If you haven’t been blissfully living your days offline over the past year of the Panacotta, chances are you’ve been sucked down the glorious rabbit hole that is TikTok. The TikTok algorithm learns what you like to watch very quickly, and tailors the feed of videos that it shows you based on your watch, like, and interaction history. This can be great if you want a constant stream of dog videos—but if you’ve found yourself watching videos revolving around weight and appearance, it can be hard to escape the harmful messages that come along with them.
When I was a teenager, I had a very unhealthy relationship with food. I was never a skinny person; I had fuller hips and thighs and more of a belly than most of my friends. I struggled with body image and felt ashamed of looking the way I did, and despite being healthy enough, I would obsessively count calories and stare my body down in the mirror, listing to myself the things I would change and the lumps that I wanted to disappear. I didn’t feel as if I had one of the body shapes that gains automatic respect in our world.
It’s taken me years to get it into my head that there’s nothing wrong with the way that I look. I’m several pounds heavier than I was when I was filled with self-hatred, and I’m a lot more comfortable with myself. Despite this, some of the TikTok trends that have popped up on my feed over the last year have felt like a bit of a gut punch.
A major trend that recently emerged on the app is what I refer to as “filter reveals.” In these reveals, a person applies one of TikTok’s countless face-distorting filters before removing it (usually on the beat drop of a song) to reveal what they really look like. The trend supposedly started as a way for users to combat their own body dysmorphia. The idea was that by completely distorting their face, when they removed the filter they could get a glimpse of what they truly look like to other people. But these reveals have descended into something a lot less positive and inclusive; most of the reveals I see are steeped in body-shaming and fatphobia.
The main problem that I have with these filters is that some of them make a person resemble how other people, including myself, actually look. A prime example of this is the chubby face filter, which makes the user look like they’ve gained weight in their cheeks, as seen in this video. When the user removes the filter, they’re skinny again, which is seen as the desired end result. The messages behind these TikToks are clear: thank God I don’t actually look like that, right? Thank God I’m not fat!
It’s not just the chubby face reveal that follows this rhetoric. There are also filter trends where users can “test” how conventionally attractive they are, and duet with others to compare results. Examples of these TikToks include the stargazing trend, wherein people lie on their backs and place their phone where someone else’s head would be to see what the other person would see of their side profile when they’re lying down, the teeth test, wherein users use a yellow color selector to test how yellow their teeth are, the "how photogenic are you" test, and the asymmetry test, wherein users test how symmetrical their faces are. These TikToks normally fall into one of two categories: A. a self-deprecating person shows that they did “badly” in the test and laughs at themself, or B. a conventionally attractive person shows that they did “well” and smugly shares it for all to see.
Of course, I have to mention the before-and-after TikToks. These include weight loss videos, nose job transformations, jaw surgery content, and so on. While there’s nothing necessarily insidious about this content, it still glorifies changing your body to fit into the expected, societal beauty standard—which is not only an unhealthy goal but likely unachievable for various reasons including money, free time, and living situation, especially during a pandemic.
In the light of 34% of 10-15 year old girls reporting being unhappy with their bodies, having content like this bouncing around TikTok sandwiched between makeup tutorials and cute farmyard animals almost certainly does more harm than good. It’s easy to imagine how the messages of “you’re not good enough” could get cemented in the psyche of their audience, especially if they’re already vulnerable to feeling bad about the way they look. With the algorithm wired to feed back content that you interact with, TikTok allows users to get caught in an echo chamber of body-shaming that it can be hard to knowingly escape from.
Picture a teenage girl, insecure about her weight, watching TikToks to distract herself from the dumpster fire that was 2020. She has struggled, like millions of other people, to stay motivated to exercise and eat well during these months of indoor purgatory. However, because she liked a video last week about a weight-loss journey, the algorithm flashes up another video with a chubby reveal. She sees someone put on a digital mask and pretend to look like she does, and then remove it for dramatic effect in showing how much of a thrill it is to be conventionally attractive. This kind of content would have completely destroyed my self-confidence when I was younger and more vulnerable to messages about my body and my worth. For me, Tumblr used to fill the role that TikTok does today, which was scattered with #thinspo content that taught me from a young age that I looked wrong—that I should look like the girls in the grayscale pictures with thigh gaps and cigarettes in their mouths.
Of course, the algorithm responds to what you interact with, so a way to stop seeing this content would be to minimize engagement with these appearance-based TikToks. But as anyone who has ever experienced an eating disorder or other unhealthy relationship with their body would know, it’s easy to get sucked into an obsessive spiral of self-hatred. Even now, after all the progress I’ve made over the years, I find myself sadly liking a weight-loss journey video and berating myself for not being good enough. Just like that, the algorithm spews up more videos about weight loss, and I’m stuck.
I’m not suggesting that people should stop making any content revolving around their own looks for fear of upsetting other people. That has always happened on the internet, and it always will. But it’s important to consider the effects that our online content can have on others’ mental health. It might have saved me years of staring in the mirror, pinching my love handles, and hating my big nose, and it might do the same for today’s teenagers. So instead of pretending to be a caricature of a fat person and revealing you’re skinny for clout, celebrate yourself in a way that doesn’t make other people feel bad about themselves. We need to try to not pull others down in our attempts to bring ourselves up, especially during a year when it’s been hard for so many to feel beautiful in their own skin. It might just change a teenage girl’s life.