CW: Body image, disordered eating, and body checking.
I feel like I need to delete TikTok.
Over the last week, my for your page (abbreviated as FYP described as videos TikTok thinks you’ll enjoy the most) has seen the same body checking trend again and again. Body checking is seeking out information about your body – how it looks in the mirror, weight, how it fits in clothes, how it looks at different angles. Only really dangerous when it becomes compulsive.
Back in 2016 there was the A4 paper challenge where people would hold up a sheet of A4 portrait style to see if their waist was smaller than a piece of paper. In the early 2010’s Tumblr made headlines for the rise of its pro-ana (pro-anorexia) and pro-mia (pro bulimia) blogs where users shared tips and images that were deemed aspirational alongside “motivational’ quotes. And, even Before all that, LiveJournal communities were filled with “the thin commandments.” There were websites outside of these communities. Message boards. Chat rooms. Social media just made it more visible. Or perhaps easier to find if you knew where to look.
The #hipwalkchallenge has over 10 million views and sees users film their faces before panning down to their stomachs and walking with an exaggerated sway. As with everything on TikTok, it’s been remixed and pastiched but for the most part the formula stays the same. It’s dominated by able-bodied people with scars, stretch marks, fat and thin. None of these are framed as being good or bad, the attribution left to the viewer.
And yet, there’s this complicity in almost an unspoken invite to examine your own body. It is the continuous dialogue that isn’t about allowing you to exist without thinking of how you and your body appears to the world and that for some people, it’s the most interesting thing about you. Alongside this, I would get adverts from Noom from YouTube. I wear a U.K size 10. I’ve never had trouble getting clothes that fit me from stores. Yet the dark arts of algorithms were able to find me out and drip feed me the same familiar content set to an upbeat soundtrack. I can know that size isn’t an attribution of value, that beauty isn’t determined by a label or a number on the scale and yet with each painful hip sway I can hear my mother’s voice chuckling about pinching an inch. The ongoing white noise of weight loss, weight gain and other people’s running commentary on a body that wasn’t theirs but didn’t feel like mine. All I wanted was to sink, shrink, be unseen. The Tiktok algorithm didn’t have to know I had a history of disordered eating but it recognized that it was the kind of content I would find compulsive.
It was a bad day. It hadn’t started out that way. I had laughed. I flicked through books. I had the same gulping anxiety I always do when someone raises a camera to me but otherwise, it had been, all in all, a pretty good one. And then there was the pictures. The grand expanse of a back, the pressed flesh of an arm tucked against the body, the curve of a stomach. I laughed, although it felt more strained. The Campari would sit in my mouth and I’d have to remind myself to swallow. And all I could think of was – god, is that what I look like? I’d been so happy and yet, here it was. Limping out the dark recesses of my brain, making comfort in the crevasses.
I came home. I stood in front of the mirror and pressed my hands under my bust and felt for my ribs. I’d press down. I’d finger for my collar bone and run my thumb and forefinger along them. Just checking. And my tongue still felt heavy in my mouth. But my vision felt clearer. And it was less like being underwater. It was counting and breathing and tracing the hallmarks of a body that didn’t feel like mine and that I didn’t recognize and wasn’t quite sure I wanted to occupy. But I was counting, and my heart didn’t feel like it was pounding anymore.
The body positivity movement isn’t for me. For a myriad of reasons so any commentary on it, any invitation towards it felt uncomfortable. How bodies that look like this, also look like this videos playing on my screen of women folding themselves over felt uncomfortable. A woman messaged me telling me how she loved how body positive I was and I sat and cried on the living room floor for an hour. Wanting to crawl into a space of body neutrality felt like reaching for an impenetrable space of safety and I felt shame and disgust and selfish and separate. I don’t talk about body image because it is painful. It’s stupid things like hiding food or making it inedible or planning everything. And everything is either earned or exchanged. And I can’t exist like that. But here I was on the floor thinking “Christ to fuck, do I have a body that is seen as brave to have?” And then, well what even is a body to be brave in, and what does this say about me? But here I was, spiralling. Even wanting to exist outside of the politicisation of my body is a place of intense privilege yet everything under my skin felt like it was on fire, like it was ready to burst open.
I understand that some of these videos can feel like empowerment. That they can feel like a way to be seen when feeling invisible. The idea of “this is what a body that looks like after food.” That seeing your body through the inverted filter can be grounding. That watching what people eat in a day in 60-second chunks can be entertainment and not an emotional trigger. But I can’t sit watching it without thinking how many times a shoelace can go around a waist. It’s not TikTok that’s at fault. Or Instagram. Long before LiveJournal and before top eights on Myspace I would be clawing at the back of my throat and using lunch money for laxatives. The weapons weren’t found between scrolls and clicks but whisper networks and book pages.
I can know keeping washing up liquid next to the fridge is dangerous and why I don’t keep leftovers and I know falling into the same patterns to deal with stress are warning signs more than self-soothers. And I can only block a sound or a hashtag for so long before another one comes along. It seems like we’re doomed to repeat the same old battle cry. About bodies that don’t feel like our own and not feeling like there is a space we can occupy that isn’t within them. Bodies that feel hostile and hard to make a home.
But, I need to stop feeling like I’m at war with myself, and I don’t need to spend time in an armoury.
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