For me and for so many other young women, the lessons of who is beautiful and deserving of love and who is ugly and unworthy of respect were learned on Tumblr, Instagram, and, most recently, TikTok.
The common TikTok hashtag “What I Eat in a Day,” for example, features users sharing what meals and snacks they eat over the course of a normal day. Videos usually show clips of each food item as well as a timestamp indicating when the poster ate each meal. Green smoothies, colorful salads, avocado toast, matcha lattes, and pasta dishes are all common staples in this kind of content. And coffee—lots of coffee.
These TikToks allow users to get an insight into how other people are eating — and, perhaps, how they should be eating too. But there’s really no way of knowing whether the food consumption represented in these 60-second video clips is truly representative of actual dietary habits. It’s easy to lie or simply twist the truth in an effort to come off as healthier, daintier, or more in control of our food habits than we really are.
In a lot of the videos included in the trend, there is an unspoken message about what makes someone beautiful, successful, or skinny. Many of the girls who post these videos are conventionally attractive, with toned stomachs (that they often purposefully display) and fresh faces. Of course, there’s nothing inherently wrong with a beautiful person talking about their food habits. But when the internet becomes oversaturated with that sort of content, it creates an environment where young women and girls begin to take cues from social media creators about how to conform to societal beauty standards, regardless of whether the method is healthy or sustainable. According to an article from the BBC, a systematic review of 20 different research papers published in 2016 found that photo-based activities, such as scrolling through Instagram, correlated to negative body image.
This extremely popular trend is particularly problematic if we consider how this kind of content can fuel disordered eating and unhealthy thoughts concerning body image and food. When one seeks out the “What I Eat in a Day” trend on TikTok, posts discussing weight loss and restrictive dieting pop up, regardless of whether the user actually wanted to see content related to losing weight. Many of the videos in this trend relay the number of calories in each food item. Some of the videos I saw even included TikTokers weighing themselves on camera. While this type of content may seem innocuous to some, those who struggle with body image and their relationship with food can be negatively affected by these videos.
As someone who has friends and family members who have been directly affected by the physical and mental damage that eating disorders can cause, this content worries me. Even more troubling is the “Thinspo” (short for thin inspiration) content that has also become popular on TikTok. According to an article from NBC News, some commentators have drawn a comparison from these TikTok videos to the “pro-Ana” content (short for pro-anorexia) that was prevalent on Tumblr in the early 2010s. One TikTok user who was diagnosed with an eating disorder told NBC News that she felt seeing this content on TikTok was dangerous for people like her who are trying to recover. Further, the competitive nature of eating disorders makes it difficult to simply stop interacting with problematic content.
I’m not arguing TikTok is all bad. During a year defined by social isolation, it has become a way for me to feel connected with other people my age. And there is so much content made specifically to address the problems I’ve discussed—creators explicitly addressing fatphobia and disordered eating and promoting self-care and body positivity. Though it’s easy to come across problematic weight loss content under the “What I Eat in a Day” hashtag, there are also videos there that track users’ progress through eating disorder recovery, exemplifying how they are embracing healthy attitudes towards food. For those struggling with poor body image, these kinds of videos can serve as valuable tools to overcome harmful patterns of behavior. Research has shown that viewing “body-positive” content on social media can boost self-esteem, according to the BBC.
Still, I long for some distant time when I could be alone in my bedroom and not have access to millions upon millions of videos and images (many of which are edited or enhanced) of beautiful people. I want young women to be able to go about their daily lives without the constant reminder that there is always someone prettier and skinner and more toned and less tall and with a better nose and a less prominent chin and…I could go on forever.
Some of you may roll your eyes. “Just delete social media!” you scoff.
And you’re right. That is one way to deal with the problem. But for many of us, especially the younger members of Gen Z who have never known life before Snapchat and Instagram, that solution just isn’t feasible in the long term. According to data from the Global Web Index, the average consumer spends at least 3 hours on social media each day and even longer looking at their smartphones. Life is happening online, whether we like it or not. It’s where people can access breaking news or connect with far-away family and friends. Many people need to be habitually checking social media for their jobs. More and more of everyday life is happening online, so we need to be able to come up with coping strategies for the harmful content we encounter that doesn’t involve simply unplugging for good.
And I’m not sure I do have a solution. Even as someone who is well-aware of the dangers of believing everything I watch when it comes to eating habits and wellness, I still can get drawn in by the false promise of becoming beautiful. But in those moments, it is vital for me to catch myself buying into the hype and remind myself that a TikTok video or Instagram photo is not representative of the complexities and nuances of health, wellness, and beauty. We don’t have to change the way we eat, dress, or live just because we see someone else doing so online.
In the end, it’s going to be hard to avoid potentially triggering content on social media. There will be times when you find yourself feeling hopelessly insecure in the face of endless images of perfect bodies and perfect lives. But remember that “perfect” is a concept that doesn’t exist in real life, where Photoshop and Instagram filters can’t hide the “flaws” that every single person has. No matter what social media creators tell you (or show you), you are always going to be so much more than what your body looks like or which foods you choose to eat.
So the next time someone online shows you what they eat in a day, take it with a grain of salt.