If you’re on Instagram you likely know their products.
Appetite-suppressant lollipops paired with Lolita-like poses. Detox tea alongside toned abdominals. Diet shakes wrapped up in Flat Tummy Co.’s millennial pink-and-white branding—all of it made Instagram-famous by the likes of Kim Kardashian, her sister Khloe, and a spate of other celebrities such as Cardi B, Amber Rose, and Iggy Azalea.
“It seems like everyone has it on their Instagram,” says Claude Racine-Valinsky. A Los Angeles-based entrepreneur and dancer, Racine-Valinksy’s own Instagram features impressive dance videos and snaps of her fitness progress—and she recently shared a photo ofherselflooking radiant while playfully biting a Flat Tummy Co. shake on her growing Instagram account.
She captionedthe image:
“Giving into my cravings a little more than usual lately!! So I decided to give these@flattummycoshakes a try- they’re vegan, and jam-packed with 20g of plant based protein! I’ll keep you posted on how I make out with them… AND they’re having a sale right now if you want to try them with me!!”
There’s no mention of the post serving as an ad.
Flat Tummy Co. sponsored ads—and others like Fit Tea, The Choco Diet, ThinTea, Flat Belly Detox Tea, Bootea, Get Slim Detox Tea—are an increasingly common on celebrity and social media influencers feeds. And products like these have been receiving huge backlash fromactress and body acceptance advocate Jameela Jamil—as well as scores of other media outlets such asThe Guardian,theWashington Post,andBroadly—because of their tornado-like contribution to the toxicity surroundingdiet culture and body-shaming.
A few months ago, Jamil called bullshit on the supposed health benefits of detox teas and diet shakes and slammed celebrities for hawking them. Shetweeted, “I hope all these celebrities all shit their pants in public, the way the poor women who buy this nonsense upon their recommendation do. Not that they actually take this shit. They just flog it because they need MORE MONEY.”
“When will these women who are covered in plastic surgery stop telling their followers to drink a laxative to look like them? It’s so embarrassing.”
And, the next day, when Iggy Azalea posted a photo to her Instagram’s more than 12 million followers showcasing her enviable abs while holding up Flat Tummy Co. meal replacement shakes, Jamilresponded with fire:“When will these women who are covered in plastic surgery stop telling their followers to drink a laxative to look like them? It’s so embarrassing.” She added that this is type of endorsement that encourages disordered eating among young women.
It’s something theGood Placestar knows all too well. “I was the teenager who starved herself for years, who spent all her money on these miracle cures and laxatives and tips from celebrities on how to maintain a weight that was lower than what my body wanted it to be,” Jamil shared on herTwitter feed. “I was sick, I have had digestion and metabolism problems for life.”
For Racine-Valinsky,she says shedrank the Flat Tummy Co. shake to—frankly—keep her bowel movements regular. Not unlike when she drinks the occasional Smooth Move tea, a light laxative tea available at the grocery store. And, sure, as someone who has always struggled with weight issues, she also hoped to shed a few pounds t00. Did Racine-Valinsky know about the criticism from Jamil and the media surrounding products like Flat Tummy Co.?
“That’s news to me,” Racine-Valinskysays.She’s been swamped with the launch of her signature Zero Fucks dance workshops in Las Vegas and Los Angeles—aimed at teaching young women to be unapologetic, confident, and leave their self-consciousness at the door, as they perform and as they move through the world. As her class sizes swell, Racine-Valinsky’s Instagram—key to growing her business—has taken off, too. And with her more than 15K followers companies have been sending her products to share on her ‘gram or asking her to partner with them, including Flat Tummy Co.
“It’s all been happening so fast I haven’t put much thought into what I’m putting on there … But at the same time you can’t put your own experience on other people,” she says, referring to Jamil’scommentson Twitter. She adds that we also have to work harder as a society to get women—particularly young girls—to think for themselves and be able to discern all that’s thrown at them.
In an investigative article by the The Guardian, journalist Julia Carrie Wong explains the power of Flat Tummy Co.’s choice to use social media, specifically Instagram, as its primary marketing tool. Wong writes Flat Tummy Co.“is theultimate Instagram brand success story: a perfect example of how unregulated social media marketing practices can repackage questionable science in the feelgood trappings of a wellness brand and spin women’s insecurities into cash. And Instagram, which claims to want to be ‘one of the most kind and safe’ places on the internet, has neither the power nor the will to police it.”
What does Wong mean by “questionable science?” The article points to the fact that Flat Tummy Co. relies on “ingredients that are classified as nutritional supplements, rather than drugs, which means that they go untested and unregulated.”
When Racine-Valinksy found out about the questionable ingredients in the Flat Tummy Co. shake, she was surprised. “The things that they put on the side of the box … 20 g of plant-based protein, 22 vitamin and minerals, 50 fruits and vegetables—all this stuff sounds fantastic—I thought it’s healthy, great … It’s a lesson for me to look more into it,” Racine-Valinskysays.
It’s not difficult to understand why Racine-Valinsky was taken off guard by discovering the products were concerning. Even a biochemist who specializes in nutrition found the long laundry list of ingredients on Flat Tummy Co. demanded extra examination.
“Flat Tummy Co. relies on ‘ingredients that are classified as nutritional supplements, rather than drugs, which means that they go untested and unregulated.’”
Dr. Thomas Sherman is a professor of pharmacology and physiology at Georgetown University School of Medicine. The scientist teaches nutrition to first-year medical students. Initially, when the ingredients in Flat Tummy Co. products were brought to his attention he thought of them as rather innocuous, even if there is alaxative effect. “Many celebrity-endorsed products are benign and silly,” Dr. Sherman says.
He notes that these diets are cyclical too. “There’s a thousands-of-years-long history of trying to heal the body by making it secrete and eliminate things, whether it’s blood-letting, or diuretics, or things that make you throw up,” Dr. Sherman says. “Any of these sorts of things all share a history that because it’s being done on purpose, it’s good for you. And that’s just not true.”
Dr. Shermanspent additional time to review the Flat Tummy Co. shake and meal replacement ingredient list, and after poring over the ingredient list one morning, he emailed: “I was curious to learn what served as a laxative … Between the inulin, flaxseed, and chia seed, I can definitely see this working as a laxative.”
Dr. Sherman wrote, “I would describe these as fairly safe laxatives, but chronic laxative use is not recommended … Chronic laxative use can weaken bowel muscles, increasing the risk of constipation and great dependence on laxative use.” He pointed out that the most interesting ingredient is the hydroxycitric acid from the dried fruit rind of Garcinia cambogia, described with its trade name, Super CitriMax. “It is the fifth listed ingredient, and is frequently found in weight loss supplements due to its celebrity-endorsed ‘fat buster’ capability,” Dr. Sherman continued. “It also can be described as a dangerous dietary supplement with at least [one]case ofliver toxicity so severe it necessitated a liver transplant.”
Robyn Goldberg, a registered nutritionist and certified eating disorder specialist in Los Angeles, who formerly worked atSusan B. Krevoy Eating Disorders Program at Wright Institute Los Angeles, agreed that liver damage is one—of many reasons—to stay away from Flat Tummy Co.’s offerings. “It’s appalling that these products even exist,” Goldberg says. In her day-to-day work, most of Goldberg’s clients suffer from eating disorders or body image issues, and the majority of them are women.
Goldberg pointed towards the ingredient senna, a laxative and key component in Flat Tummy Co.’s detox teas, as especially concerning when it’s consumed for long periods. “What happens is gastrointestinal problems will occur such as dehydration, dizziness. One’s bowel can be dependent on stimulant laxatives and it will result in a rebound of constipation and fluid retention—which is actually the opposite of what these products are trying sell people on,” Goldberg says.
“If a detox tea has a stimulant component—which many diet products do—the risks (when overused) also include irregular heartbeats, unusual tiredness or weakness, and muscle cramps.”
She adds that in extreme cases, prolonged vomiting can happen and an individual can also develop jaundice, which is when your eyes and skin turn yellow due to liver, blood, or gallbladder problems, and this is among a myriad of other issues. If a detox tea has a stimulant component—which many diet products do—the risks (when overused) also include irregular heartbeats, unusual tiredness or weakness, and muscle cramps.
Goldberg advises her clients to stay far away from products like Flat Tummy Co.’s lollipops, teas, and shakes—and to be weary of their advertisements on Instagram which feature beautiful women with often-exaggerated curves and flat stomachs. “They are not real pictures,” Goldberg says she reminds her patients. “They have been airbrushed and altered.”
The Atlanta-based blogger and Instagrammer Danasia Fantastic agrees that the real story of these women, and the products their selling, can get lost in the sheen of Instagram. Fantastic launched her lifestyle blog, TheUrbanRealist, in 2013 and uses her popular Instagram account to cultivate her brand. In the past, she’s been approached by companies similar to Flat Company Co. to sell their detox tea.
“I’ve always turned them down … No shame to any girl who chooses to do that but I choose not to do that only because I’m not a health professional and what works for me might not work for you,” Fantasticsays.She added that the Instagram posts selling these teas alongside toned abs often don’t include the details.Details like the fact thatthe influencer works out twice a day, or that the individual is mindful of their nutrition and eating. “But a lot of times that’s not how it’s done and it feels like false advertising,” Fantasticexplains.
And there’s one more business-savvy reason she decided to not share these products with her Instagram’s more than 24K followers.“It’s a running joke here in Atlanta if you’re black and you have Instagram you probably sell bundles of hair, waist trainers, and ‘fit teas,’ which is what these detox teas are … and it’s another reason why I’m hesitant to not follow that stereotype—to set myself apart,” Fantastic says.
In fact, Flat Tummy Co. tends to target women of color in their advertising. Former Flat Tummy Co. employees toldThe Guardianthat “African American and Latina models were prized because their posts ‘converted’ well into sales.”
This is easy to identify in a quick scroll through Flat Tummy Co.’s Instagram account—which has an astonishing 1.7 million followers—and features dozens and dozens of women of color holding up their products, or showing off before-and-after photos of their stomach—along with an occasional image of a saucy quote like “boss babes to the front.” The white women appear on Flat Tummy Co.’s Instagram almost as often but—oddly—are more likely to be seen stretching, doing a yoga pose, or smiling in the sun in spandex attire, rather than holding up a product or posing with a before-and-after image.
“This type of marketing is made with an acute awareness of the fact that Latina and black women live with the highest obesity rates in the US.”
It’s also worth mentioning that this type of marketingis made with an acute awarenessof the fact that Latina and black women demographics live with the highest obesity rates in the US.Based on a recent report of federal government statistics released by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the Trust for America’s Health, rates of obesity have increased across the US among people all of racial groups, but black and Latinx populations continue to be have the highest rates.
As for her part, Racine-Valinsky admits she hasn’t put much thought into Flat Tummy Co.’s marketing tactics or who they target in their advertisements. She was sent the product for free and agreed to post it. She was only caught off guard when—having not posted the product to Instagram immediately—she found the company was “aggressive” in their communications with her.
Now that Racine-Valinsky is more aware of the suspect nutrition in Flat Tummy Co. shakes she says it’s a wake-up call. “Shame on me,” Racine-Valinsky says. “Not looking at the ingredients was not responsible, and not doing any research on it was not responsible … As someone who wants to be an influencer I have to be more careful.”
For now, the photo on Racine-Valinsky’s Instagram—the selfie of her smiling alongside Flat Tummy Co. shake packets—remains on her feed. And so do the comments:
“Do it love!”
“U sooo cute.”
All illustrations: Hannah Michelle Bayley
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