Beautiful Bodies and Damaging Diets: TikTok and Body Image

If you haven’t spent significant time in lockdown on TikTok, either you have been living under a rock or simply have better willpower than the rest of us. What began as a platform for lip-syncing videos (musical.ly), has now become a popular social media app broadcasting diverse content from short travel videos, daily lifestyle vlogs, challenges, trending dances, and different memes. Especially with the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, smartphone users have turned to TikTok for online entertainment and expression – becoming a defining feature of our generation. However, like all social media, TikTok has potentially negative effects on the lives of its users, one of which is the insidious harm of unrealistic body images and lifestyle expectations.

An increase in our free time has inevitably led to a rise in social media use, but the change in the landscape of our everyday lives has also meant a shift in what we are posting online. Content producers began tailoring their videos to an audience in lockdown, resulting in trends such as ‘a day in the life of’ or ‘my healthy lifestyle habits’. When these posts specifically target the subject of dieting, weight loss, and exercise regulation, there can be negative consequences from the constant comparisons and competition between users.

Videos showing exercise and dietary routines, when unhealthy and unrealistic, can lead to the internalisation of guilt and self-infliction of pressure to live up to these ideals. The thought that you ‘should’ be making these lifestyle changes is bad enough when we are living our normal lives, but this phenomenon has only become exacerbated in the past few months as people turn to social media to document every aspect of their day. While this is one way to cope with the boredom we have all come to know too well, it seems the repercussions of certain types of videos are rarely considered by the user who is posting them. Advertising extreme workouts and encouraging limited calorie consumption can be dangerous for young viewers, not to mention triggering for those who already suffer with eating disorders or body dysmorphia.

TikTok itself has not been innocent in this issue. Singer Lizzo called them out earlier this year after they deleted videos of her in a bathing suit, but few videos of other girls with different body types appear to be treated the same. Regardless of whether this was a deliberate decision from the app regulators or a miscommunication concerning the content of Lizzo’s video (as has been claimed), this incident highlights the issues associated with the TikTok censorship feature when it can be seen to favour the representation of certain appearances over others. In my experience as a user, I too have found advertisement and content on the app cause for concern. The other day I was scrolling through my ‘for you page’ and came across an advert for the app ‘Simple: Intermittent Fasting.’ This is a highly problematic promotion to begin with, and appears more problematic when the app is known for its young demographic. 

Having said that, there are many ways in which the app has been very constructive and valuable in the body positivity movement. Many users have used their following to represent a more comprehensive variation of body types, or to promote feeling confident and comfortable in your own skin. Florence Simpson has used viewer responses to her documenting her weight loss journey as motivation, and the overwhelming reception of these videos has been positive. It seems that, however many harmful videos or negative comments are circulating on the app, there is an equal number of productive ones to counteract them.

While it remains a topic for debate whether TikTok is a proactive platform for promoting body positivity or a detrimental network of damaging diets and misleading exercise advice, the reality is that social media apps like TikTok are overloaded with information meaning that it’s impossible to keep track of all the content viewers are being exposed to. It is no doubt that every individual will have a different user experience, an inevitable consequence of the algorithms behind these social networking sites. But as individuals who use the app, one thing which should unite us all is the desire to protect fellow users from viewing harmful content, while simultaneously promoting a more positive underlying message on the app that all bodies are beautiful.

Esther Huntington-Whiteley

Featured Image Source: Pexels



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