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An Unsolicited Opinion: The end of Teatoxing on Instagram

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By Katherine Moody

moodykat@grinnell.eduImage of columnist Katherine Moody

In early September, Instagram announced that it would block users under the age of 18 from viewing content which promotes certain types of weight loss and cosmetic procedures. Instagram will also remove some content, including posts that make “a miraculous claim about certain diet or weight loss products … and [are] linked to a commercial offer such as a discount code.”

These new rules seem designed specifically to target the detox tea ads that have become so ubiquitous on Instagram. Women’s Health magazine notes that searching the hashtag “teatox” on Instagram yields more than 700,000 results. At this point, the detox tea ad is a genre in and of itself (albeit a boring, uniform one). Either a celebrity or an “influencer” will pose in a sports bra and leggings, holding a bag of detox tea next to their perfectly toned stomach. The caption is inevitably peppy and often unironically evokes wellness or self-care culture.

If you’re unfamiliar with detox tea ads and wondering why Instagram might feel compelled to target them, now is an appropriate time to mention that what differentiates most “detox” teas advertised on Instagram from the “cleansing” tea blends at the grocery store is the laxative.

While not every detox tea brand uses the same ingredients, many include ingredients such as ginger, ginseng, and senna. Detox tea brands often like to market their products as containing only herbs and other natural products. And while, yes, senna is an herb, it’s also an FDA approved non-prescription laxative.

The rapid weight loss that detox teas claim to promote? Yeah… it’s not fat you’re losing.

While many detox tea brands have tried to market their products as focused on wellness and health, the idea that you are “cleansing” or “detoxing” your body by drinking anything is ridiculous and is not supported by science. Your body has a built-in detoxifier—it’s called your liver. And if your liver isn’t working, a detox tea is certainly not going to fix it.

In fact, consistent, unnecessary consumption of laxatives can cause serious health issues, including vitamin and mineral deficiencies, electrolyte imbalance, and disturbance of the acid-base balance of blood. So, not only is detox tea an ineffective weight loss aid, but it’s also more likely to make you sick than it is to “detoxify” you.

The health risks of detox tea are well known, and they’re part of the reason many celebrated when Instagram announced its new policy. For some, like “Good Place” actress Jameela Jamil, it was a victory a long time in the making. Activists have long pointed to studies that link consumption of media which promotes ideals of thinness to body dissatisfaction and disordered eating among women. Jamil has led a public campaign for changes which protect young people from such messaging.

While activists like Jamil celebrated a win, Instagram’s announcement was also met with criticism and accusations of censorship. To those critical of Instagram’s new rules regarding diet products, I would say, “Instagram is not the government.”  Not only does it have the right to censor harmful content, I would argue that it has a responsibility to do so. Detox tea ads are clearly harmful content, so I think Instagram’s move to shield young people from them is appropriate.

Some people might accuse me of supporting the first step down a slippery slope. But the fact of the matter is that while platforms like Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram currently function as the town square, they are disposable. If Instagram suddenly began censoring content like a dictator, people would simply stop using it as a platform.

I support free speech protections in the U.S. because the risk of furthering the government’s authority to decide what individuals can and can’t say and think outweighs any benefit censorship would reap. But Instagram doesn’t have any authority beyond regulating content on its own platform, so the risk that its censorship poses is not comparable.

In my mind, the benefits of Instagram censoring harmful content vastly outweigh any drawbacks. There will be debate about its exact policies and exactly what it chooses to censor, and I think we should encourage that debate. It’s why I wrote this column in firm support of the new rules targeting harmful diet products.

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