Rather than being relatable and authentic, TikTok’s obsession with bloating ‘before and after’ videos and photos can contribute to forms of fatphobia and harmful body standards
“Bodies that look like this, also look like this.” If you’re on TikTok, you’ve probably heard that line playing in conjunction with a usually thin-bodied influencer contorting her body to show fat rolls or bloating. As one user noted, this is what’s called “curated imperfection”, as it co-opts the body positivity movement (created by and for larger bodies).
While TikTok is full of pro-eating disorder content like body checking, which involves compulsively examining your body, a new trend sits on the line. Before and after eating videos highlighting bloated stomachs are being celebrated as body positivity on the app. With predominantly thin bodies taking part, this might not be the revolutionary conversation that’s needed for its younger audience.
Dr Laura Choate, licensed professional counselor and professor of counselor education at Louisiana State University, says these videos would be extremely harmful to someone with disordered eating. “The focus is still on body checking and obsessing about the size and appearance of your stomach,” she tells Dazed Beauty. “These images could be highly triggering in that they feature thin and sculpted women who are focused on the appearance of a body part instead of focusing on health and wellness and a myriad of other things that are more meaningful and purposeful than achieving a particular body size.”
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The message that being full or bloated doesn’t mean you are “fat”, however, is something she says is helpful for those recovering from an eating disorder. “Although these videos encourage people to believe that the fullness and bloating is obviously apparent to others, which it is not,” she said. “But it is definitely not helpful to larger women to have thin and toned women demonstrating this before-and-after process. This only puts the emphasis back on the importance of the current thin ideal – that ultimately, we should have a flat, toned, or even concave abdomen, which is not the norm for the vast majority of girls and women.”
Georgia Sky, an actress based in Los Angeles and a creator who aligns with the fat acceptance and body acceptance movements, feels like she’s been “kicked out” of the body positive movement for being in a larger body. “I could not do this trend because TikTok’s fat shamers would come for me,” she says. With over 80 thousand followers and an engaged audience, Sky has experienced being called a “fat whale” along with other racist remarks and comparisons to Lizzo and Gabourey Sidibe in the 2009 movie Precious.
Despite the hate she’s received on the app, she does like to think that trends such as the bloating trend have genuine intentions to show that it’s okay to have a relationship with food. On a platform that’s openly admitted to suppressing videos by disabled, queer, and fat creators, however, centering thin bodies in the body positive movement does more harm than good. “The body positivity movement originally started and originated from the fat acceptance movement that was started by black fat women. And it was fighting for marginalised bodies,” she says. “Thin creators should instead use their voice to fight for marginalised bodies. I’m not saying you can't have insecurities because your insecurities are valid, but you are on a self-love journey not a body acceptance journey because your body is accepted by society.”
“I’m not saying you can't have insecurities because your insecurities are valid, but you are on a self-love journey not a body acceptance journey because your body is accepted by society.” – Georgia Sky
Sky says that many trends started by plus size creators are continuously co-opted by thin people on TikTok. One example of this is the song “Anaconda” by Nicki Minaj. While many plus size creators started creating fat positive videos to the lyrics “I got a big fat ass,” soon thin creators began using the song and singing the lyrics ironically. This also happened when a creator showed her body saying “this is what 5”6 and 230 pounds looks like.” Now, many creators use that same sound to tell their followers about their extremely low weight.
Kirsten Oelklaus, co-founder and program director of Bellatore Recovery for eating disorder recovery, says any weight or calorie-related content is bound to encourage comparisons and idealistic standards. “Many of our clients struggle with going down the rabbit hole of following posts on social media where individuals post their meals or nutritional advice, and it is so easy to slip into obsessively finding even 'better', and more rigid guidelines they should follow,” she tells Dazed Beauty. “The most dangerous undertone to all of these posts is the fact that they are all based on changing one's appearance, and our sense of self and value becomes wrapped up in only that.”
Oelklaus says the more helpful trends for her clients involve content related to the positive aesthetics with food – preparing and enjoying new and different meals that become experiences. Andrea Mathis, a body positive dietitian and the creator of Beautiful Eats & Things, creates content that is exactly that, yet still faces criticism on the app (including mocking videos). When she first came across the bloating videos, she was confused as to how they aligned with body positivity.
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“You have people who want to support the movement but they don’t know how, so they should probably talk to someone that’s experienced it on a daily basis or living it every day,” she says. “A lot of times the thin creators’ accounts are a little bigger so they do have the ability to reach a wide audience. Some creators have been calling out harmful trends and I appreciate that, so I think maybe other creators should use their platform to amplify the voices of creators that have really experienced the negativity that comes with fat shaming.”
It’s important to remember that TikTok does not exist in a vacuum and that the same fat shaming and toxic dialogue around weight from thin people comes from day-to-day lived experiences and biases. With this in mind, it’s integral for thin creators to examine the ways in which they contribute to fatphobia or both on and off the app. After all, if a movement started by larger black bodies no longer feels welcoming and accessible for those same bodies and is instead co-opted by thin white women who bloat, it’s not body positive at all.