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If you spend a lot of time on TikTok and you’re a person who menstruates, you’ve probably gotten ads for supplements called Flo Vitamins. Flo Vitamins are a lot like many other supplements that advertise on social media — they’re plant-based, in cutesy millennial pink packaging, and they’re said to reduce acne, cramps, and bloating related to PMS. But Flo Vitamins doesn’t quite market itself as a PMS supplement. Rather, it seems to market itself as a supplement intended for weight loss.
One Flo ad, for instance, shows a slideshow of very thin women in yoga pants with the caption “How I kept weight off for good,” with the claim that if you take Flo, within two menstrual cycles you can “see results,” i.e. lose weight. Another shows a woman forlornly playing with her belly fat, then joyfully taking supplements and dancing around showing off her abs.
The ads are somewhat unusual, in part because it’s odd that a vitamin intended to reduce PMS symptoms would market itself as a weight loss supplement (though it may not even be effective at reducing PMS symptoms in the first place, if TikTok reviews are any indication; the team behind Flo did not respond to requests for comment). But they are also demonstrative of a wider problem: the rampant visibility of weight loss and diet ads on TikTok, a platform that is primarily used by young people who may be more vulnerable to disordered eating habits.
In theory, TikTok has policies regulating weight loss and diet ads on its platform. After receiving criticism for promoting unhealthy intermittent fasting apps and products puporting to help with weight loss, in 2020 TikTok banned advertisements for fasting apps and weight loss supplements, restricting promotional content that “promote[s] a harmful and negative body image.” The platform limited ads for weight loss products to those 18 and older, also banning ads that promoted an unhealthy relationship with weight loss or food. “These types of ads do not support the positive, inclusive, and safe experience we strive for on TikTok,” the company said in a statement at the time.
Despite this policy, however, TikTok still has a real problem with showcasing diet content on the app. Part of the issue, says Lauren Smolar, the vice president of mission at the National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA), which consulted with TikTok to formulate its 2020 policy, is that many of the ads promoting weight loss on TikTok aren’t actually for products intended for weight loss; nor do they necessarily market themselves as “weight loss” products, instead using euphemisms such as promoting “healthy” or “mindful” eating. “TikTok has tried to better understand how to navigate their algorithm and eliminate ads,” says Smolar. “But we know they have a lot of work to do. There is still a lot of learning about what can be considered a diet ad, and what is considered unsafe.”
The ambiguity over what actually constitutes a diet or weight loss ad is difficult for algorithms to discern, she adds — even though anything that mentions weight loss in any context can potentially be harmful to a certain sector of TikTok’s user base (according to one statistic, nearly 33 percent of its users are between the ages of 10 and 19; eating disorders most commonly take root in young people between the ages of 14 and 17, though anyone can be at risk). “It can be harmful to discuss any kind of weight changes and any kind of dieting behavior,” she says. “Any kind of conversation about changing body types in a way that’s not natural can be really triggering.”
TikTok, which also did not respond to questions about its weight-loss ad policies, is far from the only platform that aggressively pushes weight loss and dieting content; studies have found, for instance, that Instagram use has been linked to higher rates of orthorexia nervosa, a type of disordered eating that manifests itself in an obsession with eating healthy. Like TikTok, the platform has issued restrictions on ads that promote weight loss or dieting in response to criticism, but has also had to apologize for promoting weight loss-related keywords to those with eating disorders. Yet due to TikTok’s immense popularity, its younger-skewing user base and the aggressiveness of its algorithm, it arguably has more of an influence on young people’s lives than many of its competitors, making the preponderance of diet-related content on the app particularly concerning.
This week on Don’t Let This Flop, Rolling Stone‘s podcast devoted to internet news and culture, cohosts Brittany Spanos and Ej Dickson discuss TikTok weight loss ads as well as a Jesusified Hamilton bootleg production that’s gone viral; the love triangle between Charli D’Amelio, Lil Huddy, and Blink182 scion Landon Barker; and Satanic conspiracy theories about the new Beyonce album. Plus, the hosts chat with Dev Lemons, the host of the hugely popular TikTok page SongPsych.