Editor's Note: For those who struggle with body image, eating disorders or disordered eating, Belcher recommends resources provided by the nutrition services at the University Health Center as well as the National Eating Disorder Association.
Quarantine hit. Doors shut. Students resigned to their bedrooms and phones lit up with the notorious 15-60 second viral challenges that encompass the TikTok app. For many, those challenges consisted of content that would threaten to dismantle their healthy relationship with food.
Although TikTok provided a ubiquitous distraction for college students in a time of lockdown, creators participated in trends such as “what I eat in a day” that fostered harmful impacts for those struggling with body image, eating disorders and disordered eating.
Damage is done
“You might look at somebody’s body, you might look at what they’re eating and say ‘That’s what I need to be doing,’” said Melanie Ng, a Ph.D. student in the University of Georgia’s Department of Foods and Nutrition.
While TikTok content exists that is helpful to users, videos encouraging the “ideal body type” and diets consisting of minimal eating typically won favor, making way for damaging bodily comparisons that might not have been intended by creators.
“It’s really triggering to see that kind of stuff and not know that there’s a different, better and safer way to love yourself that doesn’t involve what these people are promoting,” Ng said.
Registered dietician and nutrition counseling coordinator Staci Belcher emphasized that in these 15-60 second soundbites of information provided by TikTok, balanced nutrition isn’t usually demonstrated.
“That’s incredibly unhelpful when you’re trying to figure out what works best for your body, and you’re being bombarded with what other people are eating or doing in terms of caring for their bodies,” Belcher said.
TikTok’s algorithm further escalated negative body image as users weren’t able to tailor their feed as much as they could on Instagram or Twitter, which increased the likeliness of a triggering video unexpectedly popping up.
“If someone clicks onto a YouTube video, and they’re not interested the first 15 or 20 seconds, they’ll click off. But with TikTok, the damage is done,” Belcher said.
In this last year, Belcher has received feedback concerning TikTok and its negative impact on students’ body image experience and eating disorder experience.
Filtering the feed
Although TikTok has added trigger warnings to videos pertaining to eating disorders, pro-eating disorder content continues to slip through the cracks, coming off as harmless but persisting in its damaging effects on users.
Ng’s advice is to stay skeptical when scrolling through TikTok as the videos probably hold more nuance to them.
“I made the commitment to unfollow accounts that made me feel wrong in some way and instead follow accounts that were more aligned with how I wanted to view food in my body,” Ng said.
Despite the onslaught of injurious diet trends, a small army of dieticians like Belcher and advocates for body positivity attempt to combat diet culture on the TikTok platform with the hashtags #bodypositivity and #antidiet.
“There’s another way. There are people spreading this different message that you don’t have to eat like someone, you don’t have to workout like someone, you don’t have to be a certain size to love yourself, to love your body and be healthy,” Ng said.