With the outrage over the possible political bias in Facebook’s news algorithm dying down, people are apparently looking for other reasons to be mad at the social media platform. This week’s justification: Facebook temporarily blocked an ad promoting a fat-acceptance event, mistakenly believing that it was intended to “make viewers feel bad about themselves.”
To illustrate a Facebook event page for a forthcoming panel discussion called “Feminism and Fat,” Australian talk show Cherchez La Femme used a photograph of plus-size model Tess Holliday striking a playful pose in a two-piece swimsuit. But when Cherchez La Femme tried to pay to promote the page to a wider audience, Facebook denied their request, writing that it violated their ad guidelines. When Cherchez La Femme pressed for an explanation, a Facebook staffer wrote a note betraying a total misunderstanding of what Cherchez La Femme was trying to do:
Your ad wasn’t approved because the image being used in the ad doesn’t comply with our Health and Fitness Policy.
The image depicts a body or body parts in an undesirable manner. Ads may not depict a state of health or body weight as being perfect or extremely undesirable.
This includes ad images showing:
Close-ups of “muffin tops” where the overhanging fat is visible
People with clothes that are too tight
People pinching their fat/cellulite (even with full body visible)
Human medical conditions in a negative light (ex: eating disorders)
Ads like these are not allowed since they make viewers feel bad about themselves.
The wording of this explanation is confusing at times. (From whose perspective is a body part “undesirable”?) But the gist is clear: Facebook has a policy against ads that stigmatize people’s bodies, and a Facebook ad censor mistakenly assumed that Cherchez La Femme was trying to shame fat women rather than celebrate them.
On Monday, after Cherchez La Femme publicized this frustrating miscommunication, Facebook reversed their decision and apologized: “Our team processes millions of advertising images each week, and in some instances we incorrectly prohibit ads,” the company said in a statement. “This image does not violate our ad policies. We apologize for the error and have let the advertiser know we are approving their ad.”
But, according to some critics, “the damage was already done.” “We thought it was really horrible and isolating and alienating,” said Jessamy Gleeson, a co-producer of Cherchez La Femme, in an interview with the Guardian. “Women with fat bodies can, of course, be as desirable as anybody else.” Fusion’s Taryn Hillin wrote, “If Facebook truly wanted to censor ads that made people feel bad about themselves, it would pledge not to use photoshopped images that promote unrealistic beauty standards …. The company’s delayed apology, in this case, feels like too little, too late.”
Hillin is absolutely right that idealized images of thin bodies have a negative effect on people’s body image. But demonizing Facebook for what was by all accounts an honest mistake seems like a disproportionate response. After all, Facebook’s policy—that ads can neither promote thin bodies as “perfect” nor depict overweight bodies as being “undesirable”—reflects an understanding that body shaming can have powerful negative effects on viewers. And it’s not Facebook’s fault that a majority of ads showing fat bodies do so in a stigmatizing way. Considering the volume of images reviewed by Facebook’s ads team, it’s not surprising that a censor saw a picture of a large woman and immediately assumed she was looking at a body-shaming ad for some kind of diet or weight loss product. Facebook’s initial decision was sloppy but certainly not unforgivable.
Hillin writes that Facebook’s ironic rejection of Cherchez La Femme’s ad “underscores why campaigns to fight fat shaming are needed.” That is certainly true, and you can count me among the many consumers who wish more ads depicted fat bodies in a positive light. But Facebook can’t force advertisers to promote body acceptance—all it can do is decline ads that are designed to make viewers feel bad about their bodies, which it’s already doing. I’d like to live in a world where every ad featuring people of size did so in a positive light, but until then, I’m not going to get up in arms about Facebook making an understandable mistake based on good intentions.