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When Does ‘Social Media Vs. Reality’ Debunking Become Body Dysmorphia?

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Jessica Sprengle, an Austin-based therapist who specializes in eating disorders and body image issues, finds herself talking more and more with her clients about TikTok. Sprengle remembered one post in particular that a client recently sent her. 

“It’s a girl who shows herself before eating and after eating, and there’s a fairly significant difference,” Sprengle told VICE. “My client sent it to me and said, ‘I feel really triggered by this.’ I think the message is intending to show, like, Hey, bodies do this, but from a person who has a restrictive eating disorder’s perspective, it’s like, Oh my god, I don’t want to look like that after I eat, I’m not gonna fucking do that.” 

The TikTok Sprengle’s referring to is meant to promote body positivity, but, like many other “body positive” posts on the app, is actually nothing more than body checking, a common practice among people with body dysmorphia (a mental health disorder in which a person’s negative thoughts about their body interfere with their daily life) that involves looking at, touching, or examining your own body parts with the intention of soothing anxiety. As Sprengle said, body checking might appear reassuring or empowering but it often backfires; those with body dysmorphia often use body checking to make micro-comparisons of their body from moment to moment, fueling anxiety about the way they look and potentially leading to disordered eating habits. 

Despite users’ best intentions, #bodypositivity on apps like TikTok is riddled with examples of body checking and posts that encourage viewers to body check themselves. TikTok isn’t alone; the phenomenon extends to almost any social media app where posting photos of yourself is normal. On Instagram, body checking often masquerades as #bodypositive posts and fitness progress photos. Sadi Fox, a Brooklyn-based therapist who specializes in eating disorders and body image issues, told VICE that her clients have also increasingly been bringing in so-called body positive posts to their sessions, saying they feel triggered by content that’s meant to do anything but.

Another popular trend on social media platforms  involves showing how a person’s body looks different depending on how it’s posed and positioned. “Bodies that look like this also look like this,” the sound goes, and a user—usually wearing tight clothes or a bathing suit—twists and hunches, showing how “flattering” versus “unflattering” poses can drastically change a person’s appearance. 

The trend’s goal is clear; posing is manipulative, and bodies do look different, depending on how their positioned. (The same trend exists on Instagram as “Instagram vs. reality,” in which a user posts side-by-side images showing their body at different angles.) But as Sprengle said, the trend is an example of body checking, and one that holds little positive value. 

“I don’t know that it’s helpful to really show yourself at every angle, because it opens the door for a lot of people to make comparisons to how you look versus how they look,” Sprengle said. “You’re not responsible for everybody’s trigger. But these videos just show people that they should look a certain way, and if they don’t, something’s wrong.” 

Sprengle highlighted the difference between body acceptance and body positivity: One is love and respect for your own body, no matter the way it looks, and the other is a movement by and for those with the most marginalized body types. On social media, though, #bodypositivity is dominated by white, straight-size users—a demographic that TikTok and Instagram’s algorithms are demonstrated to favor. The co-opting of body positivity isn’t unique to online, either; in a post from early April, Lizzo called out thin and mid-size people for taking over the body positivity movement, a movement that was created by and for fat people. 

Beyond the types of bodies that apps favor, Fox said posts like the ones her clients have brought in—in which users show off what they ate in a day, show their body from various angles, or show their body before and after eating—actually end up teaching people new ways to body check. “That is exactly what most of my clients are triggered by, is seeing another person engaging in comparison and seeing them check,” Fox said. “The old way to check used to be taking photos of yourself and comparing, but now they’re watching other people do that in real time.” 

To manage the problem, Sprengle recommended curating a following of people who promote messages you believe in, and who don’t abuse or misconstrue body positivity. The TikTok algorithm can be particularly aggressive and even uncanny in its ability to serve content tailored to what will hook the user in question. It’s not well advertised, but TikTok does have a feature where users can long-press on a video in order to bring up a menu that will allow them to mark it as “not interested,” which should reduce the amount of similar content in their feed. Instagram has a similar menu with a “not interested” button built into each post. 

But if these options don’t sufficiently solve the problem, logging off might be the right move. “In my opinion, I would tell a client to get off TikTok while you’re trying to get to recovery,” Fox said. “Because, no matter what, you’re going to be engaging in checking, and even if you’re not checking yourself, you’re looking at others and comparing, and that’s checking, too.”

Follow Hannah Smothers on Twitter.

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