For every fun dance challenge on TikTok, a far more sinister trend goes viral. In this case, it's body checking.
Body checking is the act of taking mental notes of one's body shape or weight. Offline, it can manifest as constant mirror checking, frequent weighing on the scales and hyperfixation on certain areas of the body. Countless TikTok For You Pages (FYP) have been dominated by body checking trends, whether it's an individual attempting to drink from a cup with their arm encircling their partner’s waist, or trends actively encouraging users to share and fixate on their weight and body image.
Noticing the existence of your body isn’t harmful in itself but it can develop into more "obsessive, intrusive thoughts and behaviours" regarding one’s body, Chelsea M. Kronengold, communications lead at the National Eating Disorders Association in the US, told USA Today.
Body checking doesn’t have to be obvious to be dangerous, either. Often it’s hiding in plain sight. "Current trends are often more subtle and seemingly innocent," says BACP accredited and NHS counsellor Harriet Frew, adding that while these trends aren’t overtly body shaming, "there remains a pervasive and intense focus on body shape and weight which is still harmful."
On TikTok, body checking videos manifest in myriad ways. Overt body checking trends on the platform can look like a fixation on weight and numbers. (Following the Beat media guidelines, we have not included links to the TikToks here.) Certain trends and sounds actively encourage users to disclose their weight and focus on body shape. In other videos, people accentuate certain areas of the body using filters and baggy clothing before revealing and focusing on a specific area of the body. The spectrum of these dubious trends is wide, with new ones arising on the platform continuously.
The exact number of body checking videos floating across TikTok is impossible to calculate as these trends are not explicitly tagged #bodychecking in the way that other videos are tagged #bluntbob or #knitting. But given that TikTok is dominating other social media platforms (with 689 million active users as of January 2021 and more than 1 billion videos viewed per day) and that the trends mentioned above are racking up hits, the number of people watching videos that actively encourage body checking is likely to be overwhelming.
Harriet explains that these body checking trends inevitably lead users to focus their attention on their weight and shape. "This can then impact behaviour and mood," she tells R29. "It is likely to exacerbate a preoccupation with body image and this being linked to self-worth." She adds that a person's self-esteem can plummet when it is determined by an over-evaluation of weight and body shape.
One triggering video could push back months of hard work and therapy.
Although a particular version of body positivity has become mainstream and TikTok is flooded with content encouraging you to love yourself, body checking videos can become unavoidable even in the pursuit of more positive content. Margot, 24, who has struggled with her body image, told R29 that in her experience TikTok’s algorithm has made it so that body positivity and body checking videos go hand in hand. "You’ll watch a body positivity video [only] for the FYP to follow it up with countless weight loss and body check videos afterwards." The constant stream of body checking content that arose on her FYP triggered Margot’s relationship with her own body. "It validated my hyperfixation on my body image and made me more obsessed with losing weight and altering the way my body looked."
Margot believes that body checking makes people self-conscious about things that are completely normal and never bothered them before. She adds that these trends have been affecting her peers, too, some of whom have had eating disorder relapses "in an attempt to achieve the unrealistic standards set by these videos".
Harriet agrees. "With 60,000 thoughts plus a day running through the human mind, this focus [on body image] can have a profound impact on feelings, causing a sense of anxiety, guilt or shame and [more] behaviour such as mirror checking, weighing and hyperfixation on body-focused images on social media."
In Margot's experience, body checking trends on TikTok promote diet culture and encourage disordered eating. They also make the journey of recovery difficult for those who have experienced eating disorders.
Megan, 22, who suffered from anorexia, has endured that journey of recovery. She is concerned that body checking trends could be detrimental to the recovery efforts of people with eating disorders. She tells R29: "One triggering video could push back months of hard work and therapy."
Megan says that harmful TikTok trends like this one have made her road to recovery more difficult. "Certain body checking trends have been really triggering my eating disorder. On the surface, this seems like a body positive trend that would give many young people confidence. But recovering from anorexia and then having my TikTok filled with people freely sharing their weight or commenting on their bodies is difficult."
Like Margot, Megan also found that once you watch one of these body checking videos, your FYP becomes overloaded with them. "With TikTok adapting your FYP to show you similar content, once you have watched a video it is almost impossible to escape body checking trends and videos." Fearful of how this would have affected her during her teenage years, Megan says that body checking trends only exacerbate and add to eating disorder thoughts and behaviours.
People who create body checking or pro-eating disorder content are often unwell with an eating disorder themselves, and it's crucial that they are signposted to eating disorder support.
A spokesperson for the UK’s eating disorder charity Beat expressed that in certain cases, body checking videos encourage viewers to alter their lifestyle in order to attain a particular body type or to lose weight. Beat said: "This is very concerning as we know that detail about specific weights, dress sizes, calories and exercise can serve as inspiration for those affected by eating disorders to engage in harmful behaviours and become more unwell."
"Eating disorders are complex, serious mental illnesses that affect 1.25 million people in the UK of all sizes, ages and genders. It's important to remember that people who create body checking or pro-eating disorder content are often unwell with an eating disorder themselves, and it's crucial that they are signposted to eating disorder support."
Beat emphasises that the burden is on social media platforms to counter these trends. "TikTok has a responsibility to protect vulnerable users from damaging content online by removing harmful videos, increasing transparency around their algorithms and ensuring that users can have more control over the videos that they view."
Those who have experienced eating disorders, TikTok users, mental health professionals and charities alike recognise that the viral body checking trends that continue to infiltrate the FYP of TikTok users are a predominant issue on the platform. They have the potential to negatively affect TikTok's largely young and impressionable audience.
In response to claims of body checking trends and their high prevalence on the platform, a TikTok spokesperson said: "At TikTok, we aim to approach eating disorder content with compassion for those affected, who may come to our platform seeking community, while strictly removing content depicting, promoting, normalising, or glorifying disordered eating."
Asked how they plan to tackle the epidemic that is body checking on TikTok, they said: "Our teams are constantly reviewing and extending our list of hundreds of keywords to which we apply search bans or public service announcements, and we're always open to feedback from our community and partners."
If you need support managing an eating disorder, Beat can help. Give them a call on 0808 801 0677 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.