Body-positive influencers, Raeann Langas and Chelsea Culbertson say TikTok removed their videos, seemingly just because of their body type.

By Faith Brar
March 19, 2020

Despite its rapidly-growing popularity, social media app TikTok has recently found itself in hot water. The platform is reportedly censoring certain pieces of content, including videos of people with bigger body types and posts showing those with disabilities.

Reports of this apparent censorship first began circulating in September 2019 when The Guardian published a story about it. Fast-forward to this week, and internal documents from TikTok, obtained by The Intercept, show that the app's creators reportedly put policies in place that intentionally suppress videos on the platform showing "abnormal body shapes," "ugly facial looks," "dwarfism," "obvious beer belly," "too many wrinkles," "eye disorders," and other physical traits that the app's creators reportedly deemed unfit for their platform. TikTok also reportedly enforced the removal of videos showing folks of seemingly low-socioeconomic status and those who shared certain political beliefs, according to The Intercept. (Related: Banning Pro-Eating Disorder Words On Instagram Doesn't Work)

It's not clear how long these discriminatory policies have supposedly been in place, and Shape reached out to TikTok for comment on these discriminatory policies but received no response by the time of publication. However, Josh Gartner, a spokesperson for the app, told The Intercept that these censorship rules "represented an early blunt attempt at preventing bullying." He also said that the policies "are either no longer in use, or in some cases appear to never have been in place."

But some influencers on TikTok say they'd been (not to mention are still) experiencing removal and censoring of their videos, seemingly for no other reason than their body shape and size.

How TikTok Is Reportedly Policing People's Bodies

In late February, body-positive influencer and creator of Rae Everyday, Raeann Langas, shared a TikTok video of her and a friend dancing on the beach in matching bikinis. (Langas also shared a similar post from the same day on Instagram, shown below.)

Though Langas's TikTok post was sponsored by the bikini brand, the influencer's goal behind forging the partnership and sharing the post was to show people that all bodies are beautiful, regardless of shape or size, she tells Shape. 

A few days after posting her video on TikTok, Langas learned that it had been taken down from the platform. "I could still see the video on my TikTok page, but when I clicked on it, it said that the post had been removed because it 'violated community guidelines'," explains Langas. (Related: Raeann Langas Shares Why It's Okay Not to Love Your Body Sometimes, Even If You Support Body Positivity)

At the time, Langas had only been using TikTok for a few weeks, she says. So, she assumed that the app was simply conservative and didn't allow videos of women in bikinis, she explains. But after some digging, Langas found that there were countless videos of women in bikinis under the hashtags #bikini and #swimsuit; the only difference was that they were all straight-sized women, she says.

"You scroll and scroll, and all you see is thin, white women," shares Langas. "It was alarming to me that they were clearly removing and flagging certain types of people and body types. Not to mention a lot of the videos found under these hashtags were highly sexualized and could be considered inappropriate for certain viewers."

Langas then took to Instagram to share her experience with TikTok's apparent censoring of her posts. To her surprise, several other influencers told Langas that they'd witnessed similar censoring on their pages as well.

Chelsea Culbertson, the blogger behind Choosing Chelsea, was one of those influencers. When Culbertson first joined TikTok in January, she saw it as an opportunity to spread body positivity, she tells Shape. "I wanted to use my TikTok platform to share the same type of messages I spread on my Instagram account in a fun new video style," she says.

In early February, Culbertson posted a TikTok video reminding viewers that every body is a "bikini body".

"My video got taken down really quickly," says Culbertson. "It happened within hours of posting it. I noticed something was weird when my video had been getting a decent amount of views, and then [the view counts] stopped going up. Then I went to my notifications and it said that my video was removed for 'violating community guidelines' due to my video being 'inappropriate'." The notification also asked Culbertson to "keep the TikTok community a safe place," she adds.

Better Body Love program creator, Ashley Reeves, says she experienced similar discrimination after posting a video in February of her dancing with several women wearing swimsuits.

"This video got taken down and flagged as 'OFFENSIVE' on TikTok," Reeves later shared on Instagram. "If you’ve been on TikTok, there [are] P L E N T Y of women dancing in swimsuits [whose] videos seem to stay put. What’s the difference? From what I can tell they’re all thin women."

Why This Is All a Huge Problem

No doubt, these accounts of TikTok's reported censorship of people's bodies are extremely disturbing. Suppression of these women's posts isn't just discriminatory; it also holds the potential to negatively impact younger folks on the app.

Of the 60 million monthly active TikTok users in the United States, 60 percent are female, and 60 percent are between the ages of 16 and 24 years old, according to data from Wallaroo Media. With very little body diversity on TikTok's platform, young, highly impressionable users are left with a narrow view of what people's bodies actually look like.

TikTok's algorithm only seems to make this problem worse. Like other forms of social media, TikTok steers users to certain content via a "For You" page (similar to Instagram's "Explore" feed). Basically, TikTok personalizes your video feed "based on what you watch, like, and share", and it uses that information to "quickly adapt to your taste", according to the app's description.

But when people (especially younger people on the app) aren't given the opportunity to view content displaying different body types, sizes, and abilities, they're stuck seeing videos that show a limited representation of beauty—something Culbertson can speak to.

"This is honestly what upsets me the most about the entire situation," says Culbertson. "Growing up, I was flooded with images of thin, tall, beautiful, Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show-type women. I truly believed that, in order to be considered worthy, I needed to look like them." (Related: This Photoshoot Celebrates Real Women Who Can "Sell the Fantasy" of Victoria's Secret)

And in the few instances that Culbertson did see bodies she could relate to in the media, the context was always focused on "changing" that body type, she adds. "Young girls need to know that all bodies are okay, that they are all accepted, and that you don’t need to fit a singular ideal of beauty to be considered worthy," shares Culbertson. "This is the type of media manipulation that feeds into young girls feeling as if they can only be one thing, perpetuating the vicious cycle of eating disorders and body obsession."

Of course, TikTok isn't the only social media platform that has appears to have suppressed content geared toward normalizing diverse body types. Back in 2015, Instagram temporarily took down the hashtag #curvy; more recently, the platform tried to blacklist the hashtag #justwearthesuit. Instagram has also had a long history removing photos of women showing "too much" of their bodiescellulite and all.

But over time, Instagram has worked to change its ways. Jameela Jamil recently helped the platform create a new policy restricting the promotion of weight-loss products. And Instagram is now home to several powerful body-positive movements.

It would seem that TikTok is attempting to make its community guidelines clearer to users, but there are still lots of unanswered questions. In January, the app updated its community guidelines to specify exactly what type of content violates its code of conduct. Some examples of content that violate its community guidelines: posts from terrorist organizations, posts showing illegal activities and goods (think: drugs), violent content, hate speech, content containing misleading information, and content showing adult nudity and sexual activities.

However, these updated guidelines don't provide any details about why posts showing non-straight-sized people and other marginalized groups are reportedly being removed—and clearly, the reported censorship was (and is) continuing to happen long after these updated community guidelines were shared with the public.

Time will tell whether TikTok's creators choose to be more transparent with people about these apparent censorship policies moving forward. For now, Culbertson says it simply isn't right for TikTok to decide which bodies are deemed "acceptable" enough to show on its platform. "[TikTok] needs to realize how detrimental it is to young, impressionable people to only be shown one specific body type," she explains.

Langas, on the other hand, says change needs to start on an individual level. "I think if you want to make a change, you have to use your voice and be active," she says. "That's why I plan to continue using the app and fighting for different body types to be seen. Given the number of young girls who've reached out to me, asking that I continue posting body-positive material, that gives me hope that a change is possible. But just like any other social media platform, the change needed will take time and a lot of work."

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