Body Crazy


by Sulan Bailey, United World College Maastricht
7 June, 2021

Illustration by Thalia Lembong


More often than I’m proud to admit, I find myself scrolling through and watching video after video on TikTok for several minutes (or perhaps, several hours). I downloaded the app last May, at the height of lockdown boredom, and quickly caught on the ‘social’ aspect of this relatively new media platform. For the rare (and incredibly fortunate) individual who has yet to engage with it, the app’s algorithm feeds each user a steady stream of content based on how they react to videos they saw previously. Simply, if you like a video, you’ll see more like it.* With that as its basis, when a trend (like a song, dance or challenge) becomes popular on the app, I often see videos of many creators replicating it or using it for days or weeks on end. 

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Some weeks ago, my “for you” page became saturated with videos that followed a few particular trends that varied greatly in content and style but had one incredibly clear, disturbing message. The TikToks in question each fall into one of roughly 3 trend categories: 

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  1. Videos of women dancing to songs where the artists boast having large bosoms and bums, along with small waistlines, where the dances also accentuated those features
  2. Videos of women making self-deprecating jokes about wanting to have a bigger bosom or bum
  3. Videos (usually done with a group of 3-5 individuals) where each person takes a turn laying down on their chest then a barbell is rolled over their legs to see whether or not it will be stopped by their bums, called a “cake check”

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At first, none of these videos bothered me all that much. They didn’t pop up in my stream too often and I saw them for what they are on the surface: fun dances and silly jokes. As a matter of fact, initially, I liked each of the videos I saw, internally commending them for celebrating physical features that have been historically dismissed and demonized by traditional Western beauty standards, like bigger busts and posteriors. It wasn’t until the videos began populating my feed more frequently (thanks to that trusty algorithm) that I began to reflect on the message that they were all sending to me and other women about our bodies. The videos were not just celebrating a certain body type (specifically, the type that features large butts and breasts with thin arms, legs and waistlines), they were glorifying it, and condemning all others. The implication of these videos is not “this body type is beautiful”, it is “this is the only beautiful type of body”. Without explicitly stating it, each of these videos told me that that is what I should look like, that is what is considered desirable, that’s what men want.

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Of course, someone could argue that those are just my interpretations. Is there any proof that these messages are being communicated to all viewers? Yes, actually. In the “Cake Check” videos, if the barbell rolled past a participant’s bum, they’d failed the challenge. In the videos that featured women making self-deprecating jokes about their lack of a “big bank”, the punchline is that a smaller figure is something to be ashamed of. It doesn’t fit up to the new standard. 

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This insecurity being sewn into women’s minds is compounded by the videos and music circulating on the app that exalt this body type as the superior one. 

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This emerging standard isn’t exactly new. For years, we’ve all watched as infamous public figures, such as the Kardashian sisters, have been pushed into the global spotlight and praised for their bodies (which are often Photoshopped in images released to the public) and promote products that they promise will help other women achieve the same.

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As I’ve reflected on the way the promotion of this standard has so easily permeated globally accessible media platforms (social media, magazines, film & TV), the irony of this new situation does not escape me. I recall some years ago when my social media, particularly Instagram and Twitter, practically bled with criticisms of the toxic nature of the beauty industry and how photoshop to make models and celebrities seem thinner, the outgoing feminine ideal. There was such a fervent push for the celebration of all body types, and particularly the inclusion of larger ones. But now, I find that the standard has not disappeared, but rather evolved. We have yet to eliminate the idea, rooted in misogyny, that one body type is somehow better than another (the superior determined by the male gaze, of course) rather than encouraging all women to embrace their natural body type. Again, we pit one woman against another. In a twisted way, we’ve come full circle.

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*If you’re interested in more information about how TikTok and other social media function like echo chambers (and their potential dangers), check out this article from The New York Times or The Social Dilemma documentary.

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