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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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