Food&Drink Writer Emma Davis considers the toxicities of TikTok’s promotion of diet culture, warning of the impact this could have on young people using the app
Content Warning: This article mentions eating disorders.
When TikTok was released to the UK App Store in September 2017 (under the name of Musical.ly before these two entities merged to become what we now know as TikTok), nobody could have predicted the impact it would have. The growth and popularity of TikTok have given rise to a new generation of influencers, marking just how prominently TikTok is becoming engrained in the social consciousness, and with that, how much influence it holds over those who engage with it. In December 2020, TikTok launched an investigation after the Guardian found harmful, pro-eating disorder content to be easily accessible on the app. This is particularly damaging considering the demographic of the app; of the one billion people who use TikTok, almost half are between the ages of 16 and 24 – a huge number of impressionable young people are being shown this damaging content.
At the time of writing, #WhatIEatInADay on TikTok has 5.3 billion views and comprises of a huge variation of videos; from dangerously low daily calorie intakes and excessive exercise, to ‘healthy’ food substitutions and extreme trends, such as people measuring their waist with the strap of their headphones. As Colleen Reichmann, a clinical psychologist, comments, ‘this is so problematic, because the vast majority of the time, the videos are being done by thin, able-bodied, younger white women – women with an immense amount of body privilege,’ which in turn presents a certain body type as the ‘ideal,’ even though it is unattainable for most of the people who will be viewing the video. Through these trends and videos, TikTok appears complicit in the promotion of a damaging rhetoric surrounding food, exercise and appearance and it romanticises inherently unhealthy lifestyles under the guise of being ‘healthy,’ ‘productive’ or ‘active.’
Libby Moser, a registered dietitian, noted that ‘what makes navigating this fine line between helpful and harmful content more complicated is the strength of TikTok’s algorithm. It can be a nonstop delivery of millions of detrimental videos to its faithful young audience.’ What Moser is referring to is TikTok’s algorithm-based ‘For You page.’ This endless scroll provides videos based on the engagement of the user’s account, introducing them to similar videos, sounds and concepts. It also offers new content that is trending, or popular, that the user may have never engaged with before. These features combine to produce a method of perpetuating harmful content; a user may be presented with a video, watch it, and thenceforth receive more and more of the same content on their ‘For You page,’ where the cycle can multiply and continue. As University of Sheffield lecturer Ysabel Gerrard confirms, ‘it takes little more than 30 seconds to find a pro-eating disorder account on TikTok and, once a user is following the right people, their For You page will quickly be flooded with content from similar users.’
Even content that is aimed at showcasing healthier lifestyles can inadvertently display forms of disordered eating, with the most extreme revealing orthorexic traits (an unhealthy obsession with healthy eating). By drawing attention to food and exercise, in particular labelling food definitively as ‘good’ and ‘bad’, even the seemingly helpful and healthy lifestyles can become harmful. By presenting a certain individual’s lifestyle as objectively correct, it ignores the subjectivity of health and the differing individual needs of each person. This idea is particularly damaging in the current climate of the pandemic. Narratives around lockdown weight gain/loss have been circulating the media continuously throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, forcing many to reflect on their own body, fitness and diet. Added to the fact that internet and social media usage has simultaneously increased rapidly, the narrative of weight and body image is inescapable. Therefore, all of the aforementioned damaging rhetoric circulating TikTok has been magnified through the lens of the pandemic, perpetuating a culture of pressure surrounding weight, image and diet. Much of the main demographic of TikTok already felt these pressures, but social media has heightened these anxieties.
Whilst TikTok is not revolutionary in its promotion of diet culture, it is simply packaging and promoting a perpetual cycle that dominates mainstream society in a new way. The power of influence through social media, and especially TikTok because of its algorithm, creates the potential for extremely damaging ideas to be promoted to impressionable young people. Indeed, the youthful demographic of TikTok must be taken into consideration by the users creating and posting the harmful content, whether intentional or unintentional. Without necessarily looking for this content, it is being presented to users, putting ideas of diet and ‘health’ continuously into their consciousness which, without further regulation, could lead to further problems surrounding mental health and eating disorders.