Toxic TikTok: Self-love and body image on the ‘For You’ page

October 16, 2020 — by Hannah Lee

TikTok trends such as ‘what I eat in a day’ and ‘rate my appearance’ videos expose users of all ages to dangerous eating habits and unrealistic body norms.

“If you lost some weight, you would probably be able to smile right.” 

This comment appeared on a video created by a 13-year-old girl whose soft palate stopped her from smiling properly. But users paid more attention to her chubby appearance than her underlying medical issue. This is one of the millions of rude comments users can find on TikTok. 

Social media apps such as Instagram and Pinterest are notorious for concealing the lows that go on behind the scenes of perfect lives. TikTok does the same, fueling unrealistic body standards and encouraging a fake-reality lifestyle. 

 As TikTok has gained immense popularity over the past year, many students have downloaded the app to see what the hype is about and even upload videos of their own. 

Junior Sadaf Sobhani, who has amassed 12,300 followers on the app, downloaded TikTok when it was known as Musical.ly, its name until 2018. She has been shocked by the changes to the app since then.

“Back when Musical.ly first became popular, it was all about comedy and how people could relate to one another,” Sobhani said. “As TikTok progresses nowadays, it’s becoming more focused on certain beauty standards, which makes people second-guess their appearance.”

One toxic trend circulating on TikTok involves men telling girls to exercise if they exceed a certain weight. For instance, users on the app will post videos with messages like “For those of you that weigh under 150 [pounds], have a good night, and for those of you over 150, go work out tomorrow.” 

These messages are downright toxic and contribute to the idea that women should weigh a certain number, regardless of factors such as height, muscle-to-fat percentages or medical issues. 

With one click into the comment sections, many users reinforce the hatred for their bodies, saying that TikTok has made them insecure about parts of themselves they hadn’t thought about prior to downloading the app.

“That’s on eating a full meal then feeling guilty and not eating the entire next day,” one user commented. “Before I downloaded TikTok I didn’t even realize hip dips and masculine teeth were something I should even care about,” another said. “Sucks what this app can do to us.”

Body shaming has become prevalent throughout the platform, from the comment sections to videos that body-shame others. Comment sections on videos of users with unconventional body types are replete with remarks like “How’s she still alive, she looks like a skeleton” or “Stop hogging all of the food.”

Another toxic trend circulating on TikTok involves “what I eat in a day” videos. Users often share minimalistic and drastic diets based on things like mint gum, ice cubes and berries.

These clips perpetuate an obsession with body image and calorie counting and are detrimental to those that have recovered from or still are struggling with negative body image. 

“I may have been lucky to never experience these issues solely because of TikTok, but I know numerous people who have seen triggering videos on the ‘For You’ page, which leads them to potentially skip a meal or two,” Sobhani said.

Freshman Rishi Vaidya originally downloaded the app to pass time but soon realized its malignant nature. 

“I do think there is more content like this directed to women, but regardless of who it targets, it has the potential to affect men and other groups of people equally,” Vaidya said. 

Many downloaded the app for entertainment during quarantine, but the constant exposure to little portals of seemingly picture-perfect lives makes it easy for users to compare and equate these ideals into a reality.

The algorithm plasters people who fit Eurocentric standards and have toned, picture-perfect bodies. With each scroll, it’s hard for users to not pick apart their insecurities and what they have opposed to others. 

“If you pay attention and feel the need to match these beauty standards, anyone can fall in this loophole of comparing,” Sobhani said. “You’ll get sucked into this mindset that you have to be as pretty as popular influencers on your ‘For You’ page in order to gain a following.”

According to documents obtained by The Intercept, an online news organization, video recommendations that users see aren’t entirely randomized. Instead, TikTok moderators prevent users with certain appearances from surfacing on the “For You” page. The app profits more from displaying a specific aesthetic.

And since the app’s audience is primarily under 18, the majority of the content promoted on the platform may come off as far more damaging than it seems.

“Because most of this content stems from immaturity, there’s a lot of ignorance in how it could affect others,” Vaidya said. “Trends like thinspo [compilations of thinner people for viewers use as inspiration for their bodies] and ‘what I eat in a day’ aren’t doing any good for the app.”

While TikTok has the potential to flourish, a way to solve these problems is for the app to establish consequences for this behavior. 

TikTok should be more stringent on content guidelines and use “strikes” to counteract this behavior. This way, users have a lower chance of coming across damaging content. 

With a step in the right direction, TikTok has partnered with the National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA) to redirect users to resources offered by the organization within the app. Similarly, the app can push educational and self-care content to the “For You” page and filter the top videos under hashtags.

Still, users should be aware of how toxic TikTok can be if not monitored correctly, and work to create a platform that is inclusive and uplifting to others.

“I cannot stress enough to people that everyone is different, everyone’s body is different, and not everyone's the same,” Sobhani said. “People shouldn’t change themselves to fit the ‘For You’ page beauty standard.”

 

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Junior Daniel Jiang prepares to make a goal during an after school water polo practice at SHS's swimming pool on Sept. 16. Photo by Selina Chen

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