TikTok’s Beauty Algorithm’s Reinforcement of Pretty Privilege

TikTok is one of the fastest growing social media platform worldwide and allows for users to create short videos to express themselves creatively. TikTok started off as two separate apps — Musically and Douyin, both owned by the parent company ByteDance — which merged into a single app in 2017 The app currently have 800 million active users worldwide, as of September 2020. TikTok drastically grew in popularity in the midst of the 2020 coronavirus pandemic because it allowed young adults and other users to interact with one another while maintaining social distancing.

Every user’s individual algorithm determined by who they follow, the type of content that they tend to gravitate towards, and the type of content they create. However, regardless of how specific your niche on TikTok is, you’ll inevitably stumble across a popular ongoing trend. Some of these trends may be wholesome or show off an individual’s talent, but many of these “viral” trends have body dysmorphic and pro-anorexic undertones. A recent “what I eat in a day challenge” trend encourages users to show everything they consume in a day. While this trend may initially seem wholesome, a closer inspection of the content being released and the response to these TikToks tell otherwise. The majority of viral “what I eat in a day” videos were created by thin females consuming small, infrequent, and restrictive meals. The comment section of such videos are filled with statements like “you know what, I’m just going to eat ice,” “suddenly my confidence went down,” “I’m not hungry anyway,” and “I think water sounds good for dinner”, all of which are reminiscent of pro-anorexia or “pro-ana” content. Many of the users who are leaving comments on these TikToks are young impressionable females, often underage, whose idea of “healthy eating” has been drastically skewed by the media. Disguised as an “educational” video, such content can romanticize eating disorders, lower self-esteem, trigger individuals struggling with eating disorders, and create insecurity among young audiences. These trends create a toxic environment where users in the comment section are bonding over their mutual hatred for their bodies. The majority of the “viral” videos in these trends are by conventionally attractive individuals, creating a pressure to meet these often ridiculous and impossible standards, reinforcing toxic beauty standards. For the majority of users, these trends exist solely to strip away their self-confidence.

TikTok virality algorithm utilizes a complicated AI-based method that determines the possibility and likelihood of a video going “viral”. This system allowed for the rise of popular TikTok stars like Charli D’Amelio and Chase Hudson, whose content were deemed to have high virality potential according to this algorithm. The virality algorithm increases the exposure that their content receives and, therefore, allows for them to establish their presence and careers on the app.

A major subunit of the virality algorithm is TikTok’s “beauty algorithm”, which factors in the user’s conventionally “attractive” features to their virality potential score. Based on several studies of “ideal” beauty standards, a model of epitomized beauty is created consisting of even lighter skin tone, no scarring or facial deformities, no dark circles, slim “V-line” face, large eyes, and a small nose. The algorithm then contrasts a user’s features with that of the paragon and, depending on how closely aligned the user is to the set “model”, it assigns them a rating of their “attractiveness”. Users who fit these standards of beauty determined by the algorithm automatically have a higher “virality potential” and, therefore, are more likely to show up on other user’s “For You” page and “go viral”. The majority of TikTok users who “went viral” in the past years — including Addison Rae, Charli D’Amelio, Bella Poarch — are conventionally beautiful by Western and Asian beauty standards and have very similar features. Their content often receive millions of views, even when it exemplifies a bare minimum effort. For example, the most liked video on TikTok with 44.6 million likes is of Bella Poarch bobbing her head to the beat of a song, highlighting a phenomenon dubbed “pretty privilege”.

Pretty privilege refers to the often unearned societal advantages given to individuals who are perceived as conventionally attractive or beautiful. Various studies, including a 2009 study from the University of Adelaide and a 2017 study by the University of Illinois at Chicago, suggest that being traditionally “attractive” allows for more popularity, higher grades, higher salaries, career advancement, and are less likely to be receive harsh sentences. Pretty people receive better treatment from the general public as they are perceived to be smarter, healthier, and more competent. Pretty privilege manifests itself in a myriad of ways, equating an individual’s worth to their attractiveness.

However, like many aspects of our society, pretty privilege notably rarely extends to BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and People of Color), non-cisgender, disabled, older, and/or fat people. The anthropological studies that the beauty algorithm is reinforced by focus only on societally desirable features in Eurocentric and Asian countries. As a result, TikTok fails to provide a platform for BIPOC creators. The beauty algorithm prevents diversity by preemptively encouraging the virality of only a specific set of features. The “Renegade” dance challenge which boosted Charli D’Amelio, currently the most followed individual on the platform, to popularity was originally invented by Jalaiah Harmon, a 14-year-old African American dancer. The trend didn’t grow in popularity until Charli posted a TikTok of her imitating the dance. Trends on TikTok as well as the beauty algorithm reinforces and adds to the decades and decades of conditioning BIPOC to believe that their features are inherently unattractive while pushing Eurocentric beauty standards.

Image credits: Photo by Houcine Ncib on Unsplash

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