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Has TikTok altered our online self-perception?

No other social media platform is as focused on the human body in motion as is TikTok.

Unlike “traditional” platforms such as Instagram where the visual emphasis was primarily put on portrait-like static images, TikTok was conceptualised as a short-form video app for full-body display with emphasis on dancing. Although the platform has significantly changed since its early days as the lip-syncing app, the concept of movement continues to dominate content creation on TikTok.

Psychologists argue how the specifics of TikTok and its global dominance have changed the way young people present, perceive and feel about their bodies.

Is TikTok’s creative side leading to more body positivity or a general feeling of freedom? Or are kids today just as concerned about their looks on TikTok as the filtered-to-perfection Instagram influencers of the recent past?

The eyes of the beholder  

The advent of TikTok has shifted social media marketing in a variety of ways: since 2020, the platform has become a global cultural phenomenon and has established the user-generated short-form video format as the dominant type of content worldwide.

For years now, videos, and especially short videos of up to 2 minutes, are the most engaging content type on social media.

Unlike static images, which allow for more control over the final visual product, videos are more revealing and multi-layered. A carefully crafted pose and applied photo filters can make us look almost unrecognizable in photos. People tend to show more of their actual selves in videos.

We can argue which format is objectively the more flattering: a research by psychologists at the Universities of California and Harvard shows that when videos of people talking are paused, the static images of the speaker appear less attractive than the video itself because of the “frozen face effect”.

Any negative effects of still images are countered by the fact that we generally tend to keep our best photos for social media: one research shows that 90% of women edit their photos before posting them online. The most often applied corrections include evening out the skin tone, retouching the skin colour, reshaping the jaw or nose, shaving off weight, and whitening the teeth.

But does posting an edited version of ourselves in which we look better also make us feel better?

Sadly, no. Aesthetically boosted images only exacerbate our inner insecurities, a condition known as filter dysmorphia. One study likens it to a branch of body dysmorphic disorder, which may propel young people to chase after cosmetic procedures that recreate the effects of filter-editing apps such as Snapchat, Instagram, and yes, also TikTok.  

Although as visual formats videos are harder to manipulate than simple photos, TikTok’s evolving technologies help with editing footage, incl. by adding filters. One recently introduced filter called “body glamour”, for example, offers subtle yet impressively realistic enhancements of human faces, which has made TikTok users report feeling “uglier than ever” after removing the filter.  

Body positivity: a TikTok myth?

Beautifying content before posting it runs somewhat contrary to TikTok’s self-branding as a platform that promotes authenticity, genuineness, and pure entertainment. A 2021 study commissioned by TikTok and executed by Nielsen highlighted that TikTok users come to the platform to find a space where they “feel free to be themselves” rather than chase after a filtered reality.   

To what extent are TikTok users actually “free” and how much are they being subtly pressurized by in-built platform features to adhere to unrealistic beauty standards is a separate question.

The average TikTok user spends 1.5 hours on the platform browsing through algorithmically boosted content aligned with their clicks and interests, including content focused on fitness, wellness, dancing, and various physical activities. This increases exposure to videos that may provoke body comparison.

TikTok trends exacerbate these effects. For example, the trend “What I Eat in a Day”, conceptualised to encourage users to detail their daily meals, is loaded with videos promoting harmful behaviours such as extreme dieting, calorie tracking, intermittent fasting, and unsustainable eating habits.

Yet, at the same time, the body positive movement on TikTok is on the rise and such content is even encouraged by the company itself. A new study published in the latest issue of Body Image in September 2023 sheds some light on how TikTok users engage with content on the topic of promoting positive body image. The researchers extracted 342 TikTok videos supporting the body positivity movement, and looked at features such as user diversity, messages, and overall themes. The results show that “body positive” videos predominantly feature young, White women whose physical appearance already conformed to unrealistic beauty standards. 93% of these videos emphasized Western cultural beauty ideals. Only 32% of the videos portrayed larger bodies or featured explicit positive body image messaging.

These results pose the question whether the body positivity movement is just another content trend misappropriated by TikTok influencers to flaunt with their physical appearance rather than support the larger community with actual positive messages. Another question is whether TikTok users of various ethnic groups and physical constitution are willing to show their bodies at the first place if they do not adhere to the dominant aesthetic standards.

Visual conformity is the norm

It is not just TikTok. Psychological research throughout the years consistently shows that all visually focused platforms, be it TikTok, Snapchat or Instagram are at fault with younger demographics and especially female users, exacerbating the pressure to conform to unrealistic beauty standers.  

It is not even about the content format. One recently published study by UNSW Sydney corroborates these findings, examining the effects of videos versus images on user satisfaction with their own appearance.

The results show that when it comes to feelings of body dissatisfaction elicited through interactions with social media content, the medium is often irrelevant. Viewing both videos and static images can have negative effects on young women, enhancing feelings of self-objectification, decreased self-esteem, and internalisation of unattainable appearance ideals. In addition, women who believed that the appearance-focused content that they were presented with during the study had been unedited or unenhanced by filters reported even higher levels of appearance dissatisfaction.

Although TikTok has revolutionised the way we present ourselves online, promoting content formats that focus on movement and giving users more creative freedom to express themselves through their bodies, little has changed as to how we perceive our physical appearance online. Vulnerable demographics like young people and female users continue to fall prey to aesthetic norms that drastically diverge from real life.

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