Growing Up as a Woman Socialized on the Internet
Content Warning: This piece contains discussions of eating disorders. If you are someone you know is struggling with an eating disorder, there are resources to help.
National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA): https://www.nationaleatingdisorders.org
NEDA Help Line: 1-800-931-2237
The Alliance for Eating Disorders Awareness: https://www.allianceforeatingdisorders.com
Before the internet, social spheres were limited to local communities. Through global networks and spread of communication, the need for proximity to exchange ideas has become essentially extinct. Humankind is now almost entirely connected, and with this comes a type of gender socialization never seen before. Socialization of the body, learning what appearances are acceptable and what gets you the most attention, is amplified on the internet.
Different ideas of what kind of woman is most “acceptable” in society promotes insecurity in the natural bodies. Encouragement and sexualization of the “mature looking woman,” is advertised by several social media influencers, which is mainly destructive to young women and girls. The opposite is true for the health and beauty standard in media which is commonly portrayed as thin and petite, promoting a “youthful” appearance. Other forms of media such as music, particularly by men, foster female standards and commodified depictions of women in their songs. The ideal woman is thick but not fat, idealistic but not realistic. It creates an endless chase, an endless competition for perfection. However, social media functions specifically to create the illusion that perfection is attainable. Reinforced by the media, the goal always stays moving.
“They make it look so easy to be popular and loved online,” says one 19-year-old student. “I guess that’s what makes perfection seem attainable, but the goal really is always moving. I’m always stuck comparing myself to others online because social media is literally endless. I can scroll forever and repeatedly feel the same thing. I don’t know why I do it to myself, does anyone?”
Social media provides a platform for young women to constantly seek out their desires, whether it be conscious or not. Thinspiration, otherwise known as thinspo, holds its grip on social media and has done so successfully for years. The popularity of pro-eating disorder content emerged on platforms such as Tumblr, with dangerous hashtags, tips and tricks, easily becoming a tutorial for young women. It can also be seen on YouTube, with former influencers such as Eugenia Cooney and Dr. Dray promoting pro-anorexia content to millions of subscribers. Comments under eating videos, such as those by muckbang YouTuber ‘Nickado Avocado’ contain comments essential to upholding the eating disorder culture on the internet, concerning content gone ignored by YouTube for years.
The competitive nature of eating disorders is enhanced by comment sections such as those on YouTube and TikTok, which further cultivates a dangerous world. Eating disorders are a communicable coping mechanism and the social media monolith gives it an outlet. The terms of service online will completely ignore harmful rhetoric as long as it plays a role in increasing profit margin.
Tumblr and YouTube’s dangerous content has made way for TikTok. Video content of exercise routines and ‘what I eat in a day’ intensifies the existing problems surrounding body image. A young woman already suffering from dysmorphic self image previously instilled by parents, peers, brands and advertising industries, is immensely susceptible to the toxic sub cultures present on TikTok. New York Times statistics show that, “In June 2019, nearly half of the daily users in the United States were estimated to be 14 or younger.” It doesn’t take a computer science major for even younger kids to click a few boxes to verify their age.
“I got all my socials when I was 12 or 13 I think, and I would say the youngest I’ve seen is about 6-8 year old primarily on tiktok,” says a student.
Others say they’ve seen literal babies. Susan Ice reports, “The incidence of eating disorders has doubled since the 1960s and is increasing in younger age groups, in children as young as seven. Forty percent of 9-year-old girls have dieted and even 5-year-olds are concerned about diet,” as noted in the American Psychological Associations article on rising eating disorders due to youth presence on the internet.
Along with concepts online such as thinspo and pro-ana content is a trend called “body checking.” One student defines body checking as “lifestyle influencers who like, preach healthy living and being “real,” but like they make these TikTok videos posing so that they look skinnier or so that you can’t see bloating.”
“It’s really normalized on TikTok and I find myself doing it a lot more now because of TikTok,” another student says. “I love TikTok. I go on it when I need to decompress and find some sort of comedic relief. There’s some funny shit on there and I feel like it gives me a community I’ve never had in real life. It sucks sometimes though, when I’m laughing at one video and then I scroll and suddenly my brain just overflows with self-hating rhetoric because of someone else’s body. It’s not fair because I know the person on my for you page is not responsible for my self image. They aren’t even responsible for it though, it’s all part of one system that is designed to screw us up.”
Though there are debates about topics like body positivity, and if the term “body checking,” is really a thing, most people would agree that social media plays a vital role in eating disorder culture among young women. The effects of growing up socialized on the internet are showing, both online and in present spaces all around. It may be possible for social media and in particular for social media users to cultivate a space of complete body neutrality, but until that day the real dangers will continue to present themselves to continuously younger generations.
Brooke Willer is a first-year exploratory major who is ready to shift the landscape of social media. They can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Art by Art Editor Adam Dee.