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Harmful health and fitness advice has the habit of infiltrating social media landscapes, and it looks like TikTok is the newest – and potentially most dangerous – vessel for this advice to run rife.

The average TikTok user spends 52 minutes of their day on the app. That’s over 850 minutes a month, and 18,928 minutes a year. With these statistics in mind, it’s no wonder that TikTok has become the cultural phenomenon it is today – with popularity skyrocketing during the peak of widespread lockdowns, and now garnering approximately 1 billion monthly users – 60% of those belonging to Gen z. Clearly, TikTok has become an indispensable asset in the lives of many children and teens across the globe – but as parents, have you ever questioned the kind of harmful messaging this app could be sending your kids?

At the end of 2019, I opened TikTok for the first time. Periodically opening and closing the app every day, I consumed dance videos, funny skits, ‘daily vlogs’, and other light-hearted content that was inundating my feed. At first it seemed harmless, but it wasn’t until 2020, when plunged into the first of many lockdowns here in Melbourne, that I realised how much TikTok content I was subconsciously absorbing.

Face-to-face with reoccurring bouts of ‘lockdown boredom’, I was continually sucked into the TikTok quicksand of mindless scrolling. I wasn’t alone in this. For 4–15-year-olds, the average scrolling time per day is 80 minutes – a significantly longer chunk of the day than our 52 minutes. Although these statistics may seem shocking, the unlimited stream of consecutive, relatively short videos to scroll through – a 3-minute option only recently introduced – makes extended periods of scrolling much harder to consciously limit.

It’s all in the algorithm.

For a relatively new platform, TikTok has managed to generate a large cultural standing, carving out a previously unmatched space for mass influence.

The addictiveness of the app – a reason it is so popular – can be partly attributed to its cutting-edge algorithm – highly developed in its ability to shape users’ ‘For You’ pages to their unique ‘level of interest’. Indicators like finishing a video from beginning to end, user location and the types of videos users interact with, all contribute to the personalisation of user feeds. However, when the algorithm is pervasively feeding health advice, regardless of its validity, to impressionable children and teens – without their explicit consent to do so – this personalisation has the potential to turn sinister.

Health and Fitness advice is well established in the social media ecosystem. Beginning in Youtube communities, it eventually bled into Instagram feeds and now more recently,  TikTok has taken the reigns.

My growing suspicion towards TikTok didn’t begin until I decided to “get back into fitness” – like many did during lockdown – using TikTok’s search bar to source workout ideas and routines. It was then, that the content on my feed slowly began to change. All of a sudden, whenever I opened the app, I was flooded with videos about different workouts, “how to be in a calorie deficit”, and ‘what I eat in a day’ videos, often perpetuated by slim and toned creators, who often didn’t show a realistic amount of food.

 

Through looking at a couple of workout videos, I was unknowingly placing my “interest” in the health and fitness category on TikTok, which the algorithm then held onto, and adapted the content it showed me to reflect that. Eventually, the content on my TikTok feed extended beyond the workout ideas that I initially sought out, and onto advice about my diet, things I should or shouldn’t be eating or drinking, and different workouts to give me a particular desired body type. I was overwhelmed.

What’s wrong with health and fitness advice?

Although these types of videos may not strike some users as outrightly harmful, the pervasive nature of diet culture and the fitness industry when fed consistently to impressionable users, has the potential to garner harmful perceptions of body image and obsessive behaviours, far too young.

This largely stems from the widely engrained behaviour, of associating morality with different diets or lifestyles. Chocolate is seen as “bad” or “junk”, vegetables are “good” and “clean”, and going to the gym everyday will make you “better than” someone who does not.

 

By assigning so much moral value to the foods we choose to eat and exercise we choose to do, the likeliness of guilt when we don’t do these things, is much higher. This moral value is ultimately delineated from the fact that a large part of society continues to subconsciously perpetuate fatphobic narratives and maintain thinness as the gold standard for how a woman should look.

These ideals are further exacerbated on TikTok, due to the feedback economy of the platform, whereby comments and likes denote how videos are generally perceived. A recent example of this was called out by Emma Matthews (@sheismarissamatthewss on TikTok), who concluded that the many comments on TikTok “reinforce thin privilege and fatphobia”. She compared the comments of her ‘what I eat in a day video’ – where she got criticised for eating three eggs and using an “inappropriate amount of olive oil” – to the comments of ‘thin’ creators’ food videos, who were predominantly praised for what they eat – therefore demonstrating how users often idealise and favour those who fit into their preferred body type.

Therefore, if teens and tweens manage to get onto the “side” of TikTok swarmed with health and fitness advice, the persistent messaging of the “perfect” diet and lifestyle, has the potential to generate obsessive or harmful relationships with food and exercise, in an attempt to mirror what they see from their favourite creators.

Amid the more latent presentations of diet culture, although more hidden, are pro-anorexia accounts, particularly dangerous in their encouragement of starvation and extreme restriction around food. It was when one of these videos popped up on my TikTok feed, with the caption “If you ate over 1200 calories today you are fat”, that I recognised the true danger of TikTok’s personalised algorithm. I had never searched for this ‘pro-ana’ content, nor expressed any interest in videos on restrictive eating or diets. But it is accounts like these, despite efforts from TikTok to remove them from the platform, have the potential to be grouped into the health and fitness category, and find their way to the “For You Pages” of teens and tweens.

Body image isn’t a new issue.

Concerns around body image in children and adolescents are already an unfortunately common occurrence, with the Mission Australia 2020 Annual Youth Survey reflecting that 33% of participants saw body image as an area of major concern in their lives. Another survey in 2021 showed that out of 93 students, 45% showed a high level of concern for their body image. It is clear the ubiquity of body image concerns in children and adolescents – an issue that is arguably not improved by the persistent nature of TikTok’s algorithm.

Considering previous research that discovered girls ages 5-8, when simply looking at a Barbie Doll, experienced body dissatisfaction and a desire for thinness, it is important to recognise the capacity for TikTok – and social media in general – to project this bombardment of health and fitness advice onto their audience, without regard for the young and vulnerable nature of the users they are targeting.

If looking at a Barbie doll can cause that much harm, think about what a carefully curated selection of targeted health and fitness videos can do.

How do I talk to my kids about this?

The solution to this doesn’t come with banning your kids from TikTok or confiscating their phones upon hearing this information. Our society is saturated with potentially harmful information around health and fitness, and perpetuations of a thin-ideal – but it is the way that kids perceive this information that defines the harm it can cause.

One way that you can help reinforce positive relationships with health and fitness with your children, is by modelling that positive relationship yourself. Some ways parents can do this are:

  • Engaging in healthy eating habits yourself: consistently participating in fad diets or outwardly expressing guilt for eating certain foods are behaviours children can pick up on, and implement into their own lifestyles at a later point.
  • Making meals a positive and communal experience: research has shown that a frequency in family meals can lead to inverse effects of disordered eating, and better psychological outcomes for children.
  • Teaching kids about critical thinking: by explaining how to practice critical thinking while on social media, it becomes easier for children and teens to recognise the misinformation or unhealthy content that they might be exposed to, and purposely disengage with it. Often, parents are also encouraged to watch TikTok’s with their children, and openly talk about the misrepresentation that they see.

I, like many others, have been exposed to the more sinister side of TikTok health and wellness, but through educating myself and talking to others, I have become aware enough about diet culture and health advice, that I can recognise and ignore misinformation. By navigating TikTok with intention and purpose, seeking out trusted sources and shielding myself from the guilt-shrouded influence of diet culture, I am able to be largely unaffected by the persistent messaging of TikTok’s health and fitness community – and I encourage teens and kids using TikTok to do the same.

My twin sister is my soulmate. Whilst she braved the cold and adventured our snow-covered garden, I curled up under the warmth of blankets absorbed in a good book. Being so different and yet having our lives so intimately entwined has given me a unique sense of individuality.

My twin sister, Alanna, beat me into the world by 20 minutes – 20 minutes that to my Mum, felt like 20 years. Little did we know, we had just begun our vibrant and adventurous life together as twins. Whilst other children spent time learning how to build friendships, I was born with mine.

As babies we shared everything: a small, bright bedroom decorated with exotic animals and a rocking horse, a pram, which we giggled in as we rode over bumpy ground, and a marvelous curiosity for everything we encountered.

As we began to talk and toddle around, I clumsily knocked into things whilst Alanna naturally found her feet. As we learnt to eat new foods, I was reserved, sticking to my favourite cheese sandwiches with Alanna across the table in full excitement, allowing new fruits to tingle on her tongue.

Whilst other children spent time learning how to build friendships, I was born with mine.

Slowly our small, bright bedroom became two larger and very different rooms. My walls were painted a blushing pink with butterflies flying in every direction. Across the hallway, Alanna played in a room of deep purple, surrounded by chestnut horses which galloped across the walls. Despite discovering our own quirks and curiosities, Alanna and I were joined at the hip, in love with spending time together.

Our Mum encouraged our individuality, running back and forth from my ballet classes and Alanna’s horse-riding lessons. We would venture into our own passions and after doing so, fall excitedly onto our old cream sofa to tell each other all about it. It was important to our parents that we learn to build our own identities – something which years on, has helped me to seek out my own life separate from Alanna.

When it comes to fraternal twins, it is vital that loved ones acknowledge and celebrate differences so that each person has a chance to build their own sense of self and not become attached to a joint, twin identity.

Being a fraternal twin is magic; our uniqueness is the very thing that makes us so close. Our difference in appearance is almost as stark as our difference in personality: my hair falls in soft, honey blonde curls that melt onto my shoulders; Alanna’s hair tumbles in rich, dark hues and is always cut short and neat.

Alanna and I were joined at the hip, in love with spending time together.

I was born with hazel eyes that appear green in the sunlight, Alanna with eyes as blue as the Cornish sea. Her skin is dusted with freckles – mine, a blank canvas.

Interestingly, when we visited our grandparents, they attempted to dress us in the same frolicking outfits, despite our intense differences. In school and around friends, we were often referred to as ‘the twins’ or ‘the Cranes’ which was much to our dislike, having always been treated as individuals by our parents. Spending our days, weeks, months and years together meant that naturally, we formed a likeness when it came to sense of humour, little phrases and mannerisms.

It was important to our parents that we learn to build our own identities. 

Alanna and I share the same memories, have the same friends and family and have experienced almost every rite of passage together. Being so intimately connected with someone is a unique and extraordinary experience. It is within this deeply personal relationship that I have found my own individuality, and Alanna hers.

As we entered our teenage years and began high school, our differences flourished. We remained close, sitting together at lunchtime with a shared group of close friends, but as the bell echoed throughout the campus, I headed to my favourite English class as she made her way to Biology.

It was at this time that we truly came to grasp our individual character, struggling through the uncertain years of adolescence. Body image became a prevalent point of conversation between us as we noticed our bodies changing in different ways to each other.

We had come to accept that after years of shared experiences and time together, our lives were venturing down two separate pathways.

There were many days that were dull; we felt disconnected and separate from one another, having become even more independent in our self-image and awareness. We had always sought after our own distinct identity, but we remained incredibly close. Our teenage years proved to be complex as we attempted to navigate a new kind of individuality.

At 17, after years of having our own space, we moved into a new home which meant sharing a room together for the first time since we were babies. This became a challenge – a shared space as we attempted to grow into our differences.

I began to explore the avenues of writing and thought ahead to a creative career in the world of publishing; Alanna set her gaze on nursing and midwifery.

I wanted to stay up into the late hours of the night writing and chatting whilst Alanna adored the comfort of her bed and wished to turn the lights out before midnight. More so than ever, we encountered our differences and unlike the many years of our childhood, longed for our own space.

It wasn’t until our final years of high school that we realised the value in our closeness and its ability to enhance our individuality. We had come to accept that after years of shared experiences and time together, our lives were venturing down two separate pathways. Before university began, we gathered our savings and jetted off to Europe for ten incredible weeks.

We combined our interests: my love of literature and history in the museums we visited, Alanna’s passion for the countryside as we strolled along the vast green of England – and of course, to both of our excitement, a colourful indulgence in new foods. We ventured across Europe’s diversity, onto the seductive streets of Paris and balmy terraces of Rome.

We had always sought after our own distinct identity, but we remained incredibly close.

Now, at different universities and studying for our wonderfully different lives, we appreciate our individuality which thanks to our parents, has been fostered from an early age. From shared rooms, prams and toys, being called ‘the twins’ and wild attempts to dress us the same, Alanna and I flourished into two unique people, framed by our experiences together.

Outspoken body-positivity activist Jameela Jamil calls for change by addressing the harmful behaviours of reality stars and the media on our body image and self-esteem.

The tide is changing when it comes to body positivity. Where low self-esteem once dominated and allowed for the media to spread messages of weight loss, there are now many people challenging these ideas and calling for the removal of body shaming.

British actor and star of The Good Place Jameela Jamil is an increasingly loud and insistent voice when it comes to challenging the standards of physical beauty perpetuated by the media and entertainment industry.

Jamil is outspoken on social media when it comes to body positivity and calling out celebrities who encourage unhealthy body image ideals.

She recently shared an image to Instagram showing off the stretch marks on her breasts, announcing that she would now call them ‘Babe Marks’.

Jamil is outspoken on social media when it comes to body positivity and calling out celebrities who encourage unhealthy body image ideals.

“Boob stretch marks are a normal, beautiful thing,” she captioned her post. “I have stretch marks all over my body and I hereby rename them all Babe Marks. They are a sign my body dared to take up extra space in a society that demands our eternal thinness.”

These comments are a welcome dose of honesty and frankness in a world where women are conditioned to be ashamed of such things.

https://www.instagram.com/p/Bvt4ccCBbdr/?utm_source=ig_web_copy_link

“[Stretch marks] are a sign my body dared to take up extra space in a society that demands our eternal thinness.”

Her tweets about Photoshop and airbrushing advertising campaigns in the media, calling for them to become illegal also went viral. She banned the use of Photoshop on herself, explaining that the practice is not only harmful for the audience, but also for her own self-image.

She banned the use of Photoshop on herself, explaining that the practice is not only harmful for the audience, but also for her own self-image.

Recently, Jamil called out Khloe Kardashian on social media after the reality star promoted weight loss products to her millions of followers on Instagram.

“It’s incredibly awful that this industry bullied you until you became this fixated on your appearance,” wrote Jamil. “But now please don’t put that back into the world and hurt other girls the way you have been hurt. You’re a smart woman. Be smarter than this.”

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Tea, for lack of a better word. #CommentsByCelebs

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Jamil is adamant in the fight against body shaming, which comes from her own personal experiences of body dysmorphia, eating disorders and incessant bullying she received as a teenager.

Jamil recently launched her “I Weigh” campaign, a social media movement where she encourages women to describe their qualities and accomplishments rather than their appearances.

Jamil is adamant in the fight against body shaming.

Beginning as a single powerful message shared on Instagram, it has since turned into a movement after thousands of other women also began sharing their own powerful messages after becoming sick and tired of their worth being measured by their weight.

Melbourne mother of four and body positive artist, Tania Sutton (44), shares how she escaped the shackles of the destructive eating disorder that took over her life. She recovered for the sake of her family.

*Please be aware some readers may find this content triggering.

“Ed, this was the name I gave to my eating disorder,” Tania recalls, “and for a long time Ed was my confidant, my best friend, or so I thought.”

Eating disorders creep into your life without realising it. Tania remembers the promises Ed made to her in the beginning: “It starts out like a new friend, teaching you ways to make you happier, ways to cope and a promise to you that as long as you follow all the rules, you will reach some sort of enlightenment.”

Eating disorders occur for various reasons, including genetic vulnerability, psychological factors and social-cultural influences. Figures show the prevalence of eating disorders is rising rapidly; Beyond Blue reports one in four Australians know someone who has experienced an eating disorder.

Tania struggles to pinpoint the exact cause of her eating disorder, but believes her need for perfectionism and sensitivity about her physical appearance were predisposing factors.

Eating disorders can affect anyone, regardless of gender, body size, age and socio-economic factors.

From a young age, Tania felt a constant sense of anxiety; if she was unable to do something exactly right, this fed her belief something was fundamentally wrong with her.

Tania describes an intense need to be accepted by others. “Anytime someone else was complimented on their physical appearance, it reinforced the idea I wasn’t good enough.” Yet, when she received compliments, especially in relation to her body size, it fuelled her desire to continue the behaviours that led to the compliment.

As time went on, Tania struggled to separate herself from her eating disorder. The voice of Ed grew stronger, convincing Tania to punish herself through under-eating in order to equal out all of the perceived faults in life.

“If I was thin, then I would be happy, people would like me and possibly love me.” The truth was, Tania was loved, but her eating disorder made her believe those around her were only pretending, “I felt like I didn’t belong in society, I was a failure, disgusting and unlovable.”

Tania describes how weak she became, both mentally and physically. “Starvation has horrible consequences on the brain, I didn’t have the energy to fight and my ability to think logically had gone out of the window”. She believes this is part of what makes seeking help so difficult, “My thought process was really obscure to everyone else, but to me it made perfect sense. I was convinced I could never get better, I believed everyone was out to see me fail and therefore if I gave up Ed and followed a treatment plan, I would have failed and I couldn’t do that.”

“Ed, this was the name I gave to my eating disorder,” Tana recalls, “and for a long time Ed was my confidant, my best friend, or so I thought.”

Becoming a mother and seeing her body grow and change only emphasised Tania’s preoccupation with her appearance. Feeling incompetent as a parent reinforced to Tania that she needed to keep punishing herself. The use of restrictive behaviours and keeping herself busy became a form of self-punishment she believed would somehow cancel out her perceived inadequacy as a parent.

Tania remembers trying to be there for her children and doing the best she could, but never being able to feel fully present. Tania describes her head as a “battle ground” which led to her being distracted and irritable.

Tania greatly resisted treatment for a long time, deleting her therapist’s number on several occasion. She would lash out verbally at her treatment team and remembers one incident where her GP refused to allow her to see her weight. “I was furious because in my eyes this meant I was not allowed to see what kind of a day I was going to have; at that time the number on the scale would define a good or a bad day.”

Tania’s eating disorder behaviours continued until something convinced her to make a change. Tania recalls driving home from an appointment; her daughter was going through a particularly difficult time, and despite Tania’s best efforts she felt she could not be fully there for her daughter. The eating disorder voice grew louder and louder until it was screaming in her ear, blaming her for everything that was wrong. Tania knew her daughter needed her, but she was chained to her eating disorder. It was at this point she decided to seek help.

“I couldn’t continue the same behaviours and be a mother at the same time anymore, I was exhausted and so was my family.”

“I couldn’t continue the same behaviours and be a mother at the same time anymore, I was exhausted and so was my family.”  Although she could never find the strength to recover for her own sake, her family became the motivation she needed.

Tania was fortunate enough to be referred to a psychologist and a dietitian, who each had a special interest in eating disorders and with whom Tania instantly connected.

Recovery was tough, Tania recalls. “I had to relearn to trust my body and myself. I had to let those close to me, my husband and treatment team, be in charge of what I needed.”

Tania credits her family’s support for helping her to recover; “They helped me fight when I didn’t want to anymore, they loved me at my worst and stood by my side.”

Tania says recovering from her eating disorder has enabled her to be a better mum, “we had our fourth child after I had decided to not engage with Ed and I am able to play with him much more; I played with my other kids, but mentally I wasn’t there, now I am.”

“The first time I went out in public after deciding to no longer engage in Ed’s demands, I was in a shopping centre with one of my daughters and I turned to her said ‘wow, it’s so bright and colourful in here’, the eating disorder made my world so dark and dull. The world is literally more colourful without Ed.”

Tania now has four children aged between five and 22 and uses her own experience to teach her children “to question what they see and hear when it comes to societal beauty standards in the hope they will adopt a healthy attitude.”

“Starvation has horrible consequences on the brain, I didn’t have the energy to fight and my ability to think logically had gone out of the window.”

Tania no longer engages in eating disorder behaviours. She enjoys food and appreciates her body; she no longer weighs herself, as it no longer bothers her what size she is. “I have realised my weight does not equal my worth.”

In choosing Recovery, Tania simultaneously unleashed her creative side. “Art became such an outlet for me and a communication tool, it allowed me to transfer the nightmare in my head into a two dimensional surface. Not only was that therapeutic, it allowed others to understand what I was thinking and struggling with.”

Tania uses her talent and love of painting, drawing and printmaking to create figurative and portraiture art work, t-shirt prints and bag designs that spread mental health awareness. Tania recently had the pleasure of designing the logo for the ‘Body Positive Expo’ that was held in Melbourne; an event which united hundreds of people, sharing their own experiences of disordered eating and negative body image. Tania’s eye-catching logo depicted the individuality of all body shapes and sizes to celebrate their uniqueness.

Recovery is something Tania is still working on. She makes sure she does something every day to support her mental health and reaches out when she is struggling.

“Sure I have days where I don’t feel so confident in my skin or in myself but that’s because I’m human. Now though, my thoughts aren’t taken over by self-hate.” She also describes her relationship with food as being healthier than it has ever been: “I honour my cravings and listen to my body. I trust my body and I treat it with love as it is my closest friend.”

https://www.offspringmagazine.com.au/wp-content/uploads/2019/12/yF2VFW-Q.jpg

“Art became such an outlet for me and a communication tool, it allowed me to transfer the nightmare in my head into a two dimensional surface. Not only was that therapeutic, it allowed others to understand what I was thinking and struggling with.”

 

Figures show fewer than 25 per cent of people with an eating disorder receive the care they need. Tania hopes her recovery journey and the messages she conveys through her art will reduce the stigma and encourage others to seek help.

“Mental illness is not a choice, but Recovery is. It’s not always easy to work through our struggles but if we push ourselves in a gentle and nurturing way we can come through the other side.”

You can check out Tania’s incredible and inspiring art work on her Facebook page, Tania Sutton Artworks, or follow her on Instagram, @tania_sutton_artist

If you have been affected by any information in this article, please reach out to your GP, health professional or contact an organisation such as the ones listed below:

www.thebutterflyfoundation.org.au

www.au.reachout.com

www.beyondblue.org.au

Poem – written by Tania Sutton

She stands there beaming smile
There is laughter and cheer
She is so content and happy
Friends all around her

She stands there panic stricken
There is turmoil and torture
She is drowning in poison
All alone in a crowd

She stands there as the same
There are two people in one
She is only known as one
The other is a secret.

LOCKED IN A BUBBLE
You have me locked in a bubble
I can see what you are doing
Yelling out for you to stop
My efforts going unheard

You have locked me in a bubble
Sometimes I see a faint glow
Mostly just darkness
Trying desperately to find the light

You have me locked in a bubble
I want to trade places
But I can’t find the key
Please let me out.