TikTok to tackle messages about disordered eating and weight loss

TikTok says it doesn't want to promote negative body comparisons and is cracking down on posts about disordered eating, dangerous weight loss habits and potentially harmful weight management products.

The wildly popular social media app updated its community guidelines last week, introducing a set of rules that it hopes will make the platform a safer place for its roughly 1 billion users worldwide.

The initiative comes as TikTok, owned by Beijing tech company ByteDance, faces increased scrutiny over its operations and content as it battles a possible ban in the U.S

Weight loss videos are a huge category on TikTok, with influencers detailing and demonstrating how they've slimmed down. Such videos have been on the rise in recent years with the rise of injectable prescription drugs such as OzempicWegovy and Mounjaro, which many people use to lose weight quickly.

Critics say the skyrocketing demand for the drugs has exposed the cracks in the body positivity movement, showing that there is still enormous pressure to look thin at all costs. They say TikTok and Instagram, anti-aging filters, selfie culture and the relentless self-promotion of celebrities and influencers have all contributed to the problem.

TikTok already had policies around body image and disordered eating, but the updated guidelines explicitly divide such content into four categories: allowed; not allowed; limited to users 18 years and older; and are not eligible for the 'For You Feed', TikTok's personalized recommendation algorithm. They come into effect on May 17.

The guidelines are intended to “improve understanding and bring more transparency to our rules and how we enforce them,” Adam Presser, TikTok's head of operations and the company's trust and safety unit, said in a statement.

In the past, TikTok creators said they sometimes saw posts restricted or removed without understanding why they were being flagged.

TikTok now clearly states that it bans videos “that show, describe, promote, offer or solicit coaching for disordered eating or dangerous weight loss behaviors.”

The company defines these behaviors as extremely low-calorie dieting, binge eating and intentional vomiting, abusing weight loss medications or supplements, and exercising due to serious injury or illness.

TikTok specifically listed content that shows or promotes unhealthy body measurements and “body checking” trends, such as comparing the size of body parts to household objects, as not allowed. Facilitating the trade or marketing of products for weight loss or muscle growth is also on the decline.

Content restricted to users 18 years and older – and also not eligible for the For You Feed – includes showing or promoting “potentially harmful weight management behaviors,” such as restrictive, low-calorie diets; using medications or supplements for weight loss or muscle growth; and exercises designed for rapid and significant weight loss, such as “cardio routines that promise to help you lose waist size in a week,” according to the company.

TikTok also said it would restrict before-and-after transformation photos that promote weight loss and muscle gain products, as well as videos that promote body types as “ideal or perfect” when associated with potentially harmful weight management behaviors.

“We want TikTok to be a place that boosts self-esteem,” the company said.

Makers who have documented their weight-loss journeys using the new class of trendy drugs said they were disappointed by the crackdown. TikTok, they said, has become an important resource and close-knit community for people who have struggled for years to shed pounds and get healthy.

You're just shutting down and shutting down a group of people who are already so used to being shamed and put in a corner.

– Kelsey Martinez, 32, a content creator who chronicled her weight-loss journey on TikTok

“I think countless lives have been saved by being able to communicate about these medications,” said Kelsey Martinez, 32, who began posting in September 2022 about using Mounjaro, a drug intended to treat type 2 diabetes, to to lose weight. weighed 232 pounds when she started using the weekly injectable; by last fall she had dropped to 153.

“It gives people who are obese access and that's something we don't always have,” said Martinez, who lives in Los Angeles and has 296,000 TikTok followers. “So I think it will be very damaging. You're just shutting down and shutting down a group of people who are already so used to being shamed and put in a corner.”

A TikTok spokesperson said content about medically necessary health interventions guided by a medical or health professional is allowed, including discussions about glucagon-like peptide 1 medications, including the diabetes drug Ozempic. The spokesperson added that content about using GLP-1 medications for weight loss can still be discovered in other ways, such as through search tools or by following an account, even if it is not eligible for the For You Feed.

Showing or describing competitive eating contests; fitness routines, sports and nutrition that are not primarily aimed at extreme weight loss, marathon training or bodybuilding competitions; and religious dietary behavior and fasting will still be permitted.

TikTok users are allowed to condemn disordered eating, dangerous weight loss behavior or potentially harmful weight management “as long as it does not feature or describe a diet or behavior,” the company said.

Michelle York, a full-time content creator from Moorpark, said she understood the app is currently in a “really tough spot” as it faces a divestment or ban bill in the US, where the app has 170 million users has.

“TikTok is under a big microscope and they have to do their utmost to make sure it's a safe space,” said York, 40. But “I think they are overcompensating by creating these new guidelines.”

Although she believes her content is beneficial and far from promoting 'quick slimming supplements', and despite her follower base of 203,000 people begging her to keep the weight loss content coming, she has already lost some of her old Mounjaro videos made private and will focus even more on lifestyle and beauty content in the future.

“It's really disheartening to hear that I can no longer share that here, and that my platform, which I worked so hard to build, is now in jeopardy,” York said. “The problem is that this is my job now – I rely on this as my income and I can't post things that compromise that.”

TikTok's latest community guidelines also include new and updated definitions of the company's policies on hate speech and health misinformation.

In announcing the updated rules, TikTok said it would introduce a “warning” when a creator violates the platform's community guidelines for the first time.

“The strike does not count toward an account's strike count, but future violations do,” Presser said. “We let creators know what rule they broke and how to appeal if they think a mistake was made. Zero-tolerance policies (e.g., incitement to violence) do not qualify for these reminders; accounts will be banned immediately.”

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