Do you remember reading your mother’s magazines and finding tips on losing weight? Maybe you’ve stumbled upon an infomercial at one a.m. that was advertising fat-shedding pills and products. Or perhaps your friend suggested a new diet plan like paleo, veganism or simply not ingesting food so you can both get your beach bodies ready. Regardless of how you were sucked in, you most likely have been scathed by diet culture.
Diet culture has been prevalent and not to mention extremely detrimental, over the span of many generations. Women are no strangers to magazine articles suggesting less carbs and more pilates. That’s typical dieting, as toxic as it might be. But in this day and age, it has evolved into more of an eating disorder culture. Eating disorders are mental illnesses that consist of abnormal and often unhealthy eating and exercise habits. Socially, they are much more taboo than the typical diet. So how has something so socially acceptable in our culture—dieting—turned into something so drastic?
Well, it’s actually quite simple. How does anything else become popularized in this era? The internet. Trend after trend, Instagram model after Instagram model, TikTok after TikTok, diet culture has quickly morphed into something dangerous.
Congregations and Competition
The problem with these internet platforms is how they categorize people with similar interests into the same subcategories (for instance, the TikTok algorithm). It allows people with eating disorders to congregate and push each other further. Eating disorders are a highly competitive illness by nature. It’s a series of warped goals that are rarely satisfactory once reached. When users constantly post and update their “goal weights” and pounds lost, it inspires others to one-up them and go even further.
When you are surrounded by others with similar mentalities, it becomes a challenge. For example, it’s like being in elementary school and telling someone you stayed up until eleven, only to have them one-up you by saying “well I went to bed at twelve!” Someone will post what they ate in a day with the total calories, only to be met with comments saying “that’s double my daily caloric intake” or “that’s what I eat in a week.” It becomes a quantitative competition, with little consideration for the individual’s personal health and realistic body image.
TikTok is practically a cesspool of pro-anorexic content and competition. Comments underneath a video of a girl dancing read “I wasn’t going to eat anyway,” and “oh to be skinny.” As previously mentioned, another popular trend on the app is showing viewers what you eat in a day and if you haven’t already guessed, there are quite a few issues with it. One-upping, criticizing portions and comparison, to name a few. Some users get creative and post just an iced coffee with a puff bar and call it a day.
There was outrage after Addison Rae, a TikTok star known for her popular dance videos, danced to a song about eating disorders and mental health issues while promoting AE jeans. While I agree that it was quite a tasteless decision, it’s the reaction to the video that was worse. Users duetted the video with their experiences with eating disorders, going into extreme detail about their unhealthy habits. Not only did these reaction videos perform as informational and triggering guides to disordered eating, but they once again catalyzed a series of comparison among other users.
Eating disorder-niche TikTok users claim they’re not a part of the problem—that their videos and accounts displaying their habits and methods are just coping mechanisms. Their intentions unfortunately get lost; eating disorders always feed off each other and grow much worse because of it.
2014 Tumblr Déjà Vu
TikTok is possibly one of the worst platforms that’s promoting disordered eating in our current era of internet use, but it isn’t the first harmful platform of its kind. Many forget that Tumblr was one of the major culprits in creating a competitive eating disorder subculture.
Back in the early 2010’s, the internet went through something of a ‘grunge’ phase. People donned chokers, flannels and Nirvana shirts, listening to the Arctic Monkeys and Lana Del Rey religiously. Essentially, everyone wanted to be a sad nineties girl. It’s no secret that this phase went hand-in-hand with poor mental health and unhealthy romanticization. Substance abuse and suicide glorification were common among these ‘Tumblr girls,’ but eating disorders were the hottest trend.
Cassie from Skins was Tumblr’s it-girl… need I say more? Thigh gaps, Brandy Melville models and pastel tennis skirts were ‘thinspo,’ or inspirations to be thin. Many users tracked their weight loss and daily caloric intake, encouraging others to do the same. You might be wondering why this information even matters, this online phase being so long ago and forgotten? Well, we need to think here—what exactly happened during that era and why do we frown upon it?
Young, impressionable teens were subjected to constant glorification of and coercing into unhealthy lifestyles and guilt surrounding eating, with few restrictions. They were “helpful weight loss strategies” and ways to “beautify” oneself. Is that not exactly what weight-loss marketing and diet culture was doing to women, spanning decades prior? Is that not what we were trying to avoid?
How can we not see that is what’s currently happening on TikTok? Young girls are competing to reach weights, logging their weight loss journeys with daily food intake videos and making cutesy thinspo edits. They’re pushing each other in the comments, punishing themselves for others’ appearances. Whether we can admit it or not, we have reverted back to 2014 Tumblr, an era we regret and mock, yet are currently reliving in a different format.
The Influencer’s Influence
While Tumblr and TikTok have more prevalent traits of eating disorder culture and promotion of it, we often overlook one of the most detrimental elements of the culture: influencers.
Think Flat Tummy Tea ads, iced coffee binges and intermittent fasting. Ever since these Instagram-based internet stars popped up, they’ve had a weight loss agenda. A majority of their followers have consistently been young teens and adolescent women, whether it’s Bethany Mota or Emma Chamberlain. And as their job title entails, their content often influences these young crowds to closely follow their lifestyles. Because of this, Emma Chamberlain is possibly one of the most unintentionally harmful influencers.
Chamberlain is known as the internet’s favorite quirky teen. She thrifts and has acne, but still gets fixed up for Louis Vuitton shows and Paris vlogs. She’s relatable, to an extent, with an underlying hint of unreachable glamor. When she initially grew traction online, her brand consisted of iced coffee, Brandy Melville shopping and more iced coffee. She consistently posted “What I Eat In A Day” videos and former cheerleader workouts.
The star has opened up about her own struggles with disordered eating and body image recently in her interview withCosmopolitan, stating she’s “had problems with eating” due to growing up on the internet. Hearing about Chamberlain’s struggles is truly difficult and heartbreaking, especially since she’s portrayed as such an outgoing figure online. The only problem is that she actively documents her life, with her eating habits included. The mass of teens that have been following her lifestyle—drinking excessive amounts of coffee, exclusively wearing Brandy Melville, eating practically nothing but an avocado all day—they have been unintentionally influenced into similar disordered eating.
While I don’t think Chamberlain would intentionally afflict such an impressionable demographic, the fact is: she did, along with many other influencers of her kind. They prioritize healthy eating and fitness, but don’t do so in a healthy or proportionate manner. And when their younger audiences attempt to follow their unmanageable lifestyles, it grows disordered and unhealthy very quickly. We just overlook this phenomenon because they don’t seem as harmful as platforms such as TikTok or Tumblr, but in reality, they indirectly promote the same methodology and diets.
The internet is not inherently a safe place, this we know. But it should not be inescapable; it should not be inevitably harmful. And right now, with TikTok and these unhealthy lifestyles being so easily obtained and widely promoted, it is. Diet culture has always been an issue in our society, decades before the internet even existed. But in the past decade, the internet has accelerated the culture into something much worse than casual dieting. It has transformed it into an eating disorder culture—one that continues to silently take our youth as victims.
Featured image via Mary Dodys