Column: TikTok diet culture


Back in March, I prematurely said goodbye to my Spanish host family with the traditional kiss on each cheek (so naive to COVID-19) and headed to the airport. As the taxi maneuvered throughout the city, I passed my favorite restaurants, hole-in-the-wall shops and world-famous cathedrals that became regular sites on my walks home. And while it all felt too overwhelming to say goodbye to, I knew that in that moment I just needed to remember one phrase: “Disfruta la Vida: Enjoy life.” 

The saying became a regular part of my host family’s dinner conversations. Whether my host mom was stressed with work or I was overwhelmed with culture shock, my host family found solace in the phrase. And I quickly did, too. As I left, I promised myself that I would hold onto it.  

In Seville, people are rarely in a hurry. If I was late to class, I knew that I would expose myself as an American, speed walking through the streets (this unfortunately happened way too often). But as I rushed through four airports to finally land home in Pittsburgh, I quickly returned to my fast-paced tendencies. 

For me, the beginning of quarantine felt like an extended snow day. Nobody knew the extent of what we were about to go through, and my family and I found creative ways to enjoy our days. Whether it was baking, movie marathons or long walks, we were simply trying our best to remain sane. 

Like many of my peers, I finally gave in to downloading TikTok. While learning dances and making whipped coffee was oddly therapeutic, I was also exposed to another side of TikTok as well. 

How to lose 10 pounds this quarantine! 

What to eat in a day to lose weight in quarantine! 

Trying on my old jeans in quarantine! 

Feeling as though my study abroad experience had been stolen from me, I felt out of control in many ways. I didn’t know what would happen to my summer plans or the next school year. There was no guarantee of when I could safely see my grandparents again. Like many of my peers, I craved a distraction from all that had gone wrong and all that was no longer guaranteed. 

One thing that I could control was food and exercise. I had all the time in the world to plan out meals and excessively long walks. I ordered a FitBit to track my steps and committed to getting at least 10,000 steps a day. Of course, not a day went by without completing my Chloe Ting videos. And while these may all seem like harmless coping mechanisms to distract myself from pure boredom and isolation, my priorities were not sustainable, nor were they necessary. 

It was on my quarantine birthday (which now I’m sad to say I think we all will have one eventually) that it hit me. I had spent so much time trying to distract myself from all that I had lost that I forgot what I was even missing. 

Disfruta la Vida! Adios chica,” my host dad’s words rang in my head. 

I was supposed to be celebrating my 21st birthday in Seville during what would have been some of my last weeks there. This was the first time that I allowed myself to truly mourn the time lost. I sat back and remembered that simple phrase: Disfruta la Vida. All that time, why had I made quarantine so complicated? Why had I spent it trying to change myself for the post-quarantine world when I had promised myself to enjoy life?

It sounds silly to say something so simple when the execution is so difficult. People had warned me that the culture shock upon returning to the United States would be more difficult to adjust to than arriving in Spain. But given the circumstances, I fell right into the hustle and diet culture quicksand, and I didn’t even notice until something so simple pulled me out. 

According to a recovery coach at EndED, restrictive and disordered eating increased by 30 percent since quarantine, amplified by TikTok. With unprecedented time at home, it was appealing to seek out distractions in ways that I could control through food and exercise. Before coming back to school, I reflected on the diet and exercise culture that I had fallen into. I will always be someone who eats healthy and works out, but the quarantine obsession was not only not sustainable, but it was too expensive. 

As we settle into a new normal, which is far from normal, I have learned now more than ever that nothing is guaranteed besides the present moment. I will always strive to be the healthiest version of myself, but no longer at the price of enjoying the moment. While there is little that I can control in the outside world, six months since leaving Spain, I can still control my mindset. For now, I will focus on “Disfruta la Vida,” and let go of anything that stands in my way. 

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