminated against.”

Annie Seal, a mother who spearheaded the first insurance-focused eating disorder specific legislation in Missouri, gave a rousing speech. “This is YOUR house!” she said, pointing at the Capitol Building behind her and inspiring us for the day of lobbying ahead.

There were additional both joyful and touching moments. About 25 attendees (including me!) participated in the Shake it for Self-Acceptance flash mob style dance promoting self-acceptance and originality. Professionals, family members, and those in recovery joined together to share in movement and self-acceptance. We also lit candles of hope and set butterflies free.

The following day, 27 delegations comprising 200 advocates lobbied Congress on behalf of the Anna Westin Act. Anna Westin fought a five-year battle with anorexia before committing suicide in February 2000. Her parents and other supporters turned their grief into action, founding the Anna Westin Foundation and the Eating Disorders Coalition for Research, Policy, and Action shortly thereafter.

There are three main components of the Anna Westin Act:

  • Training for health professionals, school personnel, and the public in eating disorder identification and early intervention (using NIMH and SAMHSA funds).
  • Clarification that the Parity and Addiction Equity Act of 2008 covers residential treatment for all mental illnesses and substance use disorders.
  • Requiring the FTC to study whether regulation is needed for digitally altered images in advertising (House bill only).

Lobby Day began early with message training. Following this, we broke into delegations by state. In groups of 5 to 8, advocates attended meetings with our state lawmakers’ staffers, and in some cases the lawmakers themselves. In these meetings, we spoke about why the Anna Westin Act was important to us.

eating disorder advocacy
My fellow California Team One members minus me the photographer

After a lunch break, the delegations assembled to learn more about the importance of the Anna Westin Act from its Senate sponsors, including Senator Amy Klobuchar [MN-D] and Senator Kelly Ayotte [NH-R]. I took pride in standing beside such an engaged, intelligent, and creative group of advocates.

Lobby Day is held twice a year, once in the spring and once in the fall, with the March Against ED held annually prior to fall Lobby Day. If you are connected to eating disorders in some way, I strongly encourage you to go. For further information, follow the Eating Disorder Coalition and the March Against ED.

Special thanks to the organizers of the March and Lobby Day: Becky Henry, Debra Schlesinger, Cherie Bilby Monarch, Johanna Kandel, Kathleen MacDonald, and everyone at the EDC for doing such a great job and being so welcoming to this newcomer.

July LACPA Eating Disorder SIG Meeting

I am so excited to confirm the next speaker for the Eating Disorder SIG who will be joining us from Washington, DC.

Wednesday, July 22 at 7:15 pm  headshot from Lobby Day Kathleen

Presenter:  Kathleen MacDonald

Title:   Advocacy and the Eating Disorder World:  Why Clinicians Matter

Location:  The office of Dr. Lauren Muhlheim (4929 Wilshire Boulevard, Suite 245, Los Angeles) – free parking in the lot (enter on Highland)

Description:  Capitol Hill, Advocacy and Eating Disorders –what possible connection do all three of these things have and why should you care about how they intersect?  Together we’ll discuss the answer to this question and discover how clinicians have a major role to play in eating disorder advocacy.  You will learn concrete ways to advocate for eating disorder legislation –ways that will not take up too much of your precious time, but ways that WILL make a difference.  You will also learn how to empower your clients, when they’re ready, to advocate for eating disorder legislation –a process that can be cathartic, empowering and life-changing.  And perhaps most of all, you will learn how one voice can make a difference on Capitol Hill –how the impact of one voice has the capacity to send ripples out beyond the halls of Congress, and into the lives of millions who suffer the insidious diseases we call eating disorders.  

Bio:  Kathleen MacDonald is Director of Social Media & Advocate Relations for the Eating Disorders Coalition for Research, Policy & Action (“EDC”) and a Health Insurance Advocate at Kantor & Kantor, LLP.   She believes that eating disorders education, along with early intervention and identification of symptoms and behaviors that can lead to the development of eating disorders is central helping to prevent people from suffering these deadliest of all mental illnesses.  Some of Kathleen’s professional experience includes: Patient Advocate for those impacted by eating disorders; FREED Foundation College Speaking Tour; assisting in the EDC’s creation and drafting of the Anna Westin Act of 2015 and the FREED Act (the Federal Response to Eliminate Eating Disorders Act), the first comprehensive bill in the history of Congress to address eating disorders research, education, prevention, and treatment; and writing appeals against the denial of insurance benefits for eating disorder treatment.  Kathleen has been involved in eating disorder advocacy since 2002.  She currently lives in the Washington, DC., area with a few English Setters, a few cats and a loved one of the two-legged variety.

RSVP to:  drmuhlheim@gmail.com

SIG meetings are open to all LACPA members.  Nonmembers wishing to attend may join LACPA by visiting our website www.lapsych.org

This is a really unique opportunity to hear from someone who has worked on eating disorder policy.  New members can join LACPA in July and get 14 months of membership so encourage your nonmember friends to join now and take advantage of this amazing speaker!