Photo by Abiodun Ageh on Unsplash
by Isabella Billingsley
When I was around 13 years old, my mom told me that when she was growing up, she dealt with an eating disorder as a result of body dysmorphic disorder. Her body became emaciated, but she saw herself as a whale. At age 18, she had a miscarriage from being too skinny, and it got to the point where her psychologist laid her down on cardboard and traced her body so she could see it from another perspective. This was my first time being exposed to information on body dysmorphia, an obsessive focus on appearance and perceived flaws. Since then, I’ve seen YouTubers suffer from anorexia, and I’ve watched friends change what they eat and obsess over going to the gym because of what they have consumed on TikTok. Even though I have known from a young age about the dangers of body dysmorphia, I have found myself drawn to the ugly side of beauty on social media.
In my teens, I stumbled across a YouTuber, Eugenia Cooney. I liked her for her style, but there was a lot of discussion on the unhealthy way her body looked in the comments on her videos. Other comments, however, glorified her extreme thinness. Hoffmann et al., writing for Diggit Magazine, discuss Cooney’s role in YouTube’s history and her influence on a young audience. The article goes in-depth on her as an example of an eating-disordered influencer who received treatment, but came back looking the same and was accused of irresponsible content. Even though Cooney took a step away from social media, Hoffman et al. discuss how she still came back playing into anorexia fetishes. While I was aware of her poor health, her videos appealed to me along with other young people. When I was exposed to Cooney at this young age, I already had a perspective on how she looked because of my background knowledge on body dysmorphia, but other young women might have been influenced by the body ideal she promoted.
Another influencer I’ve more recently discovered while scrolling on TikTok is Mikayla Nogueira. She made a video of herself crying and saying it was the worst day of her life because she had to go try on wedding dresses, and her anxiety caused her not to feel comfortable in her own skin. While I appreciated and related to that vulnerability, the video still fell short on showing the full perspective of body dysmorphia. Mikayla went on to describe how her family and friends would be there to support her during the process of buying a dress so she could push her insecurities to the side, but this still didn’t show her followers the psychological condition of an eating disorder. In the comments, others were rude and dismissive of her experience, claiming she had no valid reason to be insecure. While I know influencers can be irresponsible with their power, the comments show an array of opinions that include attacks on the influencer and other users, adding to the unhealthy environment of the app.
I spend most of my free time sitting in a hunched position, scrolling through TikTok. I downloaded the app during the pandemic in search of book-related content, but I also had a curiosity for some of the makeup videos. The more I watched and liked the videos, the more recommendations I got for similar types of content. My “FYP” (or “For You Page”) was filled with beauty influencers. For a while, I thought it was exciting that a lot of people wanted to do their makeup in an “alternative” style similar to me. I soon saw influencers every day promoting makeup and beauty standards. This area of beauty content on online magazines and social media can be motivating to some people, but for those like me with a vulnerable headspace, it can become a toxic algorithm that reinforces self-criticism.
Mary Grlic, writing for Voices of Gen-Z, points out that many people turned to TikTok during quarantine as a convenient way to express themselves. This same article discusses the term “thinspo,” used as a label on lots of harmful beauty content; an example of “thinspo” Grlic provides is “What I Eat in a Day” videos, “where creators share what they eat throughout the day. Many of these videos are flawed with dangerous habits like calorie counting, intermittent fasting, restrictive eating, unhealthy trends, and unsustainable diets.” A friend of mine started sending me these videos after we decided on a gym membership, and I got flooded with recommendations for workout routines and diet tips. I saw where it was tipping off into an unhealthy fixation, but my friend didn’t have that perspective.
I’ve always seen a lack of representation of realistic-looking people in modeling and advertisements on TV. However, TikTok influencers present themselves as regular people without makeup at the beginning of some videos. I have noticed while watching a lot of makeup tutorials that the influencers already have a beauty filter on before applying their makeup. Seeing these videos, I started to question my appearance. I wondered why my skin didn’t look that good without makeup and wondered what I could use. To achieve certain looks on TikTok, people will also add filters and wear clothing that might make their butt look bigger and waist shrink, but they never specify, “fake body.” This has created a huge gap between what somebody actually looks like versus what they think they should or could look like, and it triggered obsessive thoughts for me. My feed was full of people looking “perfect,” and this felt like just a constant reminder of my own flaws.
I realized I was being exposed to this tunnel-vision mindset, and it was negatively shaping my concept of beauty. The online algorithm was increasingly trapping me in a cycle of these filtered videos. They snuck up on me, even though I knew about the danger. I decided that the only way to break the cycle was to change the pathway. I started to focus on more book-related content on TikTok. One book influencer, named Eve, plays classical music in the background as she talks about her favorite books while doing light makeup with no filters; watching this is an anxiety release for me. To turn the tides of negativity, I have to change up what I search for when I open the app. I now do this on purpose because, whenever a contoured smoky shadow technique catches my eye and my thumb goes to the screen, I am in danger of a self-critical spiral.
Grlic, M. (2021, September). TikTok’s influence on body image. Voices of Gen-Z. https://www.google.com/url?q=https://www.voicesofgenz.com/post-1/tiktok-s-influence-
Hoffman, L., Jidoveanu, I., Schuitemaker, J., Cnobloch, R., & Clinciu, D. (2021, August). Eugenia Cooney: YouTube’s representative of disordered eating. Diggit Magazine. https://www.diggitmagazine.com/papers/eugenia-cooney-youtube
Bella Billingsley is a Stark State student. She is majoring in surgical technician with her passion for the medical field. Bella likes to read horror/sci fi books in her free time. When she can she also likes to go to concerts even though she’s an introvert.