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Mental Health

How TikTok is Continuing A Cycle of Toxic Diet Culture

I’m sure you have seen the widely popular “What I Eat In a Day” videos on TikTok. If you have not, they are exactly what they sound like – Tik Tokers showcasing what they have eaten in a day often including captions stating when the user had a snack or what time they ate. Their popularity has grown substantially, permeating my timeline in the last few weeks.  I recently stumbled upon a “What I Eat in a Day” where the person had frozen bananas and powdered peanut butter for breakfast, two Kind bars, some string cheese, and pretzels for the entire day. Sadly, this is not an uncommon experience on TikTok. Many of these videos consist of the TikToker eating a mere 1200 calories a day and some include the person not only barely eating, but also heavily exercising. These videos are filmed with the facade that the user is living a healthy existence when, in reality, a healthy existence means eating the things you love in moderation, nourishing your body, and exercising regularly. Instead, TikTok perpetuates the myth that in order to be beautiful one must be skinny and inadvertently promotes eating disorders. By labeling certain foods as healthier than others and showcasing that someone’s day of “normal eating” consists of eating small portions in order to “stay fit,” their content romanticizes and promotes an unhealthy lifestyle. TikTok is not revolutionary in its promotion of diet culture – instead it is simply packaging and promoting a perpetual cycle that dominates mainstream society in a new way.

Millions of people face the reality of having an eating disorder every day. According to the National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders approximately 30 million people in the United States have an eating disorder. Women tend to be more likely to be affected than men and, according to the American Psychiatric Association, eating disorders are the third most common diagnosis in adolescent females. 

Eating disorders have long been romanticized in the media as a way for the pretty, popular girl to stay skinny. In the 1988 film Heathers, there is a scene where the Heathers are in the school bathroom and Heather Duke is heard gagging in one of the stalls. The other Heathers, in response, say “grow up Heather, bulimia is so ‘87.”  Similarly in Means Girls, Regina George is constantly trying to lose weight and famously asks the quotable line, “Is butter a carb?”  The mass media presents to us images of women who tend to fit into a size double zero to size four range. While the average model wears a size four, the average American woman is a size sixteen to eighteen. Women are constantly being told that they need to physically shrink themselves to be beautiful and TikTok only continues this harmful narrative. 

While TikTokers are not innovative in their romanticization of eating disorders, what distinguishes Tik Tok from other social media platforms, or even the past dominant forms of mass media,  like television and magazines,  is its algorithm. Unlike Instagram or Twitter, TikTokers do not rely on their followers seeing their content or their follower’s network. Instead, TikTok uses an algorithm that is best explained through their “For You Page”- or just “FYP.” The FYP is essentially your feed on Tik Tok and the more you scroll through TikTok and like content the more personalized that your “For You Page” will become.  According to TikTok “The system recommends content by ranking videos based on a combination of factors — starting from interests you express as a new user and adjusting for things you indicate you’re not interested in, too.” TikTok is completely based on the content you interact with so if you are a college student and enjoy watching the occasional fitness TikTok or even TikToks with cooking recipes you might come upon a “What I Eat in A Day Video.” Even if you could care less about nutrition the mere fact that you are a young woman means you might come across a post where other women of your demographic are promoting unhealthy eating habits. A large amount of TikTok’s algorithm also has to do with the use of hashtags. The hashtags that young women use for their regular content tend to have hashtags in common with those that they use when unconsciously promoting diet culture. These content creators are using common hashtags in order to gain more traction by ending up on users’ FYP and as they gain traction they continue to promote diet culture – a culture that people tend to interact with and even glorify.  

Content creators on TikTok who put unrealistic “What I Eat in A Day” videos or make jokes that they’ve lost weight by chewing excessive amounts of gum, drinking water, and constantly being on the calorie app Fitness Pal, may not realize the harm they are causing. But this harm is inevitable, which is why I salute those in the comments who kindly tell these creators how potentially triggering these types of videos are to others. It is also comforting when I look at these comments that I am not the only one who may be triggered by these videos or who feels disheartened. It is understandable that these creators may be dealing with their own issues surrounding their bodies, but they need to be made aware of the impact of their videos. They also need to be conscious that even if they turn off the comments or put a trigger warning that due to the nature of how TikTok app is programmed these videos may show up on the For You Page of someone actively recovering from an eating disorder or combatting one. 

I would like to highlight some body positive TikTokers like former Trojan and D1 athlete Victoria Garrick (@victoriagarrick4),  Emily Rios (itsemilyrios) who is a content creator that focuses on advocate for self love and inclusivity, and high schooler Rianna Kish (@riannakish) who is in recovery from bulimia. All of these women’s goals are to normalize eating through TikTok as an important function needed to stay alive in addition to putting out content that allows people to enjoy food guilt-free. 

To all the TikTok creators out there, I implore you to think about the type of content you are putting out surrounding food and body image before you publish it. I want you to remember all of the young women on the app who are looking at these videos. I want you to be aware that most girls begin dieting at the age of eight. But, most importantly I want to remind you that you have the power to combat a negative cycle of dieting prominent in the mass media and that you have the power to remind others and yourself that their bodies are strong. There are impressionable minds watching your videos. If you yourself are dealing with an eating disorder, please seek help.  Society and the mass media has made strides in the last few years with the appearance of more plus-sized models, more body positive campaigns, and social media creators who are fighting for body positivity. However, we must continue pushing for change. So let’s use this tool to stop a continuous cycle of diet culture and let me know if you want to make a body positive TikTok with me after you read this!

If you are struggling with an eating disorder the National Eating Disorder Association’s phone hotline is (800) 931-2237 you can also text them at (800) 931-2237.  Their official website is https://www.nationaleatingdisorders.org/help-support/contact-helpline.

Arianne is a sophomore majoring in Law, History, and Culture at the University of Southern California and minoring in Communications. Besides writing she is a politics junkie, coffee aficionado, and co-founder of the platform Trojan Herstory. She is originally a Texan but has always believed she belonged on the west coast. To keep up with her antics at attempting to be cool visit @ari.2901 or her platform @trojanherstory.
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