Very OnlineTikTok Has Embraced Pro-Eating Disorder Content in Quarantine

Photo credit: Roger Karlsson/Flickr/Creative Commons

Despite being nearly 30 years old, two things are still true for me: I spend a hell of a lot of time on TikTok (justified by my various social-media side gigs), and I have found myself overwhelmed by the ever-increasing pro-anorexia or pro-ana content on TikTok. Especially since quarantine started, a sort of spiral has begun: Young girls and women started posting harmless videos about at-home workouts viewers could do without the gym—given their disappearance from everyday life as shutdowns continue around the United States—and then users began posting their “what I eat in a day” videos, and then, before you knew it, there were meal-replacement hacks and ways to avoid eating this or that or to count this or that. The line between workout videos and straight-up weight-loss content became so fine that it was clear that TikTok, especially regarding videos targeted at young women via an algorithm, was fully embracing the dangerous pro-ana culture of its predecessors.

“Toxic diet culture and pro–eating disorder messaging is disguised in popular video challenges, catchy sounds, and relatable memes within the TikTok app,” Victoria Garrick, a 23-year-old TikTok creator and TED Talk speaker told Bitch. “This makes younger users, who are extremely impressionable, even more susceptible to the harmful storyline that starvation is ‘trending’ and thin bodies are ‘bible.’” Garrick, who posts videos to encourage young women to accept their bodies—like TikToks about accepting bloating as a normal state—explains that TikToks are more than silly videos that exist in a vacuum. They do real damage. “What might seem like funny, self-deprecating humor, (cough all the thin women joking about looking like ‘mammoths’ cough) is actually promoting damaging messaging about the ways we should perceive our own bodies,” Garrick said.

Who does the responsibility truly lie with: the platform or the creators of such content? In many ways, the answer is both, with the creators being easier to target than massive, well-funded platforms (Disney’s head of streaming, Kevin Mayer, became TikTok’s CEO in May). “These homemade ‘fitness gurus’ don’t understand the lasting repercussions this type of content has on younger, impressionable users,” explained TikTok user Averie Bishop, a Southern Methodist University law student and Miss Dallas 2021. Given her position, Bishop has been asked to post videos about her workout and eating habits, and she has refused. “I commend them for wanting to help others, but if you’re not professionally certified or educated, it’s best that you refrain from pushing out this content.” Pro-ana content isn’t new: Hayley Phelan pointed out in a 2014 article for Fashionista that this issue began long before the advent of social media.

Magazines have long encouraged their largely female readership to hate their bodies and to purchase products that wittled their bodies down. “It’s worth noting that many of these so-called ‘thinspo’ images originally appeared in the pages of mainstream fashion magazines,” Phelan wrote. “We’ve come to accept that photos of super-thin models will populate the pages of some of our favorite magazines, but here’s the thing: What’s the difference between an image of a bikini-clad model, under the headline of ‘Lose 5 Pounds Now!’ in the pages of a fashion mag and that very same image tagged as ‘thinspo’ on Pinterest?” The rise of social media, beginning with Yahoo and AOL chat rooms, also brought more pro-ana content that young people could access and spread amongst themselves quickly.

Photo credit: TikTok/@averiebishop/@empatheticbean/@katelynnnolann

“Web sites that are pro-ana, or pro-anorexia, and pro-mia—pro-bulimia—appear to be growing, despite efforts by groups led by former sufferers and eating-disorder organizations to push them off mainstream venues like Yahoo and AOL,” the New York Times noted in a 2002 article. “The young women who congregate on the sites have their own lexicon: tips they share are called ‘thinspiration,’’ for instance. Their online names reflect their desires, like ‘WannaBpurrrfect’’ ‘00anagoddess00’ and ‘PurfectLeighThin.’” Unlike the print magazines of yore, social media allows pro-ana content to do constant damage. Platforms like Tumblr and Instagram are different from those that came before them in large part because of hashtags, Lee explained.

“Words and photos that glorify eating disorders have always lived online. But in the era of MySpace, Geocities, and AOL Instant Messenger, hashtags didn’t exist to let strangers quickly find and form like-minded groups,” Lee said. When Pinterest joined the fray, it found itself forced to battle what Jezebel called “thinspo boards.” Across social media, women found themselves targeted by imagery, graphics, messaging, and even ads that told them their bodies were wrong, and should be different. As modern social-media platforms grew in size and prominence, the way that users discuss eating disorders, and where these conversations take place, have also shifted and grown. And it has become increasingly more difficult to combat. “Four years after these platforms adopted official approaches to pro–eating disorder content, the landscape is as complicated as ever,” Stephanie M. Lee wrote in a 2016 article for BuzzFeed. Lee noted that while Tumblr and Instagram said they are working to hide concerning posts, and to redirect people searching pro-eating disorder terms to resources, it’s not an easy task.

A 2016 study published in the Frontiers in Psychology journal found that “[O]verall, across both platforms, extreme pro-ana posts were in the minority compared to anti-ana and pro-recovery. Pro-ana posts (including ‘thinspiration’) were more common on Twitter than Tumblr, whereas anti-ana and pro-recovery posts were more common on Tumblr.” The researchers noted that “[D]evelopers of future interventions targeting negative pro-ana content should remain aware of the need to avoid any detrimental impact on positive online support.” And this is true even in 2020: The same hashtags tend to be used on both pro-ana and body positive content, each zeroing in on the same or similar audiences. The former wants to target people struggling with body-image issues and suck them into these negative spaces, whereas the latter wants to lead those struggling with body image into spaces that encourage them to instead love their bodies.

“We’re seeing videos of people doing before and afters of their pre- and postquarantine bodies, making jokes about how they need to lose X amount of pounds before they can leave the house again.”

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For example, a TikTok user might use a “thinspiration” hashtag to enter into and challenge a space dominated by those who encourage disordered eating habits. Many of the posts aren’t intentionally designed to cause harm. Nevertheless, they do. “Some videos show exactly what these users eat and even go as far as [to] list the exact amount of calories they consume on a daily basis,” Bishop said. “Perhaps these users don’t initially understand how impressionable their TikTok followers are, and maybe they have ‘good intentions,’ but they quickly gather thousands of followers for their false promises of tinier waists and abs.” Young TikTok users post videos about limiting their caloric intake and teaching one another to pose in angles that make their bodies appear smaller onscreen. They’re even having conversations about which body parts are bad, which is similar to the conversations about the thigh gap that plagued me and my friends in the 2000s.

“Fourteen-year-old [teens] now have unlimited access to crudely created ‘at-home detox’ programs and ‘calorie-burning’ workouts,” Bishop explained. “These brief videos highlight thin, influencer-[type] women who claim that their weight-loss journey is one that we all share.” TikTok is unique in that it relies on both sounds and videos. If enough users (or users with large followings) post a video showing off or judging X body part to Y song or sound, it becomes a trend, which encourages other users to show off or judge that same body part. TikTok’s very function, then, results in a parade of self-criticism and helps young users justify this behavior since everyone else is doing it. This is concerning, given what we know about the internet’s ability to spread pro-ana content.

“Many of these ‘fitness influencers’ do not have nutrition certifications or professional fitness training,” Bishop said. “Further, these videos are riddled with comments such as, ‘Why am I even alive,’ and ‘I should just go jump off a bridge now.’ Comments such as these highlight the toxic environment created by this type of content.” This content has flourished during quarantine, especially among college students and other young women who have experienced a shift in their environment: They’re no longer at school, where they have access to dining halls and gyms, and are now attempting to control their home environments to make them equally restrictive. “This issue has gotten increasingly worse since quarantine,” Garrick said. “We’re seeing videos of people doing before and afters of their pre- and post-quarantine bodies, making jokes about how they need to lose X amount of pounds before they can leave the house again, and many accounts are even promoting false and harmful theories.”

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TikTok itself is also encouraging this behavior by promoting ads that encourage weight loss. In the past few months, I’ve gotten ads about fasting (courtesy of Fastic, a fasting app) no less than three times, with captions like, “This is how you get fit!” overlaid on images of skinny white women. I’ve also seen ads from an app called Simple, which promotes intermittent fasting based on your body type along with the caption, “Stop dieting, start fasting!” I’ve seen the same products used over and over as “tricks,” largely by teen girls and women in their early 20s. One such product by Rae, a new wellness brand, went so viral as a de-bloating trick and weight loss hack among young users (despite the product not being made of anything that could actually produce results) that the brand pulled the product altogether. It’s easy to examine these trends and ask: Why don’t parents just delete the app from their teenager’s phone? Because we know social media is never just social media, and these TikTok trends are indicative of what children are being exposed to across platforms.

YouTubers have been compiling TikTok videos and trying out viral TikTok weight-loss drinks. Some users are even using their platforms to challenge these trends—one user even went as far as to start a Change.org petition to encourage TikTok to ban fasting diets. TikToks have made their way to Reddit, where they are critiqued as readily as they are attempted. Social-media users have never and will never wholly agree on what we should do with pro-ana and pro–weight loss content online. But the least we can do is reckon with its impact, especially on vulnerable young people who are spending hours upon hours on the app in quarantine. “Our fitness and health journeys are different, and I support those who desire to share those journeys with us,” Bishop said. “It’s important to celebrate body positivity and inclusivity, especially on social media. However, there’s a clear line between simply sharing your journey and promoting eating-disorder content. I do my best by refraining from posting videos about content that I am simply not certified in. I encourage you to do the same.” And I encourage us to remember the way that the pro-ana content of years past harmed us in our youth—and pay attention to this newer crop of messaging that can and will cause just as much damage.

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by Rachel Charlene Lewis
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Rachel Charlene Lewis is the Senior Editor at Bitch. She has written about culture, identity, and the internet for publications including i-D, Teen Vogue, Refinery29, Greatist, Glamour, Autostraddle, Ravishly, SELF, StyleCaster, The Frisky (RIP), The Mary Sue, and elsewhere. Her literary work, reviews, and interviews have been published in Catapult, The Los Angeles Review of Books, The Normal School, Publisher’s Weekly, The Offing, and in several other magazines. She is on Twitter and Instagram, always.