*Content Warning – Eating Disorders: This article discusses language around eating disorders and weight loss in online spaces like the app TikTok.*
TikTok, a social media platform that gained popularity in 2019 and picked up traction with college-aged students at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, on the surface is a seemingly innocent app that fosters an environment of creativity and fun. However, users familiar with the popularity of food and weight related content have seen how unhealthy attitudes can be perpetrated on the app easily and quickly.
Eating disorders have been heavily normalized in teen and college culture through the language we use around body image and weight loss. Casually bringing up how little you ate today or commenting on someone’s weight is commonplace amongst young adults. In college, students will often discuss not eating to “cancel out” the calories from going out or because of the outfit they plan to wear later, and will normalize vocabulary like “pulling trig”, an eating disorder tendency that has been trivialized in college settings.
This language has expanded to online platforms, like TikTok, and is incredibly harmful to impressionable users, as well as people who are developing, suffering from, or recovering from an eating disorder. The posts of popular creators, who tend to be thin and toned, are constantly flooded with comments praising their body type. Some of the most frequent comments consist of “I was going to eat today and now I’m not” or “I wish I was this skinny”. These comments receive thousands of likes and are visible to millions. One of the followed users on TikTok is Addison Rae, a 19-year-old woman who has accumulated over 55 million followers by making videos performing “TikTok dances” or partaking in other trends.
Since her rise to Internet fame, Rae has been involved in numerous controversies. On Easter, her mom, Sheri Nicole, uploaded a video of her family eating Peeps, in which Rae chews and spits out the marshmallow. Though this may seem nontoxic, spitting out food is common in restrictive eating disorders. In the comments, Rae wrote, “me not wanting the unnecessary calories”. Her comment, despite grossly normalizing restricting your calorie intake, received 81.7k likes.
In May, a video of Rae dancing to the song “Prom Queen” by Beach Bunny while promoting the AExME Prom received strong criticism from other users on the app. Beach Bunny’s lyrics, sung not in the TikTok audio but later in the song, explicitly describe restricting food and becoming extremely thin. In response to her song going viral on TikTok, she commented on her music video, “You are worthy of love, you are beautiful just the way you are – please don’t harm your health or well being to live up to these invented expectations, it is not worth risking your life over.” Survivors of eating disorders have since made videos to the audio sharing their experiences with their condition and what the song means to them.
Unfortunately, this kind of content is not new to TikTok nor is it limited to videos centered around this particular audio. Videos depicting different eating disorder behaviors and/or methods used to lose weight with captions like, “Let’s confuse people with normal relationships with food,” have also trended on the app. Showcasing habits used to unhealthily lose weight are not only harmful to the general public, but can leave people with eating disorders wondering why they haven’t tried a specific method. Furthermore, sharing obscure methods gives the impression that having an eating disorder makes you a part of an exclusive club, when in reality, eating disorders are incredibly competitive.
Content surrounding eating disorders and an unhealthy portrayal of body image and weight loss on TikTok is eerily similar to pro-ana and pro-mia communities that populated Tumblr in the early 2010s. “Pro-ana” refers to promoting dangerous behaviors related to anorexia nervosa, and likewise with bulimia for “pro-mia”. These communities provide “thinspo” (content that inspires a person to lose more weight) and glorify disordered eating and a competitive attitude around thinness.
While Tumblr users had to search for blogs or hashtags to follow, the TikTok algorithm caters content directly to your “For You” page. Rather than scrolling through the “Following” tab, most TikTok users watch most of the content on the “For You” page. The algorithm shows you content based on what you interact with most, so once you engage with an eating disorder video, it becomes increasingly difficult to steer away from them.
The frequent appearance of glamorized eating disorder content on TikTok promotes unhealthy behaviors by strengthening the idea of a “perfect”, yet often unattainable, body type. All bodies are different, and certain body types are not realistic for all.
Eating disorders are experienced by people of all genders, races, sizes, etc. Men account for about one in three people struggling with an eating disorder, yet are scarcely given their deserved space in discussions on these conditions. With eating disorders often being characterized as “feminine”, stigma surrounding men with disordered eating can be a heavy obstacle standing in the way of help.
Additionally, despite anorexia nervosa and bulimia being the only eating disorders commonly recognized amongst the general public, they are not the only ones that exist. Other underrepresented eating disorders fall beneath a group known as “Other Specified Feeding or Eating Disorders” (OSFED). OSFED embodies disorders that cause significant clinical distress without meeting full criteria for any other eating disorder, including, but not limited to, atypical anorexia nervosa (AN), in which the individual’s weight is still within a perceived healthy range, and unspecified binge eating disorders.
Particularly with atypical AN, individuals who were considered overweight before losing a significant amount of weight are overlooked and even sometimes praised for their behaviors. The extent of their condition is often invalidated due to the stereotypes that accompany the preconceived and noninclusive “image” of a person with an eating disorder.
While a person may be deeply struggling from an eating disorder, it might not be revealed just by looking at them. Even seemingly harmless videos, such as someone sharing their weight loss journey through simple images, can perpetuate eating disorders by encouraging unrealistic body standards without regard for the varying appearances eating disorders can take in each unique individual. Users commenting “I’m so jealous” or “Drop the tutorial” on a weight-loss transformation video can unknowingly be celebrating the effects of an eating disorder. Remarks applauding extreme weight loss are especially harmful as they reinforce false beauty standards that make young women feel as though being skinny is the only way to be beautiful. However, the truth is: You do not need to be any particular shape or size to be beautiful, to be loved, or to love yourself and your body. Your journey with self-love does not need to be a weight loss journey. Your body is already worth celebrating.
Eating disorders are serious mental health conditions, with anorexia having a mortality rate of 10%, the second highest of all psychiatric disorders. One in five deaths from anorexia will be by suicide. It’s important to recognize the behavioral signs, such as attitudes that emphasize weight loss and control of food, discomfort with eating in public, mood swings, and withdrawal from friends and usual activities, rather than just physical changes in an individual. If you do detect warning signs, remember to leave stigma and stereotypes behind and to engage in a sincere convo with your friend or loved one.
To brighten your TikTok feed with more self-love, check out these body-positive creators on the app. Tarah Elizabeth (@tarahelizabeth_), Kellie Brown (@andigetdressed), Clara Guillem (@claraandherself), Sam Dylan Finch (@samdylanfinch), Denise Mercedes (@denisemmercedes), and Brittani Lancaster (@brittanilancaster) are just a few of the inspiring individuals spreading positivity and pushing back against the harmful effects of eating disorder content on social media.
If you are struggling, please contact the National Eating Disorder Association (NEDA) Helpline at (800) 931-2237 or The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255. You can also refer to NEDA’s website to find support and learn more about eating disorders and body-positivity.