Sravya Attaluri knows a dark side of social media.
The 25-year-old has dealt with eating disorders, anxiety, depression and extreme weight fluctuations for the past 10 years. At the height of her eating disorder, Attaluri says, she obsessively searched for transformation videos and weight loss posts on social media. She believed that this content – often advertising diet products and dangerous diets – would make her lose weight.
“I became more and more desperate and tried increasingly dangerous methods to lose weight,” says Attaluri. “Every time this type of content appeared in my feed, I would get caught in a spiral.”
Personal accounts like Attaluri’s, as well as research, have consistently shown the potential negative effects of social media on mental health. But organizations have done little to protect users in the past.
That’s why a recent announcement from Pinterest makes headlines: On July 1, Pinterest became the first major social media platform to ban ads and testimonials on weight loss.
According to Pinterest, the new policy “bans any language or imagery for weight loss; any reviews of weight loss or weight loss products; any language or imagery that idealizes or belittles certain body types; Reference to the body mass index (BMI) or similar indices; and all products that claim weight loss from something worn or applied to the skin. “
This policy complements existing restrictions on “pins” or posts on the website for body embarrassment, before and after weight loss pictures and appetite suppressant pills. In the past, users have criticized Pinterest as a dangerous body image place where anti-fat content is rampant.
Sabrina Romanoff, clinical psychologist at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York, says the recent decision to remove the ads may benefit users’ mental and behavioral health “because it will reduce the social comparison processes that take place among real consumers.” unrealistic, edited and artificial ideals of how a person should look. “
The company said the change was driven in part by the recent surge in eating disorders. In November 2020, the National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA) reported that calls have increased 41% since the pandemic started in March. According to the National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders, at least 30 million Americans are grappling with eating disorders, including anorexia nervosa, bulimia, and binge eating, and many experts have sounded the alarm about increased risks associated with the pandemic.
“As the number of hours scrolled through our feeds increased, we got more and more messages about eating well, losing pandemic weight, and feeling pressured to get in shape,” says Nicole DeMasi Malcher , a registered nutritionist with her own virtual private practice. “If someone has been struggling with body image issues, the isolation and pressure from social media could definitely trigger an eating disorder.”
Attaluri, who lives in Hong Kong, says she had more protection for her mental health during the pandemic and started facing her eating disorder. Not following fitness and weight loss accounts that they believed trigger and report harmful ads were an integral part of this process. She says, “I try to love my body for what it is and focus on being healthy instead of abusing my body for a specific purpose. unattainable physique that is not right for me. “
Pinterest’s decision reassures Attaluri that “reporting and disobeying accounts promoting weight loss was not irrational,” she says. “It helps to confirm that they were dangerous and that I wasn’t just ‘weak’. I shouldn’t even have to be brought to this place. “
For other women who are also struggling with eating disorders, Pinterest’s announcement brings hesitant optimism. They say the platform has been criticized for content such as restrictive eating plans, unrealistic training results, and diet pills. (Pinterest didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.)
“I find that I’m subconsciously jealous of other people who try these programs and work for them – when they don’t,” says Demi Drew, a 26-year-old New Yorker who is in recovery from binge eating. “I shouldn’t log into social media and immediately think about how much better I would look if I tried the same weight loss program as my friend.”
Drew believes that banning Pinterest will minimize, but not entirely eliminate, these triggers – a goal she describes as “unreachable.”
Kara Richardson Whitely, author and speaker, also welcomes the changes.
After nearly two decades of binge eating, Richardson tells Whitely that she has established a healthier relationship with food. Part of this process involved avoiding dieting conversations and following body positivity or neutrality accounts. She regularly turns to Pinterest to come up with new recipes for her family. But, she says, when weight loss ads or testimonials appear, they undermine the foundation she has worked so hard to build. The new policy gives her a sense of relief that Pinterest will be a “safe space” for her to explore.
But the announcement may not be enough to get all users back to the site. Tristan Pavlik, a 28-year-old who lives in Philadelphia, is recovering from bulimia and several orthorexic behaviors. She says she used Pinterest to “create vision boards full of impossible workouts, three almond meal plans, thigh gaps, and thinspiration. . . Posts. ”After using Pinterest for years to“ fuel her eating disorder, ”she now rarely signs up.
The ban, says Pavlik, should have come earlier – but it is still a step in the right direction.
Added to this is the fear that many women have voiced: How much can Pinterest really monitor weight loss content? DeMasi Malcher fears that some users will find a way around the new rules. The weight loss content restriction is specific to advertising, which means that there is still scope for user-generated content.
“Social media influencers can be sneaky when it comes to marketing weight loss,” she says. “They will find ways to advance their weight loss agendas.”
Attaluri adds that the news may be more subtle, but it will always find its way into the social media feeds as long as it exists in mainstream culture. Still, she says, “people want safe spaces, and that’s a step in the right direction.”
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This story first appeared in the Washington Post publication The Lily.