Trends that encourage a hyper-focus on our bodies are, unsurprisingly, causing more harm than good
Over the past week, my FYP has fed me TikTok after TikTok of girls in baggy t-shirts and tracksuit bottoms standing in front of the camera pulling their clothes tight to reveal hourglass figures. The trend has already sparked an anti-fat-shaming backlash, but it is simply a drop in the ocean of trends that encourage hyper-focus on side profiles, back profiles, jawlines and every other bodily attribute that you otherwise wouldn’t have thought twice about.
Body checking is the act of seeking out information about your body: your weight, how clothes fit, how it looks from different angles. Offline, this can take the form of frequent weighing on the scales or constant mirror checking. Noticing your body isn’t inherently harmful. However, with many of us already hyper-aware of how our body exists in the world, and under immense pressure for our bodies to adhere to certain criteria, what may start as innocently checking your reflection can develop into more obsessive and intrusive thoughts and behaviours.
“When we body check offline, it’s the elements of our body we dislike that we normally focus on,” explains psychologist and food freedom coach Dr Lara Zibarras. “Ultimately this results in a distorted perception of our body. It’s this distorted perception, along with continuous negative thoughts about our bodies, that take up a lot of mental capacity which negatively impacts our ability to concentrate or think clearly.”
Online, body checking manifests in myriad ways and new trends pop up like whack-a-mole. The hashtag #jawlinecheck on TikTok has 327.9m views, #smallwaist has received 709.7m views and #sideprofile stands at 1.2bn views. Trends like these perpetuate an intense focus on physical appearance and often the sole objective is to “flex” a certain feature. Other body-checking trends take the form of fixation or comparison of weight and numbers. In addition to the millions of views, the comment section is cause for alarm with users frequently posting comments like “I’m not hungry anymore” or “skipping dinner.”
In 2019, CJ began to notice the shift on her TikTok FYP from meme and anime-related content to influencer-based videos. “That’s when I started noticing more and more body trends and facial feature trends about, like having a cute nose or having a certain cupid’s bow on your lip,” she says. Having grown up with an unhealthy perception of her body, CJ didn’t want to feel complicit in contributing to other people’s negative body image. “I would start a video to participate in certain trends and then be like, this feels gross,” she says. “It feels like I’m body checking. It was uncomfortable for me to navigate. I wanted to do the trend but I didn’t want to be body checking.”
Users of Tumblr during the early 2000s will likely remember the glamorisation of disordered eating, prevalence of pro-anorexia content and fixations on thigh gaps and prominent collarbones. Trends like the A4 challenge and the iPhone 6 knee challenge in 2016, and 2020’s Earphones Waist challenge suggest that the mentality hasn’t progressed much in the following decade.
TikTok appears to be no different. In 2020, the app was criticised for rife pro-ana content and while the platform issued a ban in February, often the content is still hiding in plain sight. Macy, a 19-year-old student, started seeing body-checking content on her FYP after she shared online that she was in anorexia recovery. “I feel the algorithm saw eating disorder recovery and thought eating disorder content would be okay to share with me,“ she says. “It was very insidious.”
Young people are spending more time online than ever before and with eating disorders on the rise over the last few years and the NHS treating record numbers, it’s hard to ignore the correlation. “Whilst a person isn’t likely to develop an eating disorder just by watching body checking videos online, we know from the people we support that it can worsen an existing eating disorder,” Martha Williams, Beat’s senior clinical advice coordinator says.
Dr Zibarras similarly believes in the negative impact of body checking. “Self-critical body checking and the resulting thoughts and feelings can become a bit of a vicious circle: our distorted perception of our body leads to increased body checking,” she explains. “Since the behaviour is often used as a way to control weight or size, any perceived failure, for example a change in shape or size, can then lead to lowered mood, low self-esteem and even more body dissatisfaction and self-critical thoughts, which then leads to more body checking and so the cycle continues.”
Encouragingly, there is often a backlash against these kinds of body-checking trends. Many users pushed back against 2021’s #hipwalkchallenge, which saw people show off their waist and hips by dropping their phone to their midriff and walking to the beat of the music. “Why are half the trends on here just straight-up body checks that glorify skinny/ attractive bodies doing normal shit,” wrote CJ in a video that has over 28k likes and 225k views.
Jordana, 19, from Australia, also calls out this type of content on her page. After viewing a TikTok video that reminded her of her “struggles with eating and things I would do to lose weight” she posted a duet response to remind, as she wrote in the caption, “all those who missed a meal, checked the scales or felt insecure after watching this TikTok that you deserve to eat tonight.”
TikTok has made efforts to hide and remove content that promotes eating disorders, partnering with the National Eating Disorder Association to curb harmful content. Certain tags such as anorexia, bulimia and thinspo, are met with support resources and a hotline for the National Eating Disorder Association. However, it is clear this is far from foolproof, even for those actively avoiding such content, and more regulations are needed to protect individuals.
“It’s important to remember that body checking and pro-eating disorder videos may be created by people who are unwell with an eating disorder, and so it’s crucial that social media platforms signpost their community to quality support,” says Williams. While the intention of many body-checking trends may be harmless, any trend centred on people’s bodies only strengthens the hyperfocus society already puts on our appearance. Rather than simply being allowed to exist, social media forces us to examine and obsess over how our bodies appear to the world both on and offline.
If you’re worried about your own or someone else’s health, you can contact Beat, the UK’s eating disorder charity, on 0808 801 0677 or beateatingdisorders.org.uk