A Cause for Concern?
Until recently, I’d never given much thought to health rumours, but that changed once I started using TikTok. The app’s most famous feature is its ‘For You Page’, where users watch an endless stream of suggested videos. The catch is that you can only see one at a time, so there’s no guarantee of what comes next. This unpredictability is weirdly thrilling and I quickly found myself spending hours on the app with a minimal recollection of the hundreds of videos I’d watched.
At first, the app was an irresistible world of music, dance and expression but soon I encountered TikTok’s dark underworld of medical misinformation where a growing subculture of creators make videos about ‘taboo’ health issues. The scary part of this trend is that their remedies are almost entirely fictitious, which poses a serious risk to the health of young viewers.
I can still vividly recall some of the most disturbing myths, including the suggestion that drinking “a lot” of water, tea or eating certain fruit will shorten a period. The second, more shocking, body of myths were about pregnancy. In one video a young woman claimed that four Nurofen pills can induce miscarriage, and she strongly implied that women can try this method at home to avoid a legitimate abortion. Reading the comments, I was horrified to see female users taking the advice seriously. Excited at the idea of termination sans doctor, some users even remarked they “would rather risk” the remedy than have their parents find out about their pregnancy. Heart-breaking.
What disturbed me is the apparent glee with which these creators shared their misinformation. I don’t think I’ll ever recover from the experience of watching someone my age- with no medical qualifications- enthusiastically encourage their viewers to try boric acid suppositories to ‘cure’ chronic yeast infections. Try as I might, I can’t erase the memory of an acupuncturist -who misleadingly wears a white medical coat in her videos- excitedly claim that certain fruits grow “boy sperm”, supposedly increasing the chance of a male child.
These videos gather tens of thousands of views. The more controversial the treatment, the higher the view count. Despite being called out by medical doctors on TikTok, the creator behind the Nurofen myth, for example, refused to delete the video. Instead, she disabled the comment section, effectively preventing criticism and the chance for real medical professionals to dispute her claim. TikTok’s medical misinformation, therefore, holds grave danger for impressionable viewers and should be taken seriously.
Into the Vortex
First, let’s consider how online sources of medical misinformation, such as TikTok creators, can grab attention and build an army of supporters. Although the videos do not provide any supporting evidence, it’s apparent that many commenters trust the creator’s claims.
Why is this the case?
The answer lies in the power of peer influence, as informed by my research of a variety of psychology sources focused on adolescence, social identity and the media. This 2001 study found that above all else, peer influence, not parenting, was the biggest factor in how teens interpreted messages in the media. There’s also the Sullivan-Piaget thesis, which proposes that peers are the most significant shaper of adolescent identity formation. Similarly, across body image research, there are three common influences on attitudes towards personal appearance: peers, parents and the media. In other words, decisions about sexual and reproductive health are an important part of identity formation because they act as a marker of comparison to others. Sadly for young viewers on TikTok, this could result in them believing harmful myths and trying remedies that pose a serious risk to their health.
Taboo, Disgust, Intrigue
The success of medical misinformation sources also depends on another important factor – the use of manipulative and evocative language. Jen Gunter is a Canadian-American gynaecologist who fights against vulvovaginal misinformation. In a 2013 Lancet article, she describes her past struggle dealing with her young son’s complex medical conditions. Helpless and frustrated, she found herself drawn to wellness websites promoting unconventional remedies.
She writes: “I ended up where the language resonated and I felt understood—on blogs and sites that sold products. And the confidence, well, it was intoxicating.”
TikTok myth creators use a similar tactic by employing familiar language such as “hey girl” and “c’mon ladies” to promote the illusion of a relationship between the viewer and the creator. The language speaks to a constructed and superficial commonality – the quality of identifying as a woman, or, ‘woman-ness’. This is a sneaky weapon of manipulation which is particularly harmful to vulnerable viewers, who may experience peer pressure to act and consume in a certain way.
When I was looking through #femininehygiene on TikTok, I came across a small pool of startups who used the above method to shame viewers into using their products. These brands featured young, female employees who pushed the idea that if a woman did not use their sprays and creams, her sexual relationship with men would suffer. No matter where I turned, I kept running into the same message. Everywhere, from teen creators to feminine hygiene brands, the allure of male validation was used as a means of censoring or altering natural aspects of the female body. Mainstream brands such as FemFresh and Summers Eve are no different – using words like “natural” and “pure” in their marketing, words which are inextricably linked to the historical oppression of female sexuality.
As I slipped deeper and deeper into the rabbit hole of #femininehygiene, I became aware of how medical myths on TikTok, the explosion of feminine hygiene brands and internalised misogyny fed into one another to produce disturbing, consumerist rhetoric about female anatomy. I started to see how myth proponents and brands just profit from regurgitating sexist notions about what a woman should and shouldn’t do with her body.
TikTok myth creators, most likely seeking fame and profit, actively feed into this system of misogyny in several ways. Firstly, creators reinforce harmful myths such as the idea that female anatomy is inherently dirty. This, and the fact that some creators promote certain feminine hygiene brands, pushes the idea that brands, not doctors, are the best sources of help for sexual and reproductive problems. As a result, vulnerable viewers are discouraged from seeking evidence-based medicine, which, by definition, would provide them with a safer treatment. Undermining evidence-based medicine is therefore a crucial factor in the industry’s success. Without doctor-approved treatment, a person’s medical condition will probably persist, making them more likely to continue buying into the vicious cycle of consumer products.
Illuminating these connections reveals how the artful use of sexist messaging creates this individualistic, hyper-vigilant and consumerist subjectivity wherein female anatomy becomes a kind of ‘body project’ or something to be constantly ‘improved upon’ through scrubbing, shaving, cleansing, bleaching, steaming, spraying and waxing. In the context of hyper-consumerism, women’s sexual organs, therefore, become an endless opportunity for renovation and ‘fixing up’, not dissimilar from a house, or a car. Such as in the case of the latter, these improvements are far from cheap.
Becoming through Consumption
In her 2019 dissertation brilliantly titled Don’t Let Gwyneth Paltrow Tell You Shit About Life: The Rhetoric of Self-Care, Alternative Medicine, and the Politics of Experience, Christine Deka holds a critical lens to contemporary brands who promote a quasi-spiritual, hyper-consumerist form of ‘self-care’- including Gwyneth Paltrow’s infamous website goop. Interestingly, the concept of ‘self-care’ originated as part of 20th-century activism in response to the systemic exclusion of and violence against People of Colour (POC) in the US. Neglected by medical institutions, taking care of one’s health was a political act of solidarity that gave activists physical and spiritual sustenance to continue fighting for their rights.
Today, ‘self-care’ is used in a very different context and with different results. “The rhetoric of self-care”, Deka writes, “invites privileged white women to embark on regimes of self-discovery that can only be achieved by optimising their corporeality in terms that can best be described as postfeminist (…) and colonialist”. While Deka is mainly focused on wellness brands like Paltrow’s goop, her argument reveals the problematic nature of commodifying female sexual health.
Users of ‘self-care’ remedies rely on easy access to safe, evidence-based solutions like hospitals, just in case things go wrong. This convenient access, which sadly is not a universality, is exploited and rarely acknowledged by proponents of unconventional medicine. In regards to race, white women typically have more economic privilege, at least historically speaking. Compared to women of colour, they also do not face the same level of systemic bias which inhibits access to conventional treatment.
Medical misinformation is post-feminist in the sense that brands and myth spreaders employ language that references notions of female empowerment, as evidenced by the fake “hey girl” attitudes adopted when spruiking a product or home remedy. Of course, these contrived identities are not to be mistaken for genuine commitments to gender equality. This is because the form of “empowerment” that brands espouse promotes the dehumanising notion that a woman’s power is inherently tied to her sexuality and consumer identity.
Tik Tok and Capitalism
Our current system of capitalism was founded upon several centuries of violent extraction of labour and resources from colonies. The 21st-century commodification of health, including the proliferation of creams, washes and sprays, reflects privileged access to raw goods and cheap labour as a result of colonisation. Brands and creators portray “natural” solutions such as “herbs” as inherently healthy, while conventional medicine, being “artificial” and full of “toxins” and “chemicals”, is dangerous. This is what’s called a naturalistic fallacy, where an informal logical fallacy argues that if something is ‘natural’, it must be good. This fallacy is easily disproved when you consider all the natural things that pose a risk to humans, with volcanoes and poison ivy being two great examples.
When it comes to ‘self-care’, the naturalistic fallacy is particularly dangerous because it’s premised on a racist linearisation where Anglo-Celtic culture is implied to be the pinnacle of development, therefore presenting non-Western cultures as ancient, underdeveloped and culturally inferior. Creators commonly appropriate non-Western practices from a diversity of populations and time periods. Deka uses the example of the jade egg, a product famously promoted by goop, which is inserted vaginally to supposedly increase sexual pleasure.
Jade eggs are a great example of how myth proponents identify “Eastern” remedies as being “simpler” and more “natural” than 21st-century medicine. By stripping away the historical context of the jade egg, an “ancient” Chinese tradition, brands enhance their ability to package and sell the remedy to affluent, predominately white users. Due to ignorance and a lack of genuine respect for other cultures, these companies arouse attention and spark curiosity with the ultimate goal of maximising their profits.
“Health”, Deka writes, “has become an all-consuming body project” (2019, p.26). TikTok’s influence similarly seems to be growing and I can’t help but feel concerned. While sexism is nothing new, the app has mastered the ability to harness user data, catchy music, eye-grabbing visuals to captivate viewers. These features, as well as the allure of peer connection, have created a growing fanbase of impressionable young people at the mercy of brands and creators.
Without neglecting the historicity of physical and symbolic violence against female bodies, the medical misinformation on TikTok should prompt us to consider how sexism takes shape in ways that are unexpected, contradictory, and in some cases, obfuscated by the tempting allure of “empowerment”.
Chrisler, Joan C., and Johnston-Robledo, Ingrid. Woman’s Embodied Self: Feminist Perspectives on Identity and Image / Joan C. Chrisler and Ingrid Johnston-Robledo. First ed. Psychology of Women. 2018
Deka, Christina, Hall, Rachel, Cloud, Dana, Orr, Jackie, and Rand, Erin. Don’t Let Gwyneth Paltrow Tell You Shit About Life: The Rhetoric of Self-Care, Alternative Medicine, and the Politics of Experience, 2019, ProQuest Dissertations and Theses.
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Gunter, Jen. “Medical Misinformation and the Internet: A Call to Arms.” Lancet (London, England) 393, no. 10188 (2019): 2294-295.
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