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Why do TikTok’s beauty trends feel like repackaged eugenics?

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TikTok’s revolving door of self-conscious challenges often reflect the harsh reality of who Western society deems beautiful and worthy of attention and desire.

04 May 2022

Illustration by Tessie Orange-Turner

TikTok is best known for its vast universe of endless dance challenges, skits and viral sounds. Beyond the light-hearted dance videos to Doja Cat songs, many trends show users analysing and dissecting their appearances, nudging them to internalise longstanding ideas of desirability. To me, these beauty standards presented on TikTok feel like eugenics repackaged for a younger audience. 

A specific form of scientific racism and ableism, eugenics is part of a long history of pseudoscience that categorised humans on a sliding scale based on harmful binaries like ‘civilised’ and ‘uncivilised’. Specifically, eugenics aimed to use science to separate human attributes into ‘desirable’ and ‘undesirable’, and worked to pathologise traits viewed by European cultures as inferior, creating an aesthetic hierarchy. 

One such example of this in action comes from the rhetoric of Christoph Meiners, who was a white supremacist anthropologist who believed different races had different origins. Meiners coined the term ‘Caucasian’ as an ethnic category and created a binary model that denigrated non-white people while elevating those he considered white. In the late 1700s, he wrote that white Europeans were “richer in intelligence” and more beautiful than other ethnic groups.

Considering this history, the enduring elevation and prominence of Eurocentric beauty ideals show society as a whole has clearly not dismantled the white supremacist ideas that render certain bodies more valuable than others. The passive acceptance of ‘body checking’ trends I see on TikTok are just one example of this dysfunctional culture, reinforcing damaging, exclusionary hierarchies of beauty. The ‘ugly-beautiful’ binary opens up simplistic, eugenicist ideas that suggest intelligence and work ethic are based on facial features, body size and being non-disabled. Beauty has always been political despite how innocuous appearance-based Tiktok trends might seem. For instance, there were ‘ugly laws’ in 1800s America which discouraged visibly disabled or marginalised people from appearing in public spaces. Bit by bit, these TikTok trends seem to promote a culture that seeks to decide who is acceptable and who is less acceptable.

One recent trend saw users analysing their side profile, by covering their nose with an index finger to appear small and straight and then revealing what their nose really looks like. The trend led to many people, especially non-white creators, decrying in their videos that they disliked their nose shape from the side. 

“Beauty has always been political despite how innocuous appearance-based Tiktok trends might seem”

The popularity of the golden ratio hashtag on TikTok with 404.1 million views, also reveals to me how the app might be driving standards of beauty – which is a social construct – down to the millimetre. The Greek golden ratio is a mathematical model said to be found in nature and in the human body, and is still used by plastic surgeons and ordinary people alike to determine what constitutes the ‘ideal face’. This idea of being able to scientifically calculate the beauty of facial dimensions which favours white faces is incredibly harmful, blatantly suggesting that some bodies are right and others are wrong in a clear continuation of eugenics.

Other damaging trends include teeth checks, with praise for straight natural teeth, or the inverted filter that encourages people to micromanage their facial symmetry, provoking shame if there is any visible asymmetry. 

There are also bizarre trends which lean into fatphobia. Whether consciously or not, these trends are based on Eurocentric beauty ideals and therefore eugenics, validating a culture where fat people are dismissed as lazy and fat women are somehow deemed less feminine. Historically, the era that saw the rise of the slave trade and European-African interaction led to increasingly racist ideas about fatness as a sign of racial inferiority.

This fatphobic trend is reminiscent of the body dysmorphic culture that has historically plagued social media platforms during the height of their popularity. It speaks to unhealthy online ideas from previous generations long before TikTok existed. For instance, the earlier obsession with thigh-gaps in the 2010s exacerbated the compulsive thoughts and actions present in many individuals with lived experience of eating disorders. 

TikTok’s safety guidelines do state: “When we receive reports about a dangerous or harmful challenge circulating online, we investigate. Sometimes, we don’t find evidence of a trend – even when warnings are being widely shared and reported on other platforms or in the media … TikTok does not reward creators who post harmful content. If a challenge is harmful, don’t share it or like it. If a challenge gains traction, others are more likely to see it and be tempted to do it.” 

“Some individuals emerge unscathed from self-scrutiny while others are left with the bitter taste of unfulfilled beauty standards in their mouths”

Based on self-critical TikTok trends, it seems to me that some individuals emerge unscathed from self-scrutiny while others are left with the bitter taste of unfulfilled beauty standards in their mouths. According to the Royal Society for Public Health, there is evidence that heavy social media use increases the risk of illness for the 80,000 Brits who already live with depression and anxiety disorders. Specifically, over two hours of social media use per day correlates with psychological distress and increased suicide risk. In this sense, I think self-conscious TikTok trends could correlate with negative self-image for users.

Social media platforms feed into existing societal issues where individuals have dysfunctional attitudes towards their bodies. The role of culture and media in creating a hierarchy of beauty is profound. In the Journal for International Marketing, Madan et. al suggest that beauty standards are set by socialisation and the media we consume, creating a feedback loop where the parameters for being perceived as beautiful are constantly in flux.

The researchers also found that beauty standards can cause a distressing issue of ‘self-discrepancy’, which can drive consumer behaviour towards beauty and body modification. They argue that when consumers see a gap between how they want to be perceived and how they are actually perceived, they often behave in ways that aim to close that gap. For instance, somebody wishing to have a supposedly ‘perfect’ nose on social media may be driven to get a nose job.

Ultimately, as Gen-Zs embrace turning to TikTok to explore their identities, bodies and beliefs, harmful and deeply entrenched frameworks like eugenics will continue to operate if the fast-paced, trend-driven app is treated like a place that is too lighthearted for critique. Also, the way the app thrives on sharing advice and ‘hacks’ means that the content viewers see is likely to be internalised, meaning the repetitive nature of trends about body image could stick with a viewer long after the video is turned off. 

“The internet reflects society’s existing issues which means that people will inevitably come across negative content in their self-development”

But the abundance of dysfunctional trends is unsurprising, considering the young, impressionable ages of most TikTok users and the misinformation rife on the internet at large. According to Statista, in the UK in 2020, the age group of 15-25-year-olds used the app most. Additionally, overwhelmed moderators struggling to remove harmful comments and content enables negative content and bullying campaigns to spread fast. 

The internet reflects society’s existing issues which means that people will inevitably come across negative content in their self-development. Access to an app like TikTok during that growth journey makes people vulnerable as they develop. In a sense, younger audiences are falling into the same dysfunctional cultures that millennials and older Gen-Zers did, just on platforms that look different and move faster. 

TikTok’s culture of just being silly, or trends being a bit of fun, obscures the ways that it causes users to focus on their appearances for better or for worse. It relies on biased, beauty-conscious algorithms that often push content made by users who are deemed attractive. ​In 2019, TikTok prevented visibly disabled people from going viral on their app because of bullying fears –essentially hiding them away because of how they look.

Conscious content creation can help combat the ways the app is prone to cycles of self-loathing, bullying, misinformation and more. TikTok users often discuss concepts and ideas without citing their sources, contributing to misinformation if they paraphrase academics or experts incorrectly or pose in a way that implies that they were the origin of the ideas that they discuss. The platform can’t become a completely reliable one that drives critical thinking – at present, it is more of a chaotic archive of ideas, for better or for worse. 

Acknowledging the discriminatory history of Western beauty standards is a positive step in a world of human variation and deeply warped cultural politics. Though I feel most people are more likely to only challenge the beauty standards that exclude them, we should challenge ourselves to deconstruct all of them to better understand the ways they hold society back. 

The world of self-conscious TikTok trends is a jarring reminder that the human concern for status is closely tied to looks. It reveals the devastating impact of being made aware of not meeting Western beauty standards. TikTok is fast-growing with no signs of slowing down – it is predicted to be the world’s third-largest social media platform. There have been positive moves, like how it shows support resources when users search hashtags related to disordered eating as well as their thorough community guidelines. As a platform that stages conversations around beauty standards and desirability politics, I hope developments will improve its culture and do more to safeguard users.