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Empowerment or Exploitation? Examining Infantilization on TikTok


TikTok has been home to an explosion of different trends. Besides the dancing, memes, and DIY craft projects, it’s been a place where female content creators have thrived. While this has helped make waves in representation and has even alleviated various women from financial burdens, it is interesting to note what kind of female representation is being posted on TikTok.


One of the most pervasive subgenres of female content creators is the “e-girl”. Unfortunately, some of its participants seem to present a highly infantilized image of themselves on TikTok.


Now, the idea of women being infantilized is not a new one by any means. The one beauty standard that has seemed to survive no matter what (and that too, globally) is looking young. Many standard beautifying practices revolve around youth and vitality – removing hair from the body, cheek plumping fillers, facelifts, and more. The entire phenomenon is a unique reminder of how limited women’s “shelf life” is and the lengths some people go to to maintain it.


Social media (TikTok in particular) has allowed for a genuine mobilization of this standard using voiceovers, filters, and the ability to create content in video form. So, you’d probably see a lot of influencers exhibiting traditionally childlike behaviour, like throwing tantrums, cuddling stuffed animals, or exaggeratedly pouting. These videos are accompanied by millions of likes.


Now, most people who come across this content during their daily social media scroll pass it by without thinking much about it. For others, however, it is indicative of a dangerous move towards sexualizing child-like behaviour. Critics of these influencers have cited their representations as “dangerous”, since their portrayals heavily draw from the Japanese “loli” aesthetic. That refers to the fictional and often sexualized portrayal of pre-teen girls. The disturbing combination of childish and erotic imagery has not stopped production and distribution of loli content from being banned in Japan.


It seems the matter is still at a very delicate crossroads between personal choice and social responsibility. The word “influence” is literally in an influencer’s name, so the power they wield over individuals is immense.


Defenders of these influencers often use the argument that these are grown women who are not responsible for an audiences sexualization of them. That is true. Still, a growing number of these influencers also create adult content, and the weight of this aesthetic can be felt heavily in that too.


Gail Dines, who is a professor of Sociology and Women’s Studies, dubs the latter as “pseudo child pornography”, arguing that images are produced and consumed within a society where dominant pop culture images are of “childified women” and “hypersexualized” female bodies. Overall, on a cultural level, it is “chipping away” at the norm that children are off limits, so to speak.


Even though TikTok’s regulations say that only those over 13 can use it, the truth is that child smartphone usage is starting exceptionally early, and TikTok has become a very convenient entertainment app. It is worth asking what this content may be teaching children, especially young girls.

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This obsession with being young creates a lot of unrealistic beauty standards of looking small and young, which are seen online on TikTok but create problematic standards for people in real life. I think what is interesting is the shift in the content created from the public sites to adult content. This supply of "child" adult content is very heavily demanded with these girls gaining millions of followers the day they make an account.

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The fetishization of underage girls starting from the 'schoolgirl fantasy,' has always been disgusting. How can one find it sexually attractive for a woman to dress like a child? Similarly, though women do everything in their power to reverse their age, with anti-aging products and procedures, the way young women try to look like younger girls is wild, and the fact that it is so popular and loved by audiences is wilder.

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The fact that there's a huge audience for this is disturbing yet unsurprising. There was a whole controversy on TikTok about a mother posting videos of her toddler daughter and the extremely inappropriate comments that kept popping up on them in thousands. This should be a conversation-starter for child protection because with the advent of media, the issue is brought into the digital domain, which is frankly vast and near impossible to fully regulate.

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Mubashir Mémon
Mubashir Mémon
16. 6. 2023

Enjoyed the read! liked how you chose the picture of Belle Delphine for the blog's cover, since she is pretty much on the forefront of creating this content and was the trendsetter for introducing the 'Ahegao' face through her TikTok and OnlyFans. When individuals engage with this type of content, they may develop unrealistic and unhealthy expectations about young girls' appearances, behaviors, and the desirability of such characteristics. This normalization can potentially lead to the objectification and exploitation of minors. It becomes increasingly challenging to differentiate between appropriate and inappropriate behavior when content like this blurs the boundaries between adult sexuality and child-like innocence and its problematic how trends like these have been circulating for a long time.

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These influencers co-opting the infantilised aesthetic is so jarring is because it's extremely in your face. For example, using a kids voice to voice over your own, using filters that make you look like a little child, or even setting up your background like a child's bedroom. It takes all these accepted ideas of youth as highly attractive, repackages it into its most consumable content, and then presents them all over our phone screens. Definitely a tad disturbing for sure, but also representative of how long these ideals have been accepted without any considerable backlash.

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This is an important issue nowadays considering the increase in Tiktok usage (25 million users from Pakistan). The problem with "sexualizing child-like behavior "on TikTok is that it contributes to the normalization and perpetuation of inappropriate and harmful behaviors towards minors. When individuals engage in or promote sexualized content featuring child-like behavior, it blurs the boundaries between innocence and adult themes, potentially leading to the exploitation, objectification, and grooming of children. It is crucial to actively discourage and report any instances of sexualized content involving child-like behavior to protect the well-being and safety of children and young individuals.

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Besides what it does for representations of desirability, it may also be worth noticing that the issue seems to expand into the realm of moral or ethical dilemmas. For example, there are some people who argue that this kind of content us okay as it may reduces instances of real children being exploited. However, the flipside of this argument is that deliberate infantilisation of adult women perpetuates negative stereotypes about women being intellectually under-developed and more desirable if they are very youthful.

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LOVED THE READ! I have always found these videos/reels a little disturbing where these women transform themselves into these young women with makeup and face remodeling. There are even videos where they show taking these makeovers off and then show the stark difference between the before and after. In a lot of ways these tiktoks have put these young women out in the face of the world and they produce questionable content at times. A lot of our local tiktokers too have been seen to start at a very young age and they keep producing content about relationships and impressing men. While they may seem nothing wrong on the surface level at times, some of these videos (if not all)…

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I definitely agree that it might not be intentional on the influencer's part, they probably do not set out with the end goal to normalise sexualising minors. However, it is fair to criticize them for dressing up as little kids in adult themed content and acknowledging that even their choices to do so don't exist in a vaccuum and are probably informed by their knowledge of what boosts viewership and engagement.

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