Sravya Attaluri is well-acquainted with a dark side of social media.
Over the past 10 years, the 25-year-old has dealt with disordered eating, anxiety, depression and extreme weight fluctuations. At the height of her eating disorder, Attaluri says, she obsessively sought out transformation videos and weight loss posts on social media. She believed this content — often promoting diet products and dangerous diets — would persuade her to lose weight.
“I started to get more desperate and tried more and more dangerous methods to lose weight,” Attaluri says. “Every time this type of content would pop up on my feed, I would end up spiraling.”
Personal accounts like Attaluri’s, as well as research, have consistently shown the potential negative mental health impacts of social media. But companies have historically done little to protect users.
That’s why a recent announcement by Pinterest is making headlines: On July 1, it became the first major social media platform to ban weight loss ads and testimonials.
According to Pinterest, the new policy will prohibit “any weight loss language or imagery; any testimonials regarding weight loss or weight loss products; any language or imagery that idealizes or denigrates certain body types; referencing Body Mass Index (BMI) or similar indexes; and any products that claim weight loss through something worn or applied to the skin.”
This policy adds to existing restrictions on “pins,” or posts on the site, about body-shaming, before-and-after weight loss imagery and appetite-suppressant pills. In the past, users have criticized Pinterest as a dangerous place for body image, one where fatphobic content can run rampant.
According to Sabrina Romanoff, a clinical psychologist at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York City, the latest decision to remove the ads can benefit users’ mental and behavioral health “because it will reduce the social comparison processes that are occurring among real consumers and unrealistic, edited and artificial ideals of what a person should look like.”
The company said the change was spurred, in part, by the recent rise in eating disorders. In November 2020, the National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA) reported that calls were up 41 percent from the pandemic’s start in March. At least 30 million Americans struggle with eating disorders, including anorexia nervosa, bulimia and binge-eating, according to the National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders, and many experts have sounded the alarm about increased risks associated with the pandemic.
“With the increased number of hours scrolling through our feeds, we received more and more messages about eating healthy, losing pandemic weight and feeling pressured to get into shape,” says Nicole DeMasi Malcher, a registered dietitian-nutritionist with her own virtual private practice. “If someone was already struggling with body image issues, the isolation and pressure from social media could definitely spark an eating disorder.”
Attaluri, who lives in Hong Kong, says that throughout the pandemic, she became more protective of her mental health and began confronting her eating disorder. Unfollowing fitness and weight loss accounts that she finds triggering and reporting harmful ads have been integral to that process, she says: “I’m trying to love my body as it is and focus on being healthy rather than abusing my body for a specific, unattainable body type that isn’t correct for me.”
Pinterest’s decision reassures Attaluri that “reporting and unfollowing accounts that promoted weight loss was not irrational,” she says. “It helps validate that they were dangerous and I was not just ‘weak.’ I shouldn’t have to be put in that place in the first place.”
For other women who have also battled eating disorders, Pinterest’s announcement brings hesitant optimism. They say the platform has long been known to feature triggering and dangerous content such as restrictive eating plans, unrealistic workout results and diet pills. (Pinterest did not respond to a request for comment by Friday afternoon.)
“I find that, subconsciously, I am constantly envious of other people who try these programs and make it work for them — when that shouldn’t be the case,” says Demi Drew, a 26-year-old New Yorker who is in recovery from binge-eating. “I shouldn’t log on to social media and immediately think about how much better I’d look if I tried the same weight loss program as my friend.”
Drew believes Pinterest’s ban will minimize these triggers but not eliminate them altogether — a goal she calls “unattainable.”
Kara Richardson Whitely, an author and public speaker, also welcomes the changes. After almost two decades of binge-eating, Richardson Whitely says she has built a healthier relationship with food. Part of that process has involved avoiding diet talk and following body positivity or neutrality accounts. She regularly turns to Pinterest for new recipes to make for her family. But, she says, when weight loss ads or testimonials appear, they erode the foundation she has worked so hard to build. The new policy provides a sense of relief that Pinterest will be a “safe space” for her to explore.
However, the announcement may not be enough to get all users back on the site. Tristan Pavlik, a 28-year-old living in Philadelphia, is in recovery from bulimia and several orthorexic behaviors. She says she used to use Pinterest to “create vision boards filled with impossible workouts, meal plans consisting of three almonds, thigh gap specific and thinspiration and fitspo posts.” After using Pinterest to “fuel her eating disorder” for years, she rarely logs on now.
The ban, Pavlik says, comes a little too late — but is still a step in the right direction.
Then there’s the fear many women have expressed: How much can Pinterest really monitor weight loss content? DeMasi Malcher worries that some users will find a way around the new rules. The restriction on weight loss content is specific to advertisements, meaning there’s still leeway for user-generated content.
“Social media influencers can be sneaky in the way they market weight loss,” she says. “They’ll find ways around it to push their weight loss agendas.”
Attaluri adds that the messaging may be more subtle, but it will always find a way onto social media feeds as long as it exists in mainstream culture. Still, she says, “people want to have safe spaces, and this is a step in the right direction.”