Has pro-eating disorder content found a new home on TikTok?



Pro-eating disorder content has a history of running rife on social media platforms, and it’s still happening.

Content warning: This article discusses things that may be triggering for those who have experienced eating disorders 

In the days before trigger warnings, pro-ED (eating disorder) content was running totally rampant on the trending blogging website Tumblr – and so was I.

With nothing to protect me from stories, images and videos of very young, very tiny girls explicitly explaining how to lose weight and restrict your food intake while cheering each other on, I ate it all up like the very impressionable 13-year-old I was.

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This sort of content, shown in such a graphic and normalised way, quickly buried itself in my psyche as it did for so many others on the site, leading to years of problematic eating behaviours.

Although I came out the other end of my Tumblr phase mostly unscathed and, over time, developed a healthy relationship with food, it doesn’t mean seeing this sort of content doesn’t impact me – and I’m sure many others – to this day.

Amber Rules, a psychotherapist with an interest in disordered eating, notes that this sort of pro-ED content has been around for a long time. As for Tumblr, after numerous issues with censoring benign content as well as not censoring extremely triggering/traumatising content, it has well and truly fallen out of favour with social media users.

But problematic ED content hasn’t. Instead, it’s found a new home on TikTok. “Even before social platforms like TikTok, there were corners of the internet, especially on Tumblr, where people ran ED clubs and challenges, and before the internet, there were clubs that would make pro-ED zines and newsletters and send them via snail mail,” Amber tells me.

“Normalising and proliferating these kinds of ideas by giving them a platform is worrisome, particularly if the people viewing this content are young and impressionable… and may crave the community and connection that comes with pro-ED content, despite it being damaging.”

Flagged by users and creators alike for its triggering nature, late last year TikTok put out a statement regarding this sort of content.

“As a society, weight stigma and body shaming pose both individual and cultural challenges, and we know that the internet, if left unchecked, has the risk of exacerbating such issues,” Tara Wadhwa TikTok US’ safety policy manager said. “We’re focused on working to safeguard our community from harmful content and behaviour while supporting an inclusive – and body-positive – environment.”

Deciding to publically partner with the National Eating Disorder Association was the first step for the company. Some of the other improvements TikTok made included weight loss management products being blocked for users under 18, stronger restrictions on weight loss content and a policy that ads promoting weight management cannot “promote a negative body image or negative relationship with food”.

In addition, the statement also touched on the variety of ways users can control this sort of content themselves, essentially by using the block and report features. While recognising and making an effort to minimise this content is a great move by the company, unfortunately, there is still an abundance of it on the platform.

Thanks to TikTok’s algorithm, which automatically suggests content to users without their pre-approval, just like Tumblr, pro-ED content usually finds its way to those most susceptible. The insidious nature of this content is what Amber says is one of the most difficult parts of pro-ED content and diet culture.

“Perhaps one TikTok alone isn’t enough to push someone into unhealthy behaviours, but the constant messaging about our bodies not being good enough, thin enough, healthy enough, wears people down over time. If you’re already vulnerable to disordered eating behaviours, this can really add to the unconscious pressure to change your body,” she explains.

With no clear solution in sight for totally eradicating this type of content, it’s imperative people know what they’re getting into with a platform like TikTok. By no means am I suggesting the app is all bad and entirely pro-ED – there’s content on there that promotes body neutrality and positivity and challenges conventional beauty standards in thought-provoking ways.

But if you’re triggered by ED and diet content, particularly if you’re in recovery or relapse from an ED, steering clear of the platform (until it implements more stringent policies) could be the best move.

If you’re struggling with body image issues or eating disorders, you can call the Butterfly National Helpline at 1800 33 4673 for free and confidential support, or email or chat to them online here.

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