TikTok and body image

Short-form social media videos and images that set unattainable appearance standards may harm young women’s perception of body image, research suggests.

 TikTok videos that reflect unrealistic depictions of physical appearance may harm how young women think and feel about their bodies – and the impacts may be worse if the content is perceived as unedited and natural.

Research published recently in the Journal Body Image suggests that just a little exposure to short-form social media videos reflecting unattainable appearance standards – known as appearance-ideal content – is enough to have a negative impact on body image.

Appearance ideals are what our culture tells us about how we should aspire to look. With few exceptions, this is a narrow representation of physical appearance and beauty, for example, long legs, toned stomachs, large eyes, full lips, and blemish-free skin.

While these standards are not necessarily new, social media is an environment where users tend to view and show the most attractive versions of themselves and others. TikTok, which exclusively utilises short-form video content, can be an especially appearance-focused environment, with many viral trends like dance challenges reflecting widely held societal conceptions of beauty.

“Appearance-ideal content can pressure women to look a certain way that is unrealistic or completely unattainable,” says Dr Jasmine Fardouly, senior author of the study from the School of Psychology at UNSW Science.

“We know this starts early, with girls as young as six reporting unhappiness with their bodies, desires to look thinner, and even dieting to lose weight.

“Social media isn’t the only place where these appearance ideals are promoted, but there is a lot more opportunity to internalise them through the platforms,” Dr Fardouly says.

Appearance dissatisfaction, frequently reported among young women, is associated with adverse mental health outcomes, including depression, and is a risk factor for some clinical eating disorders.

The findings can inform media literacy guides that play a significant role in educating young women about the impacts of social media use on body image and countering unrealistic representations of appearance.

“It’s important to update these educational body intervention programmes given the emerging evidence around the negative impacts of appearance-ideal video content, especially as it evolves and becomes a more dominant medium on social media,” Dr Fardouly says.