TikTok is proof that we can't outrun toxic diet culture

The unhealthy beauty standards that defined social media in the 2010s are back, and they’re putting young people at risk

The app promotes unhealthy health 'tips.'

While traditional media may have eased up on the promotion of diet culture in recent years, social media allows anyone to grow a platform and advocate for dangerous standards of beauty. On TikTok, gaining that platform is now easier than ever.

In 2020, TikTok has taken the throne as the new king of social media. The Chinese video-sharing platform boasts over 800 million active users, outperforming platforms like Twitter and Reddit which have been around for over a decade. The app is arguably the most influential platform for today’s youth.

TikTok’s algorithm works in mysterious ways, curating personalized feeds for each individual user based on the content they interact with. The nature of TikTok allows anybody to go viral, making it easy for dangerous or hurtful messages to reach large amounts of young people with little fact-checking or accountability.

Although it seems like everyone’s on TikTok nowadays, the app’s largest demographic in North America is young women. In the United States, female users outnumber males nearly two to one.

The eclectic content on TikTok means you never know what might pop onto your feed next. One minute, you could be watching someone rank Barbie movies from best to worst, and the next you’re being hit with dieting tips from an 18-year-old who probably doesn’t have a degree in nutrition. 

Often, this type of advice is portrayed as ‘helpful’ and ‘inspiring’ health and fitness content. 

At a closer look, it’s apparent that these videos are anything but positive, promoting thinness over health and moderation. 

It’s eerily reminiscent of another era when mainstream social media was flooded with content promoting unhealthy and unsustainable ideas of what diet and exercise should look like.

In the early 2010s, popular internet culture was the biggest advocate for toxic dieting. Many of us would have been young teens when we first came across a post on Tumblr or Instagram that made young people—women, in particular—question whether their bodies looked the way they should. It was an exhausting exercise in learning exactly how harmful social media can be. 

Over time, anti-diet culture sentiment grew louder and louder until the tides changed. For the past few years, mainstream diet culture seems to have been heavily subdued on popular social media websites. Of course, the content is still around—particularly if you follow the Kardashians —but Skinny Tea promotions are no longer the first thing unsuspecting teens see when they open a social media app. 

TikTok has seen a resurgence of the type of content we were starting to rid ourselves of. There’s now a generation of teenagers on social media who were too young to experience the death of the thigh gap, and they seem to be in danger of falling victim to the same body-image traps we did.      

“What I eat in a day” videos have become advertisements for under-eating. Body transformation videos that encourage rapid weight loss have become competitive challenges. There’s a consistent underlying message to this type of viral content: your body is inadequate, and you need to be working to change it. 

It’s the same message every generation receives in some form or another, packaged in a different product with a $39.99 price tag. Even when juice cleanses are no longer popular, there’s always something waiting in the weight-loss-wings to take its place. 

This revival proves that toxic diet culture isn’t dead, and that we’re going to have to actively fight against unrealistic beauty standards for generations to come.

As we move forward, there’s hope that we can do so with accountability. When Rae Wellness’ Metabolism Drops went viral on TikTok earlier this year as a weight loss hack among underage users, the company made the decision to pull the product from shelves. This choice proves that while the fight against diet culture isn’t over, we aren’t back at the starting line.

If we continue to fight for a factual and realistic representation of health online, we can create a better version of social media, one where nobody feels their body is inferior. We need to protect young people from the toxic dieting culture of the past, and that needs to start on TikTok.


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