Pinterest’s New Algorithms Want You to See Every Body Type
When fashion influencer Natalie Craig recently searched Pinterest for skorts and cargo pants, she noticed something different from her past explorations on the service: Women who looked like her were sprinkled among the results—and without adding qualifiers like “plus size” to her query.
“I’m 5’2″ and a size 20, so I have to say, ‘short-size back-to-school outfit inspiration,’” Craig says of her usual challenge to find relevant fashion content online. “Now, I don’t have to take on that mental gymnastics.”
Craig’s freeing new Pinterest experience came from having early access to updated algorithms designed to surface diverse body types that the company is unveiling today, after quietly rolling them out in recent months. They are powered in part by a newly revealed AI system that can recognize different body shapes, forms, and sizes.
In a novel move among major tech platforms, Pinterest is trying to attack head-on the way algorithm-tuned social media services amplify the long-standing bias toward thin, light-skinned women as the ultimate standard for beauty. Academic research and even companies’ internal studies have shown this reinforcement has left some users struggling to reconcile their own bodies with what they generally see online, causing mental trauma or eating disorders.
Pinterest developed its technology by applying machine learning to over 5 billion images of people of all shapes and sizes. Annie Ta, head of Pinterest’s inclusive product team, says it is aimed at making users feel the service celebrates diverse body types and delivers content that feels more relevant. “Our mission is to help people feel inspired, and you can’t feel inspired unless you’re actually feeling like you were included in the product experience,” Ta says.
People seeking a more representative view of the human body online, like Craig, often develop specific search queries and other tricks to find relevant images, but say it remains frustrating. Tech platforms have largely ignored the problem. AI image generators such as Dall-E carry on unrealistic stereotypes found in their training data.
Other businesses that profit from the human form don’t serve every body either—the average woman in the US wears around a size 18 but most clothing brands go no larger. And research and lived experience show that prejudice against larger people is widely accepted in many facets of society including hiring, medical care, education, and algorithms. They are shamed, bullied, and unfairly labeled as unhealthy regardless of context. “There is a viciousness that is directed at fat people, and particularly fat people who refuse to apologize for being fat,” says Tigress Osborn, a self-described fat rights political activist who advised Pinterest on its new feature.
A review last year by the Berkeley Media Studies Group found that popular news outlets published over 18,000 articles on weight loss over 12 months, but just 48 articles about “anti-fatness.” People who are ultra-thin or squat also don’t have life easy. Advocacy by the National Association to Advance Fat Acceptance, a US nonprofit led by Osborn, to outlaw size discrimination is just gaining steam at statehouses and city councils, including a New York City ban that begins in November.
Osborn and Pinterest’s Ta hope that by promoting more diverse body types to its 465 million monthly users, the platform can help reshape public perceptions about body size and shape. “If you are exposed to more people from more backgrounds, we hopefully build a more tolerant and accepting world,” Ta says.
That may sound idealistic, but she claims it’s also good business. “Advertisers want to see their content alongside really positive content, right?” Ta says. Craig, the influencer and blogger, expects to be doing more shopping directly from Pinterest via posts that link to merchant checkout pages.
Pinterest’s new system is so far only active on posts, known as “pins,” tied to fashion, makeup, and weddings. It kicks in on search results as well as recommended and related pins offered to users. Only people in the US, UK, Ireland, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand will encounter body-type-aware AI curation. Even though the technology can recognize bodies from around the world, expanding it to other countries will be subject to consideration of local cultural norms and laws.
The body diversity project builds on Pinterest’s earlier, pioneering launches of algorithms that can recognize a range of skin tones and hair patterns. They are supported by a settlement Pinterest reached with Rhode Island’s pension fund and other shareholders a year ago to resolve a lawsuit accusing the company of discriminating against female and Black staff, sparking a virtual walkout in 2020 and public allegations by former employees.
Thirteen of the settlement’s roughly 90 conditions cover product inclusion, enshrining Ta’s position as well as funding and oversight for her inclusive product team. Under the settlement, Pinterest has overall committed to spending $50 million over 10 years on diversity, equity, and inclusion projects, running up a tab of $5.4 million in the first year on consultants, advisors, and training, according to a court filing. Megan D’Alessio, an inclusion and diversity manager involved in the efforts, says that the settlement has “spurred and amplified a lot of great work at Pinterest.”
The deal shows how action by shareholders can get tech platforms to make a lasting effort to tackle some of their shortcomings. The plaintiffs forced Pinterest to invest over 10 years because companies too often spend rapidly on diversity and inclusion programs without creating meaningful change, attorney Julie Goldsmith Reiser wrote in the court filing. At other tech companies including Microsoft, Meta, Google, and Twitter, layoffs and budget cuts to teams working on ethical or inclusive product development have slowed their work, according to former employees and news reports. Pinterest is in for the long haul.
Call to Action
Pinterest launched skin tone filters in 2018 after interns pitched the idea, but work on product inclusion remained loosely organized until 2020. That year, as the George Floyd racial justice protests spread across the US and other countries, Ta rallied workers across Pinterest to reimagine its product features. She pulled engineers and other staff into a new product inclusion team that now numbers more than two dozen people. “I essentially spent the summer of 2020 doing a roadshow around the company,” Ta says.
The new group launched the hair pattern filter in 2021 in six countries, with options like curly and coily. There’s so far no thinning option for people trying to do more with less, but last year Pinterest extended hair filters to nine additional countries. Ta’s group also expanded the technology to cover more searches and features across the company. Early testing of updated algorithms in a few countries this year increased by 302 percent the number of beauty and fashion searches where users received a diverse range of skin tones in the results, compared to the same period a year ago. The number of daily searchers using hair pattern filtering rose 41 percent in the first quarter of 2023 compared to a year ago.
On social media and in user research, Pinterest users have made broader representation of body types a top-requested feature. “We’ve heard again and again that we’re promoting this kind of stereotype of ‘skinny is beautiful,’” Ta says. Ben Silbermann, Pinterest’s cofounder and until early this year its CEO, also wanted action. “Ben is a really blunt human being sometimes and I would be in a review with him on something else, and he’d be like, ‘Why haven’t we built body type yet?’ He was so excited for it,” Ta says.
Ta’s team began work on the feature late last year. The first steps were educating Pinterest’s engineers and designers on body size and figuring out what exactly users wanted. DEI manager D’Alessio, who describes herself as plus size, shared a list of podcasts including Maintenance Phase, TV shows, and books such as Belly of the Beast to learn more about body issues. She also gave Pinterest staff a crash-course version of a 2021 class she taught at Stanford on designing for fat liberation that encourages rethinking stigmas about weight. The company also reviewed its internal workplace policies to ensure they fitted with the new product focus on body type inclusion, D’Alessio says.
When Pinterest’s Katie Elfering, a lead assistant product researcher, looked at how commonly users sought out content showing larger body sizes, the data saddened her. User logs revealed that over half of fashion searches relating to body-specific attributes referenced “plus size” across several large English-speaking countries over the past year. Frustrated users were doing their best to seek out body diversity. “They want the belly rolls, and they want to see the really big legs, the wrinkles, the patchy hair, and people with different abilities,” Elfering says.
Pinterest worked with some US users such as Craig over the past few months in “design jams” to develop ideas to increase body inclusion. One key question was whether to focus on letting users see results depicting people with a similar body type to their own, or showing everyone greater diversity. After much debate, the Pinterest team decided the societal benefits of exposing everyone to various body sizes were most important. The feature would be diverse by default. “We really want to make sure that in our results people are seeing all body types and shapes and sizes,” Elfering says.
Pinterest isn’t launching a body type filter yet for users to focus on a particular size or form. CTO Jeremy King says it’s not clear that users want that option. “When we see people pin, they pin all kinds of styles, all kinds of body types,” he says, whereas with hair and skin content, people are looking for products that match their own traits. That decision sidestepped the tricky challenge of how to name the options provided by a body type filter. In research asking users their preferred terms for their own bodies, people showed little consistency, with some using clothing size or height, and others geometric or fruit shapes.
Pinterest’s design choices had to be combined with engineering breakthroughs. Pedro Silva, a senior machine learning engineer at Pinterest, says the company developed a neural network trained on thousands of images of a range of different body types, labeled by staff.
The final system essentially predicts for each new image it analyzes where a body falls within the range of all bodies the AI system has seen in the past. Before it makes that prediction the system has to isolate the shape of a person’s body in a photo from other visual elements, accounting for large coats, spread-out arms, and flapped-out dresses. Pinterest says it got the technology to work on videos and bodies of people with a range of gender expressions, ethnicities, and physical abilities.
On search results and other places Pinterest’s diversity-forward algorithms kick in, they determine the most relevant pins to show to a specific user but also swap in a selection of pins with the same relevance score that depict different body types or skin tones. Pinterest says the number of fashion-related searches returning the entire range of body types increased 454 percent in the second quarter compared to a year ago as it began rolling out the technology in the US.
Promises to Keep
Pinterest is not the only technology company trying to make algorithms more accepting of body diversity. Online design tools provider Canva has adjusted its search algorithms to present diverse results for images and other content elements based on eight factors including religion, language, sexuality, and markers of appearance such as eye color and body type. “We are 8 billion people in the world, and we want to get to the point where we can represent everyone,” says Silvia Oviedo Lopez, head of content and discovery at Canva.
Google has also been considering the inclusiveness of its own services. Internal research found moderation and monetization decisions in services such as ads and video could be biased against people with bigger bodies, according to a former employee who spoke anonymously to discuss confidential matters. Google invested in sensitivity education and better guidelines for reviewers to ensure they were not unfairly penalizing people—for example, by considering a larger person in a swimsuit to be showing too much skin even though a slimmer-bodied person in a similar outfit is exposing the same percentage of bare skin. Google spokesperson Nate Funkhouser says the company is constantly evaluating its ad systems and guidelines to ensure its enforcing policies without bias.
Pinterest has no plans to adjust content or ad policies to encourage or require body diversity, Ta says, but did ban diet-related ads in 2021, contending they were a distraction from the positive environment it wanted to foster.
Though the legal settlement requires Pinterest to take up inclusive product projects, diversity projects inside tech companies can feel less than urgent to executives focused on profits. Google in May 2022 promised updates related to being more inclusive in search, but the rollout has been slow. Filters for hair color on image searches and a search ranking update to use a more inclusive measure of skin tones are yet to launch, as is a system to help publishers tag content with attributes such as skin tone, hair color, and hair texture in a way visible to Google’s search algorithms.
Google Images results can currently currently be filtered by skin tone for makeup-related queries and by hair texture for hair styling queries, but both are only available in the US. A person familiar with the projects not authorized to discuss internal matters blamed cost cuts for reducing the quantity and quality of staff. “It’s not a priority for Google,” the source says. “I would be shocked if they were able to deliver on what was promised.”
Google spokesperson Colette Garcia disputes that building inclusive products is not a priority for the company. “This is an active and ongoing area of investment for our teams,” she says. “We’re continuing to roll out improvements in a responsible way so that our products reflect the many dimensions of diversity.” The company’s new Virtual Try-On Feature for some product listings in search was designed to accommodate a variety of upper-body shapes. But searches for terms such as “fashion” still turn up zero plus-size people, says Osborn of the fat advocacy group.
Pinterest says it is committed to carrying through on its ambitions to make sure every body is served by and visible on its service. To increase the diversity of content available to show users, the company has spent $2.7 million over the past three years to fund and educate influencers and independent publishers across 12 countries on better promoting their content. Applications open today for the latest cohort, which will focus on plus-size pinners from underrepresented backgrounds in North America.
Zeny Shifferaw, head of the program, says she likes how she no longer has to add “Black girls” as a qualifier for hairstyle searches and wants others to have the same feeling of inclusion. “That’re ultimately what we’re trying to get to for so many different marginalized groups.”