At its best, TikTok is filled with funny videos of teenagers joking about their lives in quarantine or taking Jeff Bezos to the guillotine. But for many young women who use the app, there’s a darker side to TikTok filled with content that has plagued what feels like every social media site in the past: its pro-ana side.
NBC News interviewed women in their teens and 20s about encountering pro-ana content on TikTok, which they said “pushed them to fixate more on their diets and exercise regimens to a dangerous extent,” with one interviewee comparing it to “pro-ana Tumblr circa 2013.”
Video trends like #whatIeatinaday showcase what healthy meals users are eating to lose weight but can quickly descend into posts about only drinking water for a day. And the videos have only gotten worse given people are shuttered inside during a pandemic. “Because there’s so much existential anxiety out there with the uncertainty around the pandemic, I think, unfortunately, people are sort of doubling down on whatever path they were on,” University of Colorado psychology professor Elizabeth Daniels told NBC News. “So if they were already restricting their diet a lot I think that’s getting worse.”
As someone who spends an hour or two a day on TikTok at this point, I can confirm anecdotally that the platform is filled with pro-ana content. Every day I’m served a combination of videos glamorizing heavy calorie restriction or fasting, but also videos of people in eating disorder recovery or nutritionists debunking that information while stressing to viewers that eating 1,200 calories or less is absolutely not enough. Add in the fitness videos that proliferate TikTok and you can easily find yourself in a corner of the app that celebrates damaging ideas about body image, even if you never like any of these videos to begin with.
A Buzzfeed News report from February found that users were served videos about eating disorders on their For You Page (which is the main TikTok feed and recommends videos from people you do not follow on the app) even after watching just one video on the topic. A spokesperson for the company declined to answer Buzzfeed News’s questions about how the company is actually trying to rid the platform of these videos, but in the past has redirected hashtags like #proana or #anorexia to help pages.