For as long as social media has been around, it's been a proverbial minefield for anyone with body image challenges or history of an eating disorder.
Similar to a live-action, omnipresent 1990s tabloid with cover lines like "Lose 20 pounds in 2 weeks!" or "Can you believe that celeb has cellulite?!" (ahem, yes—we all do), the visual landscape and filters on Instagram make it particularly ripe for body comparisons. Not to mention the rampant rumors about quick-fix health claims (see: adrenal cocktails), triggering before-and-after photos and influencer-promoted weight-loss products like "appetite suppressant lollipops," "waist trainers" and "detox teas."
Back in 2019, after consulting with Jameela Jamil, an actor on The Good Place and the founder of the Instagram movement and podcast I Weigh, Instagram rolled out community guidelines regarding weight-loss products and cosmetic procedure promotions on the app. At the time, Instagram said that the "use of certain weight-loss products or cosmetic procedures, and has an incentive to buy or includes a price" can only be shown to users over 18 years of age. But they could still be shown to any adults. However, any content that "makes a miraculous claim about certain diet or weight-loss products, and is linked to a commercial offer such as a discount code" was banned entirely.
Three years later, the people have spoken and Instagram has listened. In a reform that appears to be inspired by a petition on Change.org by Katie Budenberg, Instagram has added a new option among its ad topic preferences.
"It's no secret that the aim of a weight-loss ad is to make you feel inadequate in your body so that you are persuaded to pay the company large amounts of money to help you lose weight. To some, these ads may be harmless and they can scroll on but for some these ads are triggering and dangerous," Budenberg says in the petition. "This is why we are asking that Instagram adds the option to not see weight-loss ads; this setting already exists for other potentially triggering topics, such as alcohol and parenting, and should be extended to weight loss. This setting would make Instagram a safer, and therefore a more inclusive, place for those with a history of disordered eating and/or body image issues."
As she mentioned, in the past, users were able to tap into Instagram's sensitive content controls to automatically omit ads about alcohol, gambling, parenting, pets or politics. And now—and after more than 30,000 people signed the petition—you can quickly sort out weight-loss ads so you'll at least see fewer of them. Here's how:
Click on your Instagram profile image in the top right corner of the app
Go to "Settings"
Select "ad topics"
You should see "body weight control" as an option
Choose "see less"
According to comments on an Instagram post from the National Eating Disorders Association, not every user has this setting (yet), so check for updates in your app store settings. You can also type in alternative things to see less of, such as "weight loss" or "diet," which surfaces choices like "diets: fasts, cleanses & detoxes."
That said, "see less" is the key phrase here. Some people chimed in on the NEDA post to say that they were still spotting a fair amount of unwelcome ad content in their feed.
In the Instagram Help Center, they note, "your ad topic preference selections will apply across your Facebook and Instagram accounts if you have linked them … If you choose to see less of an ad topic, you won't get as many ads about that topic, and advertisers can't target you based on your interest in it. You may still see some ads related to these topics even if you chose to see less of them. If you do see an ad related to a topic that you chose to see fewer of, you can hide the ad and we'll use your feedback to improve the relevance of the ads you see." (Check out this article for more on how to help kids embrace their weight and body type.)
While it's not a full solution, it's a start—and a shift we're glad to see.