New research from Flinders University in Australia finds that TikTok “fitspiration” videos increased women’s tendency to compare their appearance with others, resulting in a negative mood. Unexpectedly viewing TikTok videos aimed at inspiring concern about personal fitness did not increase body dissatisfaction. Prior research on Instagram and its fitspiration content had found that body dissatisfaction increased after viewing.
“Fitspiration” is marketed as a healthier version of “thinspiration,” a social marketing campaign that was intended to provide people looking to lose or maintain a low weight inspiration to carry on. Thinspiration received negative publicity when it was associated with the pro-anorexia movement. Fitspiration is less focused on a thin ideal and more focused on the ‘”fit” ideal. Much like being excessively thin, a sculpted and fit body can also be difficult to achieve.
Study authors Samantha Pryde and Ivanka Prichard were curious if fitspiration content would negatively affect women’s body image. Previously researchers had investigated the consequences of fitspiration posts on Instagram, finding that women experienced greater dissatisfaction with their bodies after viewing the posts. TikTok is a social media platform of videos that are typically three minutes long or less.
The research team recruited 120 women, 50 from the first-year psychology courses at Flinders University and 70 obtained from the university volunteer center and Facebook professional groups. All participants were between 17-25 years old. Participants in the experimental group were to watch 10 minutes of top TikTok fitspiration videos; the control group watched TikTok content about art.
After exposure to the video content, participants responded to questions about their mood, body dissatisfaction, state appearance comparison (are they feeling driven to compare their appearance with others), and fit ideal internalism (were they focused on fitness before the video exposure).
Results revealed that when exposed to TikTok fitspiration videos, participants did become more likely to compare their appearance with others and their mood became more negative. Body dissatisfaction, however, did not decrease with the TikTok fitspiration exposure. This was not expected, as previous Instagram research had found the opposite. The researchers posited, “One possible explanation is that the physical movement inherent in TikTok videos may have reminded viewers of the functionality of their bodies. This may have led women to incorporate perceptions of their physical competency and capability into evaluative judgments regarding their body.”
The results also indicate that when fitspiration content triggers the impulse to compare their appearance with others, this may be the mechanism through which the feeling of body dissatisfaction begins.
The research team acknowledges some limitations to their work. The TikTok videos the experimental group was exposed to lacked diversity, as did the participants. Caucasian women produced almost all videos, and the participants were primarily Caucasian. In addition, the narrow age range of the participants limits to whom these results apply. The consequences of fitspiration may be more severe for younger girls, so more research will need to be done.
These findings may still benefit our understanding of how social media may negatively affect women. “The findings of the present study suggest clinicians as well as social media influencers should be wary of the kinds of appearance-based content posted and viewed on social media platforms,” the researchers note.
The study, “TikTok on the clock but the #fitspo don’t stop: The impact of TikTok fitspiration videos on women’s body image concerns“, was published in Body Image.