When you sign on to Instagram in January, you’re signing up for a scroll sesh of thinking about your body.
The topic is everywhere. For me, a typical view of Instagram stories early in the year goes like this.
We start with a post from a friend on vacation, then swipe to an ad from exercise studio Tracy Anderson Method featuring a thin, ripped woman in a bikini. Next up is an ad from diet company Noom offering to teach me behavioral tricks to change my relationship with food. Then, a fitness trainer friend I follow talks to the camera and reminds me to be kind to my body, followed by a post from Jameela Jamil with some screenshotted text about the toxicity of the diet industry. Hey, have you heard of Colon Broom? Its Instagram ad is offering a deal on detoxes.
On and on it goes. These messages aren’t limited to Instagram, either. Noom ads follow me to YouTube, cleanse programs show up in my inbox, fitness tracker or home gym product roundups get pride of place on my favorite websites, and screenshots of it all, paired with outraged captions, collect likes and retweets on Twitter.
Credit: Screenshot: Instagram / Tracy Anderson Method
Credit: Screenshot: Instagram / Tracy Anderson Method
Cue the whiplash. Should I embrace my physique, or try to change it? And while offers to “lose weight” are cleverly disguised these days with language like “get healthy,” being a woman on the internet in January means you’re thinking about ways to change your body or your relationship with your body, whether you want to or not.
While I see a lot of body-related posts because I engage with them — part of my job is to investigate and think about the internet’s effect on our physical and mental health — I am most certainly not alone.
“The diet industry is a $70+ billion industry,” Chelsea Kronengold, the National Eating Disorders Association’s director of communications, said over email. “Particularly throughout the month of January, diets, detoxes, weight-loss and exercise programs capitalize on the all-too-common New Year’s resolution to lose weight. These ads are intended to make us feel bad about ourselves so we buy their diet products and exercise services.”
And is it just me, or have some of the claims, strategies, and products of these companies gotten more high tech and extreme? There are promises of pills and powders backed by “scientific formulas” meant to “fire up” my metabolism. Some companies, like Zoe, want me to send in a stool sample to analyze my gut microbiome, while others like Everlywell require some simple DNA
Credit: Screenshot: Instagram / Vibroscuplt
Credit: Screenshot: Instagram / Noom
Even if you haven’t shown an interest in exercise or weight loss specifically by following, liking, or sharing that content, your demographics or other interests might put you in a diet ad’s sights. Dr. Ysabel Gerrard, a social media researcher at the University of Sheffield, gives the example that if you follow cosmetics brands, that could be a clue to recommendation algorithms that you’re interested in your appearance.
It’s enough to make me want to log off entirely. Alas, in January, we’re back to work, so for Online people like me, that’s not an option. The effect has been a vague unease in the back of my mind all month about whether I should be dieting or exercising more. It feels like I’ve spent more time in front of the mirror this month, moving around my flesh with my hands or in my mind.
At the same time, the potentially well-meaning posts encouraging general health and body acceptance sometimes make me feel bad about myself for not always loving my body. Is the disappointment I feel when a dress from a decade ago no longer fits so well Bad because it means I’m not loving myself enough?
“On the surface level, it’s a good thing that our society is embracing the body positive movement and messaging,” Kronengold said. “However, influencers, as well as diet and fitness companies, often use buzzwords like ‘body positivity’ and related messaging to trick consumers into thinking they’re promoting ‘wellness,’ despite the premise of their business model revolving around dieting and weight loss.”
All together, it’s exhausting and it’s constant. And this deluge could have effects beyond making a person’s online experience slightly stressful. These ads can be triggering for people who have eating disorders, according to Gerard.
In 2019, Instagram prohibited brands from advertising diet and cosmetic surgery to minors. It’s also banned ads that make “miraculous claims” about diets, though the ban is not a proactive system and requires users to report ads to get them removed. Though this was a positive step, lots of harmful diet content still gets through. In one case, the Guardian found that Instagram was suggesting search terms like “appetite suppressant” to people with eating disorders. Even amid months of scandal about the effect Instagram has on young girls’ mental health, the platform is still rife with diet content — even if it’s sometimes masked as promoting wellness or health.
“Not being able to opt out of receiving weight loss ads on Instagram, is, in my view, harmful,” Gerrard said. “People need significantly more control over what kinds of advertisements they are and are not able to receive across lots of different social media platforms, not just Instagram.”
Gerrard recalls that after Facebook made that change to its diet content policies for minors, a friend messaged her asking “but why do I still have to see them?” The comment has stuck with her.
Credit: Screenshot: Instagram
Credit: Screenshot: Instagram / Colon Broom
There are things you can do to minimize the presence of these ads or even organic posts: You can unfollow hashtags or influencers who get insufferable in January. You can hide a triggering ad, and it will send recommendation algorithms the message that you’re not as interested in this topic. For a story or a post, just click the three dots in the upper right hand corner, and you’ll see an option to “hide ad.”
Gerrard also recommends having multiple accounts that follow different topics, so you can steer clear of more aesthetically-inclined bubbles during difficult times. But at the same time, she notes that these strategies are “absolutely not a foolproof method and the burden of responsibility shouldn’t be entirely placed on social media users.”
At this time of year, it’s pretty impossible to avoid diet content if you need to keep up with the news or want to stay in touch with your friends. So the best way you can serve yourself is staying in tune with your feelings, and, as Kronengold put it, “remind[ing] yourself that you are more than your appearance, the number on the scale, the size of your waist, or the amount of views and followers you have on social media.”
This is, of course, easier said than done. On one Friday night this month, I felt sluggish, and just sad. I mindlessly opened Instagram where I saw a Reel from my friend, the fitness trainer. She talked straight to the camera dressed in a sports bra with her tummy exposed. She said: “Just a loving reminder that if self love feels really hard right now, if loving your body feels like a really hard thing to do right now, practice self respect. Your body still deserves respect for everything that it does for you. For waking up, for breathing, for pumping your heart, for being the lens in which you see the world, it does so much for you.”
It was exactly the reminder I needed in that moment to be grateful rather than critical. And it bolstered me, knowing that that feeling came from inside. Not an app, a powder, or exercise method. Just me.
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