TW: Eating disorders
Since the creation of the app, people have downloaded TikTok over 738 million times, and most of its users are teenagers and young adults. Although mostly known for its dance challenges or “POV” videos, there is a growing amount of alarming content that promotes disordered eating and unhealthy body image.
There are thousands of videos of creators posting “what I eat in a day” videos with very little food, tips on quickly losing weight, or before-and-afters of plastic surgery. These have real effects on the many young girls who use this app, by preying on their insecurities and criticizing bodies that stray from the “ideal”.
Many discuss disordered eating with humour, with the commenters on videos of skinny women in bikinis joking about how they should stop eating to achieve the same look. This content mirrors the “thinspo” tag that was popular on Tumblr in the early 2010s, but a new platform accessed by even more people. The impressionable children who use TikTok constantly consume this culture of self-hatred propagated by people who don’t even know the harm they are doing as they post these videos.
One well-meaning trend, supposed to highlight the meaning of a song about eating disorders, “Prom Queen” by Beach Bunny, turned into users graphically describing how they self-harmed when they were younger. This has the potential to cause much more harm than good by giving vulnerable teenagers explicit instructions on how to engage in unhealthy coping mechanisms.
Another trend has girls asking their followers to be as harsh as possible in suggestions on how to improve their appearance, which only reinforces teenagers viewing their bodies as something that needs changing.
In response to the “back profile” challenge in which women film their backs and often criticize their appearance, user @umbersaiyan posted a TikTok where she says, “I know that a lot of you post this innocently and unknowingly but I want you to consider the fact that a young girl that has your features, comes to your page and sees your videos and now thinks less of herself because you just called something she had never noticed before really ugly or unattractive”.
In one tweet, Charli wrote, “STOP TALKING ABOUT MY BODY! It’s not your place to tell me if I’m losing weight or gaining weight.”
After she tweeted this, she stopped posting on TikTok for several days, proving the effectiveness of these comments on creators and followers alike.
Body positivity activists and eating disorder support organizations are calling for the app to be more restrictive on this kind of content. TikTok’s terms and conditions do claim to prohibit content that supports pro-anorexia, but the app is generally unmoderated compared to a platform such as Instagram. They ask TikTok to implement more search restrictions and eliminate loopholes that allow children to access this potentially harmful content.