Social media influencers and celebrities don't always have the best intentions. (Image via ABS-CBN Sports)

On Instagram, ‘Fitspiration’ Posts and Supplement Promotion Are Slippery Slopes

The app and the eating disorder community have a long, troubled history together.
December 27, 2018
9 mins read

As a frequent Instagram user, I’ve noticed that there are plenty of women who’ve felt the need to encourage other women to lose weight. Whether it’s a multibillion dollar celebrity or a lower-tier influencer, there are plenty of sponsored posts for brands like SkinnyFit and It Works!.

Many young girls and women face insecurities regarding their weight and appearance, and those insecurities encourage behaviors that lead to eating disorders. The unnecessary promotion of diet teas and weight loss products, then, can encourage an unhealthy lifestyle and disordered behaviors.

"Fitspiration" isn't as harmless as it seems. (Image via Cosmetics Business)
“Fitspiration” isn’t as harmless as it seems. (Image via Cosmetics Business)

Celebrities don’t have to be perfect role models for their fans; in fact, expecting an individual to be perfect and make zero mistakes is dangerous. However, most of the celebrities and influencers promoting these products don’t seem to feel any remorse or shame for what they’re promoting. There are girls from my university and around the country who promote self-love and acceptance in one Instagram post but are selling It Works! products in the next.

But why does any of this matter? The SkinnyFit tea appears to be safe to drink on a short-term plan, but the way it works is questionable. One of its ingredients is garcinia, which is a weight loss supplement and appetite suppressant. If you want to use tea to help you lose weight, I won’t be the one to stop you. However, I wouldn’t encourage you to suppress your appetite to do so. It Works! is encouraging a fast, abnormal way of losing weight, in addition to products that impact your appearance. They’re both charging more money than any person should spend on one product.

No one can deny that people, young girls specifically, use social media for validation. They count the likes their photos get and compare themselves to others; these girls look at the photos posted by celebrities and aspire to look like them. So, when a celebrity or influencer posts about this SkinnyFit tea, their diet or just a photo of themselves for #fitspiration, it can be detrimental to a girl’s mind.

According to BBC, Instagram took the initiative to make certain terms unsearchable back in 2012. The terms they made unsearchable were ones that would lead to “shocking images and posts that promote the idea that eating disorders are a lifestyle choice rather than a mental illness.” Some of these terms wouldn’t yield any search results, while others brought up a pop-up box that asked if the user needed help.

Claire Mysko, the CEO of the National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA), told Teen Vogue, “Eating disorders are complex illnesses that stem from a variety of biological, psychological, and social factors. It is important to note that social media does not cause eating disorders, but it can amplify eating disordered thoughts, behaviors, and traits, including comparison and perfectionism.”

Mysko notes that the use of #thinspiration and #fitspiration on Instagram by celebrities, companies and normal people helps to promote these harmful ideologies. And, as you can imagine, it’s made worse by the fact that they typically get paid for their promotional posts. Making a profit off the insecurities of women is nothing short of disgusting, and while I don’t completely fault the lesser-known influencers for needing to make some extra money, there are other, more ethical, ways of doing it.  

Recently, Instagram attempted to strengthen their defenses against the terms that encourage eating disorders and unhealthy weight loss. Mysko says that NEDA is partnering with Instagram in order to “foster an accepting and pro-recovery community.”

Instagram’s previous attempt at blocking content that promoted eating disorders wasn’t as successful as they had hoped; in fact, according to Teen Vogue, it’s possible that it has worsened. Most people who interact with the terms promoting these disorders don’t interact with terms spelled correctly. The terms (which are spelled differently) received more attention, and BBC’s study described the communities as “active and thriving.”

Even if it had worked like Instagram had hoped, blocking specific terms isn’t enough. BBC Trending discovered that users still had access to search terms that promoted bulimia. There was one case where Instagram offered 38 alternative spellings of a term.

When someone you know starts promoting a brand like It Works! and telling you how easy it is, you’re going to be tempted to use it or sell it to someone else. A girl I know from my university is selling those products and constantly promoting it on her Instagram, and it negatively affected a close friend of mine who has recovered from negative eating and dieting habits.

She’s not the only one that those kinds of posts impact. In their article, BBC talked to a girl named Rose-Anne who has recovered from anorexia. She said that even though she followed eating disorder recovery accounts, she was still receiving “suggested content that included weight loss tips” without her searching for it.

Luckily, Instagram is approaching the problem differently this time. Instead of only focusing on a few hashtags and removing content, they’re going to “take a holistic approach by offering people looking at or posting certain content the option to access tips and support” in addition to speaking with support groups or friends. This sounds like a better way to tackle the problem, but I hope that the employees who create the algorithms are creating better ones so individuals like Rose-Anne aren’t viewing triggering content they didn’t ask to see.

It’s important to remember that this content has always existed. A critic may ask if Instagram should even try to remove and ban this content. I suppose, to some extent, they have a point. As with every rule and law, someone is going to find a way around it. However, it isn’t completely out of the realm of possibility that people be able to keep triggering content away from their Instagram feeds

If you do find that you’re triggered by certain content, you do have the ability to block or mute it. It isn’t ideal, as photographs and hashtags that promote eating disorders and mental health issues shouldn’t exist at all. It can’t always be stopped, though, and it’s important to know what you have access to.

Everyone finds themselves wishing for a better body at some point, and there are so many ways to go about it healthily. If you’re going to start dieting in hopes of losing weight, make sure you consult your doctor beforehand. Follow individuals who are going to be helpful in your journey and encourage you to eat healthy, rather than not at all. Don’t let your source of information be the celebrity or influencer who’s being paid to promote their (potentially harmful) weight loss product. You’ll thank yourself later.

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