Trigger warning: This piece discusses eating disorders among teens on social media.
TikTok and Tumblr have been endlessly compared as social media platforms. The two embodied similar spaces in their own respective eras as interest-based communities for like-minded teens and young adults. In the 2010’s Tumblr owned the space that TikTok now fills—an online place where teenagers can come together and share content. What Tumblr was for millennials, TikTok is for Gen Z. Each platform, in its own time, took over the teenage cultural landscape and largely shaped the way high school-aged kids interact with social media and internet content as a whole. Both platforms also have dark corners—and one of those dark corners paves the way for eating disorders among vulnerable teens. Neither platform is perfect when it comes to diet culture and body image, but it is clear that TikTok greatly improves on the sins of the Tumblr. It’s indicative of an overall cultural improvement, however small, in how our society looks at women’s bodies.
I was obsessed with Tumblr from the moment I first discovered it in 8th grade well into my late teens. When I say obsessed, I don’t mean that I created lots of content or that I really loved the platform. It was truly part of the obsessive compulsions that accompanied the eating disorder I had at the time. I had to log on consistently to reaffirm my starvation tactics and learn new tricks to lose weight. It also provided “thinspo” or pictures of really, really thin girls to motivate me not to eat. If that sounds alarming, it’s because it was. Tumblr, which went largely unmoderated during its tenure as a popular social media platform, served as a major resource for teen girls in the early aughts to feed their worst habits.
At 21, I logged off Tumblr for the final time, but I never deleted my account. As research for this story, I dug back into my own Tumblr page, which I hadn’t touched in years. I went back to all the posts I reblogged in 2013 when I was 17 years old. It was worse than I remember, but at that age, I had no scope of how damaging this behavior was. Almost every single post I reblogged had something to do with extreme starvation and the pro-ana movement.
‘Pro-ana‘ is short for pro-anorexia, and refers to content that promotes extreme food restrictions or anorexic behavior. It’s accompanied by pro-mia, which is content that promotes bulimia and bulimic behaviors in the same way. Pro-ana or pro-mia content can consist of anything from “thinspo” pictures to tips and tricks that will help with restricting caloric intake or disordered eating. Content also often includes little tips and tricks to avoid getting caught, by either parents or doctors. It’s important to note that this kind of content is very different from people sharing their journeys with eating disorder recovery. Those kinds of posts, when done right, can be therapeutic and inspiring, both for the content creators and the communities that follow them.
There was a huge community, mostly made up of teenage girls and young women, who experienced Tumblr in the same way I did. Thousands of people reblogged posts of emaciated girls and horrifically toxic mantras like “skip dinner, end up thinner.” Pro-ana content abounded with very little regulation. Even when Tumblr tried to crack down, blogs found various clever ways around the new regulations. It was, and remains to this day, simply part of the culture of the platform.
The consequences stemming from this kind of content are significant. Seeing the promotion of eating disorders has long-term effects for young women especially. Thinspiration can damage body-image permanently, worsen eating disorders, and lead to depression and a myriad of health conditions that stem from malnutrition. A 2012 article from The Atlantic discussed the prevalence of pro-self harm content on Tumblr. The company implemented a ban on self-harm content in 2012, but by then it had been circulating the platform en-masse for years. One research paper on the topic found that, by banning the content without replacing it with education, teens were only left feeling isolated with their disorders and didn’t know where to find information on recovery.
There are psychological effects that take years of hard work to recover from, even for the lucky ones who didn’t end up with lasting physical health problems. To this day, I still struggle with body image because, in part, the thoughts ingrained in me from Tumblr. Eating disorder recovery is hard to measure, and notoriously prone to relapse. Relearning healthy eating habits takes years for some patients, and the constant proliferation of diet-centric content only worsens the process.
TikTok is far from a perfect platform. Like Tumblr, TikTok plays host to some truly harmful things—just like any social media platform. However, when it comes to diet culture, it improves on its predecessor, if only the in slightest bit.
There is a great deal of content on TikTok geared towards weight-loss, exercise, and dieting. This in and of itself is indicative of a massive focus on body image that is already potentially unhealthy. Scrolling through the platform, you are sure to find videos detailing specific diet plans and intense workout routines. There is a lot of “inspiring” content demonstrating dramatic weight-loss before and afters.
One trend on TikTok is for people to create videos to highlight the things they eat in a day. The videos are usually incredibly fit women demonstrating to their followers how they maintain that weight, or how they lost weight to look the way they do now. Many TikTok content creators post videos of their workout routines and videos of their bodies to provide inspiration for “healthy living” to their followers.
This content is more complicated than the blatant promotion of starvation that could be found on Tumblr in the early aughts. It’s more nuanced as the videos parade under the guise of inspiration to live a better lifestyle. Sometimes, this works. A healthy young person posts a video of breakfast and a morning workout, and another healthy person sees that, replicates it, and has a great day. However, that’s not always how the internet works.
A great deal of these healthy living videos can be deceptive. There is no way of verifying what anyone creator actually eats in a day, or whether they really look like that. Health communities like this can pose a significant risk because many of these creators are not experts in the field. Teenagers with yoga mats and iPhones can be great when it comes to creative workouts and fun ideas, but these creators are often unlicensed, uncredentialed, and inexperienced.
This kind of content can also promote unrealistic expectations of what bodies look like. For some people, it is impossible to live a healthy lifestyle and maintain a size 2. The constant focus on image and weight promotes damaging societal ideals surrounding diet culture and how we value ourselves.
TikTok also has not completely eliminated the poison of its predecessor. There still remains a pro-ana contingent that exists on TikTok. However, it is definitely less prominent than the Tumblr community. The pro-ana content is diluted and overwhelmed by the extraordinary amount of other content that TikTok creators put out every day. There has also been an increased awareness in recent years when it comes to the incredible harm of these kinds of pages, which hopefully steers teens away from the harmful ideology that the pro-ana movement provides.
On the other hand, showing healthy diets and workouts can help people who are struggling to legitimately live a healthier life. Especially the workout videos, which often provide clever and creative workouts that are fun to do. Lauren Giraldo created a more fun and accessible way to work out on a treadmill. Creator @blond.ish_yogi does a series of videos on exercises that are effective that a stripper might also do. It is neither all one way nor the other. TikTok’s diet culture corner, while heavily imperfect, is just not anywhere near as overtly damaging as the blatant imagery of skeletons in combination with starvation tactics.
TikTok has a significant dieting element, yes, but TikTok also has a huge portion of users on the platform dedicated to celebrating food. Numerous accounts are dedicated to cheese boards that closely resemble art, snack hacks, and ways to make fun drinks. There are also a fair amount of chefs that have found fame on the platform. Tumblr never had anything resembling that kind of positive celebration of food and the culture surrounding preparing a meal. TikTok abounds with creators dedicated entirely to food, some of whom have hundreds of thousands of followers. Creators like Jeremy Scheck and Tabitha Brown have insanely popular channels dedicated entirely to the celebration of delicious food and the joy of cooking.
While neither platform is perfect when it comes to diet culture and body image, Tumblr and TikTok both have incredible uses—especially for teenagers. These platforms give teens a sense of community by algorithmically linking people based on shared interests. This is especially important for young people who cannot necessarily find that outside of the internet, particularly LGBTQ+ youth, looking for others like them. These platforms allow teenagers to find others with similar interests and stories to relate to, giving them entire support systems that they often don’t get in their real lives.
Just like anything else in life, the relationship between teens and social media is not simply black and white. There are positives and negatives to any social media platform. To some extent, both TikTok and Tumblr reflect aspects of the society in which we live. In this society, we place immense value on physical appearance, particularly body image. The slight improvements in the last several years from Tumblr to TikTok could be indicative of a certain, if small, forward progress in the fight against diet culture.