Physique positivity on Instagram and TikTok is a paradox
In the beginning of 2020, Morayo Ogunbayo was aware that the vast majority of women did not look like Kendall Jenner. As a 19-year-old college student, she knew that to meet American culture’s body standard was to either hit the genetic lottery or have enough money to fake it convincingly. She knew that this ideal was rooted in sexist and Eurocentric beliefs about femininity, that most women fell far short of achieving it, and that that was perfectly normal.
Then the pandemic hit, and she began spending a lot more of her time scrolling through TikTok.
“Every person was stunningly beautiful,” she says. “It seems like everyone had an hourglass figure, and I just felt really weird about not having one.”
Ogunbayo still knows, obviously, that most people are not models. She’s well aware that the gorgeous, thin women she sees on her TikTok For You home feed are the product of highly complex algorithms that evaluate billions of tiny screen taps, which ultimately reflect the average biases and tastes of society. On some level, most teenagers know this.
They know, but it doesn’t really help. It has always sucked to compare yourself to the prettiest girl in school, but it sucks a lot more to feel like everybody else in the entire world is the prettiest girl in school.
On her Instagram Explore page, Ogunbayo says she sees mostly girls discussing their “fitness journeys,” women smiling and posing next to text about “body positivity” while they dispense weight loss advice, thin influencers contorting themselves to emphasize their stomach fat in an attempt to make their enviable bodies seem more relatable. On TikTok, she sees other college students, who also happen to be very attractive, in expensive cars and houses. “Even something that’s as innocent as Pinterest,” she says of the website mostly known for DIY ideas and hair tutorials, “my entire feed is, like, Bella Hadid. I mean, I’m 19, I’m in a pretty good place with my body image, but it’s still not great to see all the time.”
But there is another effect of our near-constant exposure to an endless carousel of beautiful faces and perfect bodies, wrought by the extraordinary cultural power of increasingly shrewd algorithms. Like the failures of a political system that allowed hundreds of thousands of Americans to die of the coronavirus and the racial justice movements that exploded in what became one of the US’s biggest protest movements in history, a reckoning is coming to what is widely, if improperly, dubbed the “body positivity” internet. Thin people, it seems, are finally beginning to hear what activists have been saying for decades: that our world is set up to be uniquely hostile to fat people at every possible turn, and that fat people are blamed for it.
The problem is that these conversations are largely taking place on social media, platforms that in the past have proven severely unequipped to host the kinds of nuanced and deeply personal discussions the subject requires. But social media has been the site of several political and cultural revolutions over the past decade. Can it do the same for people whose bodies are under the greatest scrutiny of all?
At this point, it’s a cliché to even note that social media makes us feel like shit about ourselves. A series of studies has shown a correlation between activities like scrolling through Instagram and negative body image. A 2020 study of undergraduate women further showed that those who were asked to scroll through Instagram — but not Facebook, which emphasizes text more than photos — showed significantly decreased body satisfaction than those who were asked to do the reverse. For gay men, Instagram can also reinforce the idea that queer culture is only for “ripped, statuesque men.”
Though TikTok is still too nascent to have been the subject of any such academic study, the anecdotal effects on its users’ body image have been, by some accounts, severe. This summer, NBC News spoke to seven women in their teens and 20s who said that the content they viewed on the app had “pushed them to fixate more on their diets and exercise regimens to a dangerous extent.” Sissy Sheridan, a 16-year-old actress and social media star who is often cited as “body goals” among TikTokers, tweeted earlier this year that “i liked my body before I downloaded TikTok.”
TikTok and Instagram are far from the first internet spaces to prove toxic for young women’s body image. When she was 13 and 14, Ogunbayo was active on Tumblr for its thriving One Direction and Sherlock fandoms, but like nearly every teenage girl who spends enough time on Tumblr, she was exposed to pro-anorexia, or “pro-ana,” content in which people with disordered eating habits documented their weight loss in “body checking” photos and shared tips on how best to starve themselves without dying.
Yet early 2010s-era Tumblr was also her first exposure to the backlash against mainstream self-presentation norms: the rise of fat and body-positive bloggers who documented their style and clothes, showing that having a larger body didn’t have to be an obstacle to living a photogenic life. As a young teenager, most of the content she’d consumed rarely included anything outside the typical internet beauty standard: “That was like the first time that it was like, people are big and that is a thing that is natural and normal,” she says.
This kind of visibility on social media, along with a burgeoning corporatized version of the concept of “body positivity” that sparked in the wake of the success of a certain Dove ad, would eventually lead to a series of cosmetic changes within fashion and media. In the early 2010s, more brands made a point to cast plus-size models in campaigns (whether they actually made clothes to fit them was sometimes up for debate) or expand their size ranges (yet often still ignored the large percentage of women who wear above a size 20).
When Vogue included Ashley Graham in its “body diversity” shoot in 2017, she became the first plus-size woman to grace the cover. Not everyone was pleased with how she was presented.
Magazines, meanwhile, promised to “do better” by showing a more diverse array of bodies, but often whiffed the coverage, like when Vogue put Ashley Graham on the cover of its “diversity” issue surrounded by six other thin models or when Glamour put Amy Schumer, who does not wear plus sizes, on its plus-size issue without asking her first. Over the past decade, it has become unfashionable to discuss “weight loss”; the term has largely been replaced by the more general term “wellness,” despite, in practice, often amounting to the same thing.
Did this kind of performative activism and greater visibility for larger bodies make some people feel better about their own? Surely. But almost as soon as the term “body positivity” had become mainstream, its failures were already apparent, at least to those who took them seriously. For one, the term had been divorced from its original context. Body positivity was just one part of a radical fat activist movement that began in the late 1960s, where advocates protested capitalism and a diet industry that profited from anti-fatness and discrimination.
As Amanda Mull wrote in her article “Body Positivity Is a Scam” for Vox in 2018:
What none of this addresses, of course, is why someone might hate their body. There is no inherent unhappiness to womanhood, or to fatness, or to blackness, or to anything else that American beauty standards have long treated as a problem. The conditions under which we loathe ourselves are socially constructed, but in practical terms, they’re very real.
Making people feel better about their own bodies is an easily marketable goal because it is a toothless one: As fat activists have always acknowledged, the issue isn’t that marginalized people have failed to love themselves enough. It is everything else that comes with being a fat person: the stigma that begins in a childhood where nearly half of 3- to 6-year-old girls say they worry about being too fat and other kids in the same age range describe their bigger classmates as “stupid” and “lazy”; the rampant bullying not only from strangers on the street or the internet but from family and romantic partners; the prejudice from hiring managers who discount candidates based on weight alone, and from doctors who fail to take seriously immediate medical problems until a patient has lost weight.
The problem is the insistence that the only thing making fat people fat is their own lack of willpower, when 60 years of medical research has shown that diets almost categorically do not work. Weight and health are also far from the perfect synonyms we tend to assume they are, according to Michael Hobbes’s comprehensive debunking of common assumptions about obesity.
It has been the goal of fat activists and fat liberationists — who have long reclaimed the term “fat” as a neutral physical descriptor rather than a moral one — to communicate these truths to a broader audience for decades. Ironically, nothing has helped the spread of these messages more than social media, a place where fat people are often unwelcome.
Aubrey Gordon is one such activist; after working for 12 years as a community organizer in the Pacific Northwest, she began writing for Medium under the pseudonym Your Fat Friend in 2016. Back then, she remembers that internet conversations around bodies were typically divided between the corporatized, market-driven version of “body positivity” (or, as she describes it, “We’re going to show every kind of body, and by ‘every kind of body,’ we mean white- to light-skinned able-bodied people size 14 and down”), the burgeoning discussions around “self-confidence” for women whose bodies only narrowly subverted the societal ideal, and the smaller communities on platforms like LiveJournal where fat people shared shopping tips and other resources that were hard to find elsewhere.
“There wasn’t much that I was seeing at the time that was bridging those three conversations, that actually reached out to thin people to help make fat folks’ experiences less punishing,” Gordon says.
The goal of Your Fat Friend, then, was to help people who’d never been fat understand the realities of living in a fat body, with essays like “How ‘just lose weight!’ sounds to your fat friend,” “Please don’t bring up ‘skinny shaming’ when we talk about fat shaming,” and “What it’s like being the fat person next to you on the plane,” the last of which Gordon says has been read by more than 2 million people since it was published. “I think that was a really interesting entry point for a lot of folks about a thing they’ve been doing on autopilot without thinking about how it might impact people around them — which is both heartening and disappointing in equal measure,” she says.
Since the start of the pandemic, Gordon has revealed her identity and published a book, What We Don’t Talk About When We Talk About Fat. It couldn’t have been better timed: People seem more interested in these discussions than ever, and Google search interest for terms like “body positivity” has skyrocketed since last March. Jokes about gaining the “quarantine 15” while stuck at home and eating and drinking due to anxiety or boredom have abounded. For those who are working from home with little social interaction, the endless monologue of one’s thoughts can often curdle into obsessive self-criticism.
The pandemic has done something else, too: highlighted the devastating inequalities of American society, with working-class people, people of color, and immigrants far more likely to be vulnerable to the worst effects of the US’s failure to contain the coronavirus. It has forced women out of the workforce, with Black and Latinx women even harder hit by joblessness, to the extent that they may never recover. It has put working mothers in the impossible position of performing two jobs at once. The social justice protests of 2020 were not only a response to police brutality against Black people but also the racist structures that made Black, Hispanic, and Native American people nearly three times more likely to die of the coronavirus than white people. These reckonings are a part of what helped turn over the 2020 election to Democrats, many of whom ran on a platform of systemic change.
Is it possible that the same forces that helped spread social and economic justice also worked to spread a better understanding of fat activism? If the barrage of viral TikTok videos, Instagram posts, and tweets in 2020 were any indication, then perhaps. Fat activists I spoke to said they saw a sizable jump in followers and engagement over the course of the pandemic. Gordon herself has noticed a shift in the discourse around fat acceptance: “All of these conversations that we used to keep to ourselves or in close circles about body image are now happening much more publicly,” she explains. “Combined with the political shifts that we’ve seen during the pandemic, I think a lot of folks are more willing to reconsider what they thought they knew about how the world works, and about their own biases.”
Of course, millions of people didn’t suddenly wake up one day and realize they’d been harboring internalized fatphobia their entire lives — even though anyone raised in American culture likely has. Instead, Gordon likens the process to the common theory of burgeoning technologies, in which a small segment of the population acts as early adopters of what will soon become mainstream. “We are very, very, very far from being done with this conversation,” she says, “but I think we have a really promising opening at the moment to move folks along, and that feels really big.”
The most celebrated body positivity creator on TikTok right now is a 16-year-old girl named Sienna Mae Gomez, who posted her first video in August 2020 and now has more than 13 million followers, plus another 6 million on her alt account. In the same way that 15-year-old Charli D’Amelio started posting relatively simple TikTok dances in her childhood bedroom and within months was starring in a Super Bowl commercial, Sienna Mae posts relatable and goofy dances and skits, with one notable exception: Sometimes, she sticks her stomach out.
Comments on Sienna Mae’s videos are often made up of genuinely moving messages from fans struggling with eating disorders saying that her content encouraged them to eat lunch that day, or girls crying with relief over seeing someone with their body type represented among the highest echelon of TikTokers.
“I was picking up food in my hometown with one of my best friends, and a group of young girls came up to me with tears in their eyes and kind of swarmed me, telling me how much I mean to them and thanking me for inspiring them to be more confident and not care so much what people think of them,” she told me over email. “I had no idea I could have that impact.” For millions of teen girls, Sienna Mae is an inspiration, someone who makes it feel okay, and even aspirational, to let their stomach jiggle while dancing or highlight the parts of their bodies they’ve been trained to feel terrible about.
She is part of an enormous swath of social media made up of thin women encouraging followers to have confidence in their own bodies. Instagram influencers often share side-by-side images of themselves to show what they look like on Instagram versus in reality, while a recent viral trend on TikTok was started by a woman in a bikini showing what her body looked like in flattering and unflattering positions. “Bodies that look like this,” she says while sitting up straight, “also look like this,” she adds as she sits down to emphasize her stomach rolls.
There is no doubt that this kind of content has had positive effects on some viewers. Still, that a woman proudly showing her size 4, or 6, or 8 body feels remotely radical when the average American woman wears a size 16 is a hugely depressing referendum on the state of body diversity in media. And for some creators, too much of this type of body-positive content only reinforces what kinds of people get to feel confident in their bodies and be praised for it.
“I’m glad it’s making more girls more comfortable, but the way y’all don’t give fat girls the same energy is beyond me,” said one woman on TikTok in September, suggesting that if girls like Sienna or Charli had been fat, they likely wouldn’t have gained the same amount of attention. Others have pointed out that when fat people make similar videos showing their bodies, they get removed for breaking vague “community guidelines.”
Sienna herself is aware of the backlash, and notes that she never intended to be the app’s most famous body positive creator. “I know and appreciate that the body positive movement was started by plus-sized Black women for plus-sized men and women. I do not want to take away from the importance of that or be the ‘face’ of something that wasn’t intended to include someone like me,” she explains. “I much prefer ‘body confidence’ because really that’s what I’m trying to convey — that we can all be confident in whatever body size we have, whether that’s smaller than me or bigger than me.”
It was after the “bodies that look like this” trend began taking over TikTok in December that creators began speaking out about its inherent double standards. “Bodies that look like this still look like this,” said TikToker @sheismarissamatthews. “A lot of fat people have rolls 24/7. Contorting your body so that you have rolls when you don’t naturally have them is not helpful, and taking the face of a movement that is not meant for you is also not helpful.” When Lizzo hopped on the trend, @jordxn.simone explained why her iteration was particularly meaningful. This trend “still subscribes to the notion that there are perfect and imperfect bodies,” she says. “Long story short, skinny people are talking about acceptance, fat people are talking about liberation.”
It was in June 2020 when Hannah Fuhlendorf, a counselor and fat liberation advocate, began making public-facing social justice content on TikTok and Instagram. Though she’s built up a following of nearly 100,000 on TikTok, she’s noticed how, when fat activists try to talk about fat acceptance, the conversations often get derailed by people wanting to talk about self-love and body dysmorphia, to the tune of “skinny people feel bad about themselves, too!” “It completely dismisses the real issue, and totally shuts it down from being a systemic issue to a personal issue,” she says.
“I think thin people can be amazing allies in the fat acceptance movement,” Fuhlendorf adds. “For them to understand that this is so much bigger; this is about systems of abuse and discrimination where fat people are denied basic health care, and that it is much more than just an issue of self-image.”
TikTok’s director of policy Tara Wadhwa said in a statement: “We aim to navigate challenging subjects like eating disorders with compassion for survivors and others who may be struggling and looking for support in our community. At the same time, we continue to develop tools to help people manage their TikTok experience, from automatically filtering unwanted comments to the ability to say ‘not interested’ on videos in their For You feed. This is especially important in our efforts to support people who want to share their story and use their voice to raise awareness on topics others may find triggering.”
Yet there is another reason why, for Fuhlendorf, social media can often be hellish, one that has to do less with rude commenters or trolls than with the algorithms themselves. “For people who are comfortable using the word ‘fat’ online, we are constantly bombarded with weight loss and diet ads on Instagram,” she says. “It seems like there has not been a way for AdSense [Instagram’s advertising tool] or TikTok to know how to use the word ‘fat’ as data in any way that is not to see who is interested in weight loss products.”
If you are a woman who spends time on social media, who maybe follows a few brands or influencers but for the most part people you’re connected to in real life, there is a good chance that Instagram thinks you are very concerned about your body. On the Explore page, where content is recommended based on users’ past engagement habits, women I’ve spoken to say they have noticed a significant increase in body-focused posts. They’ll see tons of explainers around concepts like intuitive eating and women encouraging self-love, yet they’re often directly adjacent to plastic surgery before-and-afters, diet tips, and thin people showing off their thinness — despite never consciously engaging with related content.
my instagram explore page right now is a confusing mix of women with my exact body type dancing around / pointing at the words “it’s ok to look like this!!!” and also a LOT of plastic surgery before and afters
— monicaheisey (@monicaheisey) December 13, 2020
Instagram told me that it removes content that promotes or encourages eating disorders, and in 2019 it restricted content related to certain weight loss products and cosmetic procedures. It acknowledges that in the past, its rules around “breast squeezing” and nudity have disproportionately censored plus-size women, but that those guidelines for moderators have been adjusted. Yet ultimately, what people see on their feeds and Explore pages is a reflection of their engagement habits and users similar to them.
The irony is that of course your Instagram Explore page thinks you are concerned about your body, because nearly everyone is concerned about their body, because we are encouraged to be so from birth. Instagram thinks you want to sit and stare at a carousel of beautiful women showing their bodies because everyone has always wanted to sit and stare at beautiful women showing their bodies.
Perhaps the most salient point I’ve heard on what to do about all the garbage on social media, where enviably body-free robots determine what we do and do not see, comes from a silly Instagram meme. “Thank you for ruining my life,” says a cartoon of a blonde girl to a picture of the Instagram logo. The Instagram logo responds: “I’m literally an algorithm designed to maintain your attention by learning from your behavior and mirroring that back which, consciously or not, captivates you and the social worlds through which you move. I am literally one of the most fascinating tools for collective and personal shadow work ever created — that is, only if you can learn to recognize that you aren’t disturbed by social media, you’re disturbed by your own reflection.”
I laughed very hard when I read that. It also gave me the rare experience of empathizing with the omnipotent social media networks that have done such irreparable damage to modern life and human psychology and profited from it. What else could an algorithm that learns from humans do than recreate the sexist and racist behaviors we teach it? To fix the problem would require companies like Instagram and TikTok to invest in human moderators with an understanding of the nuances the subject requires, and for image-driven platforms to come to the paradoxical conclusion that true body positivity is the freedom to not think about our bodies at all.
This is not to suggest that Instagram and TikTok have no responsibility for the content their users see on their platform. If every social media platform were a purely algorithm-driven free-for-all, the entire internet would resemble the absolute grossest parts of it: the terrifying “no rules” message board 8chan (now 8kun), or the clickbait chumboxes that populate the bottom of every news article promising “one weird trick!” to lose weight. The question for platforms, and the government to the extent that it regulates them, is how and when to intervene in human beings’ worst impulses in order to make their sites places that people actually want to visit.
Where does that leave us, people who’d really like to see greater body diversity represented in media and people who understand that anti-fat discrimination is at worst actively killing people and at best making everyone feel awful about themselves 99 percent of the time? Where does that leave people who want to engage on social media but be free of the constant barrage of passive-aggressive “body positive” content that, rather than helping, often just serves to reinforce the idea that women’s bodies exist to be consumed? The more body positivity the algorithms hurl at us, the more we’re reminded how much we’re supposed to care about the way we look.
I talked about this with Shira Rose, a therapist in Brooklyn who specializes in treating eating disorders and who makes fat-positive content for her nearly 100,000 Instagram followers. I wondered how someone so acutely aware of the problems social media poses for women struggling with their relationship to their bodies had managed to build an entire separate career on Instagram, of all places.
Yet when Rose talks to her clients about their body image issues, the endgame is not necessarily for them to someday feel so gorgeous that they’re suddenly overcome with the desire to post photos of their freshly anointed bodies, awash in the glow of newfound confidence. “The goal is not looking in the mirror and thinking, ‘My body is beautiful,’” she says. “The goal is for them to view themselves as so much more than a body to be looked at.” I tried to picture what that might look like in an Instagram photo, and realized that what I was imagining had no photos at all.
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