TikTok Is the New Home for Thinspo
Given the app’s young userbase, the rise of ‘thinspirational’ videos — seen by billions — is worrying
Towards the end of December, TikTok’s content soundtracked by “All I Want For Christmas” was beginning to wane, and videos focused on weight loss goals for the New Year started to appear.
One of the most ubiquitous trends features users creating a “weight loss shake” comprised of cucumber, pineapple, and water. While that might seem like a dangerous concoction even to someone without a background in nutrition, certified nutritionists on TikTok were quick to make split-screen videos outlining just how misguided using the drink as a meal replacement can be.
While there is an increasing number of health professionals using their own TikTok videos to spread information about healthy weight loss, users sharing dangerous tips, misguided encouragement, and a fair amount of body-shaming still appear on the platform, reminiscent of #thinspo communities on older social media platforms.
#thinspo, online communities championing disordered eating, have been making headlines since the early 2010s, popping up on everything from Tumblr to Pinterest. TikTok content that could fall under this umbrella can sometimes be found under the tag #thinspiration, though other hashtags like #weightloss and #weightlosscheck also feature users outlining daily food habits with very, very low calorie counts. While these tags can also be a place for those who have lost weight in a healthy way to share and celebrate their progress, there are plenty of videos on the platform that champion losing weight fast, seemingly at any cost. And combined, videos posted using those three tags have a combined 2.1 billion views.
According to TikTok’s recently-updated community guidelines, “Content that promotes eating habits that are likely to cause health issues is also not allowed on the platform.” Forbidden content includes“pro-ana or other dangerous behavior to lose weight.”
The guidelines make the distinction that content around eating disorder recovery and other forms of support for those in recovery is allowed, and the platform has been a place for eating disorder (ED) survivors to post triumphs and words of support for others. But “thinspiration” content still gets through. TikTok did not respond to multiple requests for comment for this story.
Hannah Magee, a registered dietitian who has been creating TikTok content for about two months, described another troubling meme making the rounds. “I definitely have seen content that glamorizes or normalizes disordered eating among young women, which is really unfortunate.” Magee points to the use of Ke$ha’s ‘Your Love is My Drug’, with its line “Maybe I need some rehab”, as promoting unhealthy behavior. “There were many teens using this audio to share and joke about restricting food, binge-eating and over-exercising.”
Magee has noticed more of this troublesome content on TikTok than other social platforms. “From what I’ve seen so far, I think that I’ve seen more disordered or unhealthy content on TikTok in such a short amount of time than other social media platforms that I use,” she said. “That could be due to the fact that I really filter out my Instagram and Twitter pages from any accounts that promote diet culture and disordered behaviors and I find it’s a little harder to that on the For You Page of TikTok.”
“As TikTok gets more popular, we will see more and more misinformation being put out”
According to Sarah Grace Meckelberg, a registered dietician with a masters in exercise physiology, the main examples of disordered eating content on the platform she’s encountered include videos that showcase severe cases of undereating as well as “weird detox drinks like one with lemon and cucumber.” Beyond critiquing dangerous trends like the cucumber shake in split-screen videos, Mackelberg has also attempted to combat what she describes as “nutrition fake news.”
For Brittany Mock, a TikTok user who has a BS and an MS in nutrition and dietetics, user’s comments on certain videos showcase the body-shaming happening on the platform. “I have also noticed several accounts calling out ‘fat people’ stating why they are fat, as if they know the reason without even knowing the person. That is the kind of content we shouldn’t be seeing on social media because we know from research that weight gain and obesity can be due to a variety of reasons. Diet culture is so embedded in our lives, most don’t realize how even subtle comments and actions can affect someone.”
Though Mock said when it comes to her TikTok content she’s “absolutely trying to combat diet culture,” she isn’t seeing too much disordered eating content spreading on the platform — for now. “I will say Instagram and Facebook have a lot more unhealthy content on their platforms due to the popularity of them being higher,” Mock said. “I can predict as TikTok gets more popular, we will see more and more misinformation being put out.”