Ticking bomb: TikTok's 'beauty trends' for teens

Makeover tutorials and challenges have become part of Gen Z's social media curriculum. Most of these are non-verified and harmful, also wreaking havoc on impressionable young minds


Sushmita Bose

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Published: Thu 7 Jul 2022, 8:09 PM

If you are not a Gen Z-er — or at least occupy the zillennial or millennial bandwidth — there is a good chance you may not be in sync with the phenomenon that is Addison Rae. Google her. She’s 21, a dancer, a singer (and now actress), who became an ‘influencer’ while she was in her teens by posting dance and music videos, and is today the fourth most-followed person on Gen Z’s fave social media platform — TikTok, where she commands a ‘reach’ of more than 88 million.

A couple of years ago, Addison launched her line of makeup and skincare products, ITEM Beauty. The strategic logic here was that younger consumers would love “Addison’s range” since she’s someone they follow avidly on TikTok.

ITEM Beauty, from all accounts, is a ‘clean’ and ‘quality’ brand, with a legit status. But the subtext is how impossibly strong the sway of social media beauty trends has become for teenagers and young adults: in an age of easy tech access, one only needs a video and a goodly amount of ‘Likes’ to attain cult status, by converting curious spectators into die-hard believers.

The terms of engagement are pretty scary. In 2018, a Pew Research Center survey of 13- to 17-year-olds found that 45 per cent are online almost constantly, and 97 per cent use a social media platform. What are the chances of those stats being scarier today, in a post-Covid world where virtual configurations have been recalibrated? It’s a no-brainer really.

“Teenagers, who are becoming increasingly conscious of social media platforms, go for their phones as soon as they wake up, often before showering or brushing their teeth, to check their own and others’ posts,” says Juliette Zeidan, a healthcare professional and founder of Toofoola.com, a parenting website that uses social media and podcasting for content delivery. The Teens Project is a Toofoola vertical that focuses on multiple topics important for teenagers and their parents, which puts Juliette at a vantage point in this domain. “They start sharing videos from their favourite followers, respond to late-night text messages from their best friends, and post about themselves — all to keep up with what is going on,” she continues. The aim? To gain a large number of followers in order to be verified and start making money, start a new trend, or perhaps become famous.

Check out a couple of in-vogue beauty ‘trends’. Topping the popularity stakes is face shaving or “dermaplaning”, a TikTok beauty hack that promises to give you smooth skin. In reality, this can aggravate skin conditions. Another dangerous trend is the DIY mole removal that shows people either scraping or burning off moles “at home”. Obviously, this has huge scarring potential, that can lead to deformities.

“It’s nearly impossible to round up a list of TikTok’s unmoderated challenges and beauty or health advice because the content keeps multiplying to satisfy its users’ short attention spans and the need for new things,” points out Angelo De Guzman, hospitality marketing consultant and brand strategist, AngeloDG.com. While social media has provided a platform for the TikTok generation’s teenagers to express themselves, promote creativity, and share their passions to a huge user base, there’s also an attendant ‘dark side’: “Users have spread a number of dangerous trends, challenges, and misinformation across its 1 billion-plus active monthly users for the price of a few thousand views and the hopes of going viral,” Angelo adds.

On the student news site of Algonquin Regional High School in Northborough, Massachusetts, staff writer Caroline Macaulay says that “since the pandemic began, phone and social media usage has inevitably increased, making unrealistic beauty standards more accessible to teenagers”. In one of their internal surveys, a respondent wrote: “My explore page is mixed with ‘ideal bodies’ as well as eating disorder education, and I tend to feel stuck and lean towards those negative posts more.”

Through the SM lens… darkly

The rise in popularity of TikTok has led to a big increase of unsafe and life-threatening challenges which include swallowing strange objects or putting dangerous chemicals on skin and body parts. “Many of these challenges are viewed by millions of young people, who then feel pressured to try them out themselves and be part of a ‘community’,” notes Angelo. Slugging, for example, currently has 385M+ views; it advises people to sleep with a thick layer of petroleum jelly on their faces for hydration. “However, dermatologists say that doing this could actually induce breakouts and leave the skin in a more awful state to begin with.”

Then, there’s the mental toll. Every minute, teenagers are scrutinised through SM lenses, says Juliette, they are under a microscope, subjected to a social test for their appearance and aptitude, and they are constantly looking for approvals and acceptance, which drives them to doubt everything they do: “What they are wearing, how they look, talk about, read ... and they become fascinated with this ideal image, leading them to strive, to always be the best and the most beautiful. When a teenager confronts reality and realises that the ideal image he/she was constructing on social media channels is a lie and that he/she is not the greatest or most attractive in almost everything, they fall into grief and emptiness.”

Some go overboard when it comes to utilising filters or employing trendy DIY hacks or methods to beautify oneself — doing crazy things like applying bleach to teeth. “Katrexa Ayoub, a famous TikTok influencer, for example, had to have a nose job because of unpleasant comments she received, which harmed her mental health and led to depression.”

Angelo explains how TikTok, recently, has started moderating certain content and keywords on their platform to limit the spread of dangerous, disturbing, or even fabricated information. “They do this by showing a dedicated landing page within the app that provides a resource to identify harmful content when a banned keyword is searched. They promote a 4-step process; Stop, Think, Decide, and Act which encourages users to report suspicious content rather than liking or sharing it.”

Social media platforms should encourage a more honest approach to beauty. “Postings without makeup should be emphasised in their algorithm,” emphasises Juliette. “They should promote diversity and acceptance of others regardless of their ethnicity, colour, complexion, or hair. Influencers and celebrities should not be reluctant to post images of themselves that are unaltered by cosmetics, editing, or filtering. This will boost self-esteem and encourage teenagers to be themselves.”

Bucking the trend

Anyka Chakravarty, is an 18-year-old Dubai-based student; she says she’s not really into makeup, but often watches skincare videos on social media, especially TikTok. “I follow this influencer who gives good advice on skincare — going to great lengths to explain why a certain product works a certain way. And he suggests budget-friendly brands.”

But she will never blindly follow a trend just because it is “popular”. Whenever Anyka comes across a trend or product that intrigues her, she always researches it before trying it out. The other problem is that, often, youngsters watch a video and order a product suggested on it — but do not bother to follow specific instructions. Blame it on depleting attention spans and a mounting sense of urgency. “It’s not surprising so many times these ‘experiments’ end badly.”

“There are new ingredients, new treatments, new brands coming out every day, it’s almost unreal, so I generally ignore them. I know these are all passing fads that are being sold to us on social media — and that they will die out as quickly as they emerged!” Sometimes, Anyka even feels, “they are repackaging the same content with different catchy headlines!”

Allegra Hrib, who will be 15 later this month, has friends who follow beauty trends and “do all kinds of stuff”, but she finds the idea of following beauty trends “quite stupid”. “They just don’t make sense to me!” she chuckles. She’s not really into makeup but enjoys taking care of her skin. “I like putting on face masks because they help clear my skin. But other than that, I’d rather experiment with funky clothes.” And she’d rather create her own style statements instead of relying on social media.

Her mother Shaheen is obviously pleased as punch that Allegra is so level-headed. “I am thankful, yes, that she is so confident and doesn’t feel the need to be ‘influenced’…” Last year, Allegra wanted to ‘go blonde’. And she did. “We pretty much give her freedom to do what she wants to do — as long as it’s safe and uncomplicated.” Shaheen and Allegra are on social media at times and even enjoy watching crazy videos — only to share a laugh post the show.

Words from the wise

Makeup artist, influencer and beauty educator Saniksha Adnani says she was a follower of ‘online beauty trends’ once upon a time. “I had tried all possible remedies to reduce acne, pigmentation and dull skin. Trust me, they DON’T work. I only recommend getting packaged skincare products as the pH and acidity levels are controlled in them. Get products with clean ingredients. They will be more beneficial than the ingredients from your kitchen.”

Hair specialist, entrepreneur and influencer Myriam Keramane feels it’s okay to give legitimate advice if you are a professional — like “giving tips on a product that you know can suit a lot of people… but always mention the specifications and give 
detailed explanations… and I always require my audience to check with a doctor that has their medical file if they have any health issues before using my products or any product 
in general.”

Tara Rose Kidd, founder of Tara Rose Salons and Training Academy, says she’s all for a beauty treatment or two — but it should never come from an unhealthy, unregulated place. Besides, “Being hooked on social media, following the fads and making it the centre of your life comes back to who you are and where you’re going… [one should] learn to love who you are individually, not feel obligated to please others… I think this is a lesson that isn’t often taught enough to younger people. When someone hasn’t fitted in and hasn’t had these valuable lessons, they’re then following the latest influencer to follow the crowd and do what everyone else is doing.”

Parents need to lead by example, Juliette sums up. “They must set their own limits in order to demonstrate to teens what a healthy level of SM intake looks like. They should refrain from posting every element of their lives on social media and promote phone-free moments for family dinners, activities, or quality time.” Basically, they need to guide their wards and instill in them a sense of self-worth. “The better equipped they [the kids] are, the easier it will be to accept themselves as they are, realise what is best for them, and stop doing what hurts them.”

As Shaheen says, in their household, everything revolves around honesty and trust, which is why she’s not worried that her teenage daughter will try stuff which is dangerous. “If it’s a fun trend, we try it out ourselves, together, as a family, for fun... not to make a statement.”

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