‘We need to change the conversation’: how social media is fuelling dangerous diet trends - including the ‘slim thick’ ‘ideal’

Instagram has recently come under fire for failing to take down all accounts promoting unlicensed diet drug, Apetamin

Social media filters and editing tools has contributed to unrealistic body standards (Photo: Kim Mogg / JPIMedia)

Social media is a big part of everyday life for many people, whether it is used to follow the news, keep in touch with friends, or just to browse things you are interested in.

But while it can be a great tool for information and making connections, social media does it have its drawbacks too, particularly in relation to health.

Sign up to our NationalWorld Today newsletter

The i newsletter cut through the noise

Instagram has recently come under fire for failing to clamp down on accounts which have been promoting an unlicensed appetite drug called Apetamin, which is mainly targeted at young women and girls.

Lauren Sharpe used the ‘skinny app’ to alter her body shape when she struggled with orthorexia

The drug has been promoted by social media influencers as a quick fix to get the desired ‘slim thick’ body shape made popular by celebrity figures, such as Kim Kardashian, Kylie Jenner and Cardi B, which sees women have a very slim waist and curvaceous hips.

Clamping down on social media

The sale of apetamin, which contains a sedative antihistamine called cyproheptadine hydrochloride, is illegal in the UK and it has not been approved for safe consumption by the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA), meaning it should not be sold, supplied or advertised.

However, it is widely available online and in some shops, and has been marketed by influencers on Instagram as a way to achieve a ‘slim thick’ figure quickly.

The dangerous diet trend has been linked to various nasty side effects, including drowsiness, dizziness, tremors, blurred vision, nausea and liver failure, but many young women who have taken it did not realise it is an unlicensed medication.

NHS England has now urged Instagram to clamp down on accounts which are selling or marketing the drug, with NHS leaders saying in an open letter they are concerned about the product’s promotion and its impact on both physical and mental health.

Instagram has said selling non-medical drugs is “strictly against” its policies and that all accounts selling and advertising Apetamin have been taken down in response to a BBC Three documentary on the drug which aired on 21 April.

However, NHS England has said it has since found “dozens of profiles” which are still active and when this was reported, “no action was taken”.

The letter, which has been sent by National Medical Director, Stephen Powis and National Mental Health Director, Clare Murdoch, “on behalf of NHS patients, staff and people experiencing body dysmorphia and other mental health conditions, as well as their families", demands an urgent update on what action is being taken to tackle accounts selling the drug.

It has also been signed by the Body Dysmorphic Disorder Foundation, which has asked Instagram to confirm whether it thinks social media firms should contribute more financially to mental health services for young people, as it is claimed they are increasingly being called on.

How damaging is social media on body image?

The easy ability to edit and filter images on social media has contributed to the promotion of unrealistic body standards, prompting some women to go to extreme lengths to achieve this so-called ‘ideal’.

Dr Allison Chase, psychologist at the Eating Recovery Center in the US, explained that sensationalised images on social media can promote an unrealistic ideal of a “normal” or “healthy” body, which can be very damaging.

Dr Chase told NationalWorld: “People frequently compare themselves to others and social media creates an environment in which users compare their lives to the “perceived life” of the person posting.

“For many, these heavily edited posts will not trigger a significant problem, but for someone who struggles with disordered eating or other mental health issues, these posts can be very damaging and lead to problematic behaviour.

“It can be especially dangerous when people post advice for excessive calorie restriction or removing food groups or supplements or pills that do something “magical”. Extreme behavior or “quick fixes” can be harmful to one’s health and promote disordered eating.

“These types of video posts do not promote a healthy or realistic way of achieving or maintaining a healthy body weight. Any major diet change should be directed by and monitored by a doctor or nutritionist.”

Lauren Sharpe, 24, registered dietitian and owner of Empower Method Nutrition, has dealt with the pressures posed by social media first hand, having previously used the ‘skinny app’ to make herself look a certain way when she struggled with orthorexia, an eating disorder which involves an unhealthy obsession with healthy eating.

Speaking exclusively to NationalWorld, Ms Sharpe explained: “My idea of perfection was thin, toned and beautiful, as that has always been the narrative I’ve been fed through the media growing up and through society.

“I think being in high school or college is a very vulnerable time for a lot of girls. Everyone is looking to that external validation that you get when someone compliments your body or your beauty.

“Social media only plays into those vulnerabilities by creating apps like the skinny app, and filters that are not realistically attainable. These apps and filters can be extremely detrimental and unrealistic to what a woman's body looks like.”

What can be done to tackle the problem?

Ms Sharpe said that diversifying her feed on social media to include a variety of body shapes and sizes helped in changing her outlook, and made her more accepting of her own body.

She explained: “I think it depends on how you curate your social media feed.

“If you have a great deal of your feed consumed with fitness influencers, or people with that 'ideal' body type it can certainly leave you feeling less than enough and can be a contributing factor to an eating disorder or body image issues.

“However, if you curate your social media with a variety of body shapes or all shapes and colours, you are more likely to feel accepting and comfortable in your own body.”

Various brands now post images which depict ‘real’ women, in which scars, stretch marks, cellulite and freckles, among other features, have not been filtered out in a bid to promote body positivity.

But while this is a step in the right direction in showing the diversity of body shapes and normalising so-called ‘imperfections, Ms Sharpe said there is still much more that needs to be done.

“We are subconsciously influenced by so many factors in our society,” she said. “Something as simple as what the 'popular girls' look like in movies can only fuel the narrative that smaller bodies are better.

“We grow up with this narrative continuously being instilled upon us that if we want to be accepted, loved, worthy, or successful we have to be a certain size.

“We need to start to change the conversation about what an 'ideal' or 'picture perfect' woman looks like and the only way to do that is to start diversifying our feeds on social media, but also what we see in the media.

“We need to start showing all sizes in magazines, lead roles in movies, dolls, models, honestly anywhere that has influence should show all body types.

“One of the first steps I took for myself was curating my social media to show more cellulite, stretch marks, etc. to prove to myself that this was normal, and it was a huge help.”

A message from the editor:

Thank you for reading. NationalWorld is a new national news brand, produced by a team of journalists, editors, video producers and designers who live and work across the UK. Find out more about who’s who in the team, and our editorial values. We want to start a community among our readers, so please follow us on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, and keep the conversation going.