For many young and impressionable individuals, scrolling through the “For You” Page on TikTok is like walking a very thin line between uplifting body-positive content and a toxic plethora of eating disorder triggers. It’s a dangerous place where everything is seemingly tailored to keep you from closing the app. Say you spend a few extra seconds examining a video of a girl flaunting an hourglass figure you can’t believe isn’t the product of some insane photoshopping skills. Keep scrolling, and now you’ve got ten more videos of equally beautiful, thin girls to compare yourself to. Social media is built to give you the impression that you have control over the content you consume. However, on TikTok there’s really no way to prevent triggering videos from showing up in your feed. Even the most insignificant ways you use the app factor into the complex algorithm that may be contributing to negative self-image and unrealistic idealizations.
TikTok’s algorithm is relentless, and it’s no surprise that the app has been accused of body shaming and discriminatory actions against creators who don’t fit its beauty standards. In 2019, the social media platform came under fire for admitting to filtering out videos by creators who didn’t align with the general characteristics of many successful TikTok stars: thin, white, pretty, privileged… you get the idea. According to documents obtained by The Intercept, moderators at TikTok were instructed to “suppress posts created by users deemed too ugly, poor, or disabled for the platform.” TikTok spokesperson Josh Gartner went on to tell The Intercept these actions “represented an early blunt attempt at preventing bullying.” However, many users and creators alike believe that ulterior motives were at work.
Even now, many plus-size and body-positive creators struggle to connect with audiences on the platform and feel the need to limit their content for fear of being censored, put under review, and even banned from the app. Mikayla or “Mik” Zazon, a fitness influencer and founder of the #NormalizeNormalBodies movement, posts content aimed at encouraging others to love their flaws and celebrate their differences. She has also been adamant in raising her concerns about the biased nature of TikTok’s community guidelines against plus-size bodies. Zazon told the New York Post that she has had over 40 videos removed for violating community guidelines however believes it was not her content breaking any rules- rather she was censored for “not portraying the ideal body type.” In a similar scenario last year, famous pop singer Lizzo called out the app for removing several of her videos. Addressing TikTok directly, she posted a new video for her 16 million followers in which she questions why videos of her in a bathing suit were being taken down while the app allows other bikini-clad women to post without any violations.
What is even more alarming is the way the app allows for the glorification of eating disorders and other unhealthy routines and habits. While the community guidelines explicitly prohibit “content that depicts, promotes, normalizes, or glorifies eating disorders or other dangerous weight-loss behaviors,” there is still no shortage of videos being uploaded to the app that fall into these categories. Users who are actively documenting their eating disorders, even if it is meant to showcase “recovery” can be harmful when viewed by vulnerable individuals. Topics such as “what I eat in a day,” dieting and exercise challenges, and thin creators constantly body checking themselves in videos can promote a warped sense of recovery. Without proper guidance, many viewers may also try to mimic these behaviors in order to achieve a similar weight or figure.
Are these situations merely a coincidence? Or is there a case to be made that TikTok is trying to promote a certain standard for what a women’s body should look like? Why are plus-size creators facing obstacles on the app that don’t affect their skinny counterparts? Women of all body types should have equal opportunities to find success on the app and connect with their audiences in a beneficial way.
I had the opportunity to speak with Kiki Evans, a non-binary queer TikTok creator and Wilhelmina curve model whose content is normalizing the coexistence of beauty and sex appeal in a plus-size body. Here is their take on the issue of body image and its portrayal on TikTok.
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What is the focus of your content on TikTok? Is there a certain message you hope to encourage or inspire among other users and creators on the app?
From looking at my page it appears that most of my content is fairly surface level. To some extent this is true- my videos are usually just me existing as a confident, queer, fat person. The reason that I am encouraged to continue to create content is that I want to contribute to the fat liberation movement as much as I can, although I didn’t start off with this intention. I began creating because I was confident and wanted to post when I felt and looked good. However, as soon as I began posting the hate comments began to flood my inbox, hundreds of people trying to use my weight as an insult against me. It in no way impacted my self-esteem or self-worth, rather challenged the reasons why I am on the app. I know I am fat. I have eyes, I have a mirror and a scale. I also love myself. I think I am sexy, worthy, intelligent, and deserve to be on the app as much as my straight-sized friends. Ironically, a lot of fat folks have expressed anger that I don’t hate myself or I’m not ashamed of my body. On the flip side, I have gotten messages from people who have been positively influenced by my videos, saying that it was the first time they had seen their body type being represented in this way. I plan to continue to create and reinforce the narrative that you can be hot and fat. Being fat is not something to be scared of.
Regarding the incident in 2019 in which TikTok was suppressing content from fat creators, what are your thoughts on this? Do you believe that ulterior motives were at work? Have you had similar experiences as a plus-size creator, where your videos were put under review or flagged for suspicious reasons?
I have been censored many times by the app for reasons I believe to be relating to my body type and size. Many of my videos are put under review, and even taken down or flagged after they finally upload. Last summer, I was banned from going live because the app claimed my previous live contained “pornographic content” when I was just eating dinner in a sweatshirt and sweatpants. From my understanding, this type of censorship is something that does not happen often with thin people. I have seen plus-size creators test this theory by creating an almost identical video to that of a thin person and having their video taken down. I believe it is likely there is a bias in their software to discourage diversity.
Clearly, you are using your platform for good. However, there is still so much negativity and harmful content on the app. Ultimately, do you think the good outweighs the bad?
As silly as it seems, I have found a real community on TikTok. I have so many more fat friends, lesbian friends, and non-binary friends. I do think that the app encourages niches on a small scale, however, I also recognize how harmful it is for some people’s body image. TikTok, just like other forms of social media, has the potential to do a lot of damage to a person’s self-worth. I don’t really believe that any social media platform is set up to encourage true diversity. At the end of the day, these apps are going to continue to perpetuate society’s harmful standards of beauty. While I don’t know for sure that the good outweighs the bad on TikTok, I do know that I want to keep pumping as much good into it as I can. Ultimately, I hope to help support the positive change in the narrative around the standard of beauty and body image.