Scrolling through TikTok before going to sleep and then spending the rest of my night awake, haunted by TikTok, has become a part of my nightly ritual. If Vogue were ever to bless me with the opportunity to make a video of my getting-ready-for-bed beauty routine, my “For You” page would surely make it in there, maybe with some tips for how to have bad skin, because that’s all I know.
I accepted this new habit as a part of my quarantine reality about two lockdowns ago, and since then my algorithm has morphed quite a few times. Sometimes for better, sometimes for worse, but always a reflection of my most toxic qualities.
The thing that surprised me about the most recent compulsive loop of identical TikTok videos thrust upon me was that they were all informative. Not in the way the fake therapists in the psychology-facts niche I came upon a few months ago were, or the instructions for how to make the famous TikTok baked feta pasta. This time, every single video was someone explaining how to be cooler and/or hotter—how to make your nose look smaller with makeup; how to French-twist your hair with a claw clip; which photo-editing app to use; how to channel your “bad bitch energy”; how to pose in Instagrams; what designers to buy the baggy pants and patterned shirts they just told you to wear for 2021 from; what artists to listen to that aren’t basic; what artists to listen to that are basic; how to massage your face to accentuate your cheekbones; how to put your tongue on the roof of your mouth to make your chin look better from the side; what emojis to use that won’t make you look ancient … it goes on.
All in all the videos were a compilation of every way in which you can evolve into the perfect, vlogging Emma Chamberlain prototype you must materialize into in order to succeed in our current social-media reality. After all, you don’t get seven million views as an unknown 19-year-old from San Bruno if you’re not completely in tune with the things that have been randomly yet universally condoned, like how side parts are for “old people” and pink is the new black but so is green, how the blush you use on your cheeks should be put on your eyelids and everyone should get curtain bangs and gel their eyebrows up their forehead, and also knee-high boots are back. As if their aspiration were to create a Utopia where everyone looks the same and attractiveness is merely a code to be cracked.
What emojis to use that won’t make you look ancient; how to channel your “bad bitch energy”; how to massage your face to accentuate your cheekbones … the list goes on.
Which is why it’s somewhat ironic when people on TikTok talk about how the app is the anti-Instagram. It’s vulnerable and real, they say. Instagram is curated and fake and so millennial. It’s true—people are so aware of how fake Instagram is that we have the trend “Instagram versus reality.” But if Instagram is about showing the best version of yourself, TikTok is about how to get there—and then stay there for all the moments beyond that posted photo.
All the proof you need that it’s real is in a 10-second video of the most insane glow up you’ve ever seen. Unlike other social-media users aiming for “just woke up like this” effortlessness, TikTok users are proud of the effort they go through to perfect a look or aesthetic, and implore you to join in.
The problem is that despite the idiosyncrasies of TikTok’s beauty standards, they are still beauty standards, no more democratized or achievable than Instagram’s. Gen Z’s aesthetic appears much looser and less polished than millennials’, but it’s still their definition of perfection.
Take the new dark-circles-and-under-eye-bag phenomenon. After years and years of buying concealers, facetuning our natural puffiness into oblivion, and experimenting with treatments like filler, the teens of TikTok are showing how to use lipstick to draw dark circles underneath their eyes. Influencers refer to this beauty trend as a way of embracing our insecurities, but you can’t paint on insecurities. Insecurities are what exist when the paint comes off.
The trends on TikTok are so fast-moving it’s virtually impossible to keep up. After just a week on the app you’ll get whiplash seeing almost every era of fashion, body part or type, and shade of color on the spectrum flash in front of your eyes.
One day you’ll see someone saying something is cool, and the next day you’ll see someone making fun of the people who do that very thing. Opinions regarding social-media appearance are so strong that it makes you fear looking stupid on the app, because everything you own, say, wear, and think are on the verge of becoming obsolete. R.I.P., the crying-laughing emoji, for absolutely no reason. You didn’t deserve what happened to you.
Gen Z’s aesthetic appears much looser and less polished than millennials’, but it’s still their definition of perfection.
This toxic back-and-forth finds its way into your psyche, drawing your attention to things you would have been much better off not knowing. Like, I now know that I have a “soft jaw.” I always knew I didn’t have a “strong jaw,” but it feels much more unattractive with that moniker. Did we really need to name the condition of having a less-than-strong jaw?
Fortunately, TikTok will always follow up telling you what is wrong with you with a list of celebrities who also have that thing wrong with them, to make you feel better. Thank you, so glad I’m not alone with this hideous quality I didn’t know existed!
R.I.P., the crying-laughing emoji, for absolutely no reason. You didn’t deserve what happened to you.
People telling you all of the ways in which you are not traditionally beautiful (while telling you it’s fine to not be traditionally beautiful!) is still not the worst thing about my new hell of an algorithm. I now find myself wasting whatever hours I’m not spending watching TikToks on buying and doing meaningless things I learned from TikTok to better my appearance.
I saw a video of a girl declaring chapped lips to be the grossest thing you can have, but don’t worry, all you have to do is buy this facial moisturizer, that facial oil, and a big tub of Aquaphor to cure yourself. The next day, I did just that. A 20-minute infomercial would never work on me, but have a teenager tell me to buy pins on Amazon that cinch the waist of your jeans to perfection without a trace of evidence? I’ll do it.
By declaring that beauty and charisma are mere illusions that can be yours with the right hair treatment, TikTok users transform this oasis of supposed authenticity into little more than a marketplace, a realm that promises it is possible to consume your way out of obsolescence.
The ugly truth is, we will always be obsessed with beautiful people and will always do anything in our capacity to be more like them. There’s just something about seeing all these tips and tricks to improve myself that feels so much worse for my mental health than seeing the final filtered product on Instagram and knowing that isn’t what I’ll ever be.
Cazzie David is a columnist for AIR MAIL and the author of No One Asked for This