The Beginning of the End of Weight-Loss Ads

The year is 2014. You’re watching Deepika Padukone — who’s riding high in the success of her films like Chennai Express — in a television advertisement, preparing to attend a wedding. And what is the one thing Padukone, who undoubtedly looks like someone who takes fitness quite seriously, finds the hardest to tick off on her list? Losing weight to look fabulous in her sari.

Kellogg’s Special K’s ads, featuring the two-week challenge, are not rotting in the deep recesses of people’s memories. Once prompted, they still have the power to breathe fresh life into our feelings about our bodies. After all, their campaigns featured popular celebrities, from Padukone to Lara Dutta, encouraging their audience, primarily women, to “be special” — which obviously equalled being flat-stomached.

In fact, one ad showed a giggling Padukone urging her friends to say no to “excuses” and “get back to life” by losing weight so they could buy dresses for the summer. The ads were persuasive, not because the challenge worked (many women comedically remember trying the diet and failing), but because it served as a mirror for the comments women heard all the time; from close family to distant relatives, friends and colleagues; from the comments over our weight right from when we are born till adulthood — with exclusive stress on losing it.

Also read: TV Ads Are Appealing to the Worst in Us

It’s strange that weight-loss ads haven’t yet received the backlash that Fair & Lovely garnered, which led to Unilever desperately rebranding the cream after decades of promoting colourism in countries like India. Similarly, weight-loss ads of the early 2000s banked on unhealthy standards of beauty by creating flawed ideas of fitness among women. The original Lipton Green Tea ads (released in 2016, starring Shraddha Kapoor), for instance, showed visuals of women hiding and stressing over their bellies, especially around a man, while a comical “peek-a-boo, I see you” jingle played in the background.

Such a jarring experience that was earlier limited to whenever one switched on the television, is now an everyday occurrence in the digital space. With the constant bombardment of inspirational or ‘fitspiration’ images, women are, on a daily basis, primed to be in a state of constant dissatisfaction with their bodies.

Experts argued that people suffering from eating disorders reported worsening symptoms during the Covid-19 lockdowns as exposure to social media, and hence weight-loss ads, increased. And yet, there continues to be a severe lack of critique when it comes to ads that constantly persuade women to look and feel a certain way. Even in 2022, Lipton’s ad campaign shows a woman coming out of the trial room disheartened that the dress accentuates her belly, to which Shraddha Kapoor suggests, “Dress ko nahi, apne belly fat ko goodbye karo” (say goodbye to your belly fat, not the dress)”.

It’s frustrating that brands that position themselves as promoters of health only focus on outward appearances as the benchmark of well-being when it comes to the women in their ads. From women making their husbands jealous by becoming slimmer, to more recently, Jacqueline Fernandes urging other women to give up on their “excuses” and lose weight,  over the years Dabur Honey’s tagline “Stay Fit, Stay Young” seems to be targeted at women only.

Also read: How Menstrual Ads Create a False Sense of Reality

Interestingly, the one time Dabur decides to involve a prominent male celebrity in their ad, their focus shifts entirely to the scientific process of procuring honey. It looks like with Sonu Sood on screen, the company decided against marketing their tagline; staying “fit and young” is perhaps only relevant for their female audience.

It’s important to realise the generational impact of growing up watching these ads about female bodies. Perhaps everyone can identify a woman in their lives who is, or has in the past, expressed concern with their weight. And what’s concerning is that women who desire weight-loss, are often of varying body types and sizes.

Because no matter the number on the weighing scale, constant messaging by the media — of ‘fit’ equating to abs — an ideal that is not only impossible but is also in no way a marker of fitness, can and is perhaps meant to make all women feel negative about their bodies. And it’s only after decades of such messaging that the most popular vessel of advertisement in today’s world, social media, is beginning to rectify the harm.

Pinterest, an image-centric platform, with 60% of its users female, banned all weight loss ads on its platform last year. The decision removed all language that hints at the idea of losing weight, including before-and-after weight-loss images and references to body-mass-index (BMI).

A year into the ban and Pinterest already has reported a 20% decrease in searches for ‘weight loss’ on its platform. And fortunately, this is just the beginning. The most popular image-sharing platform, Instagram, in a quiet attempt to tackle campaigns against their policies, which many have claimed worsen eating disorders and harm the body image of young girls, has enabled users to restrict weight loss content from their feeds.

Weight-loss advertisements, for decades, have thrived on making women feel less confident in their own skin. And with the prevalence of carefully doctored content on social media, harmful ideas related to one’s body are inescapable. Preliminary research shows that even 30 minutes of scrolling on social media can affect one’s body image.

The restrictions and bans, though promising, are not enough to challenge an entire society that has grown on, and still continues to accept weight-loss fads as the only way to live a healthy life. One can only hope — for the sake of all those young girls who grew up compulsively weighing themselves, who skipped meals because they “overate”, who grew up watching their favourite actresses criticising other women’s bellies — that stronger critique of weight-loss advertisements continues to be a focus for brands.

It’s time we took the weight of the mental health damage such ads cause for women seriously, if not more, than their weight on the scale.

Sanskriti Bhardwaj is an educator in Auckland, New Zealand who enjoys weaving her gender and cultural identity in her writing.

Featured image: Screengrab from an ad for ‘Lipton’