Social media has a messy relationship with, well, most tenets of reality; the priority is often less an accurate depiction of a person or the world, but a version of the aforementioned that maximizes attention and interest. This is especially true of a platform like TikTok, where users have mere minutes to make an impression on the world and are eager to make every second as engaging and memorable as possible. A familiar set of dominoes falls down next: TikTok creators get increasingly mindful about how they look, TikTok viewers compare themselves to this carefully-curated unreal image of a person, and both parties get increasingly anxious about reaching and/or maintaining the fiction.
MediaGirls has several articles about how social comparisons can harm a young person’s self-esteem and how to deal with these anxieties. Self-love is an important thing for any girl+ to internalize, but for this piece, we’ll be discussing a less-talked-about aspect of the quest for “beauty” on social media, as filtered through the “engagement first” model of TikTok and its kin. What happens to one’s understanding of health and science when content creators influence more than they bargained for?
Science vs. Engagement
As we touched on in the vaccination article this summer, social media’s freewheeling approach to fact and fiction prompts some people to realize that they can build up an entire online persona from outrageous claims that demand attention, regardless of whether or not they actually believe in what they are saying. Grifters and con artists who peddle nonsense have been part of our lives for ages, but it takes a more complex form on a platform like TikTok.
Since TikTok actively cultivates a very personal feeling in its user, the content people encounter feels less like the calculated determinations of an algorithm and more like a good-natured hangout session with an eclectic group of friends. And as such, it’s very tempting to take the information TikTok offers up at face value, which is where the trouble begins. TikTok gives users a succinct, colorful, easy version of reality that proves far more tempting than a chat with a doctor or doing more research into chlorophyll or misapplied sunscreen.
TikTok’s bread and butter are its trends, which cycle in and out of relevance at mind-boggling rates. Short bursts of excitement and fun definitely have their place, but by this point, it is well-documented how TikTok trends can turn dangerous when the participant prioritizes engagement and entertainment over the real-life risks to themselves and others. Body and beauty are no exception, and once a trend gets going, it is very hard to slow it down or change its course; often, the only thing to do is wait for something even more egregious to take over the spotlight, which makes it challenging for the frauds and hucksters to face the consequences for their bad advice.
Ugly History on Beauty TikTok
Among the uncomfortable permutations of TikTok pseudoscience are the ways in which age-old racist beliefs reemerge as part of some seemingly harmless comparison trend. TikTok is known to reward the long-standing Eurocentric idea of beauty, at the expense of all the other features and phenotypes, and it only gets worse when someone’s failure to comply with these norms provides fuel for bullying in comment sections. One infamous incident happened this January when a makeup tutorial by Malaysian influencer @Sobahrajaa_ descended into intense cyberbullying and the woman broke down in tears during the livestream.
Like all social media platforms, TikTok’s idea of beauty ultimately skews towards homogeneity, motivating intense bullying for people who “fail” to live up to the standard of beauty. As a result, people either spend their days dodging hateful jabs about how they look, or they internalize these impossible standards and don’t speak up at all. As a result, the people who are left are eager to “prove” their beauty in bizarre, often historically loaded ways.
Consider the infamous “perfect face” trend, where TikTokers measured their noses in comparison to their foreheads and lips to determine whether or not they had a “perfect face”. Deeming only one particular shape and size of nose “worthy” has a long and racist history, and it is downright surreal to see staples of anti-Blackness and anti-Semitism reworked into a popularity game. Then there’s the “fox eyes” trend, where an Asian eye shape is appropriated and claimed as a symbol of exotic allure on white faces. Jennifer Li of Byrdie.com sees an uncomfortable echo of playground mockery where white classmates would stretch out their eyelids and chant in mock Mandarin. “I know most people are doing it without bad intentions. But I don’t think a lack of bad intentions excuses causing racial pain. It doesn’t excuse using historically racist makeup techniques and racially traumatic facial distortion to mimic Asian features as a trendy and exotic aesthetic,” Li writes (emphasis mine).
More generally, there is the “inverted” filter, which shows off a flipped impression of the user’s face, as opposed to the reflection one sees in a mirror. This supposedly allows you to see yourself as you appear to others, which naturally has an impact on one’s self-esteem. Several people have taken to showing off their facial symmetry as “proof” of their beauty. This in turn has discouraging results on girls+ who look at their own faces and decide they aren’t “symmetrical enough” to be beautiful, desirable, or loved. That is one of many downsides of a platform where everyone is constantly performing to an audience who-knows-how-big: no one wants to be booed off the stage, so you never go on at all.
Where to Go From Here
To its credit, TikTok as a platform has ways of combating the problem, and a lot of them stem simply from the ease with which a person can make a video. Anecdotally, TikTok correspondent for this piecem Shelby Ward, found just as much if not more criticism of these trends in comparison to their sincere, less critically invested counterparts. And diverse beauty influencers do exist, who refuse to let the shades of their skin or shapes of their bodies determine their worth; several other articles across the Internet can point you towards these culture-movers.
TikTok heavily promotes its anti-bullying infrastructure and its “Create Kindness” campaign, but these ultimately amount to Band-Aid fixes that put the onus on the user and not the platform: encouraging people to set accounts to private, filter comments, and block bad actors are all a good starting point, but this is a problem that extends past individuals and into the culture. And when so much culture is being made on TikTok, that complexity must remain front-of-mind for users and parents alike. TikTok could also stand to do more to combat hucksters who send young people chasing after beauty with pseudoscience; they already have the foundations for fighting misinformation developed during the pandemic.
However, the work cannot be squarely assigned to one (admittedly quite powerful) company either. As MediaGirls always asserts, social media is at its worst when used passively. In order to inoculate ourselves against these ideas, the best thing we can do is go outside and learn more from diverse perspectives. The fight begins with critical media literacy, online, and in life. Young people need education on how their bodies work to understand how to keep themselves healthy and safe from absurd con artists. Teaching people about the history of racism and cultural appropriation is how we keep it out of beauty videos. And seeking out diverse voices and engaging with new perspectives is the best way to teach young people that everyone deserves to be celebrated for who they are, not who an algorithm dictates they should be.
Katherine Lynch is a student at Emmanuel College in Boston, Mass. She studies Communications and Media with a minor in Marketing. She loves to read, write, and learn about the world, passions she is eager to share with the MEDIAGIRLS community.
Special thanks to Shelby Ward, Aryana Martin, and Victoria Harding for their insights into TikTok culture for this piece.