What You Eat Is Who You Are (Online): "What I Eat In A Day" Videos on TikTok and What they Tell Us About The Digital Self

Melton, Julia, Media, Culture, and Technology - Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, University of Virginia
Melton, Julia, Media, Culture & Technology - Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, University of Virginia

This paper analyzes “What I Eat In A Day” (WIEIAD) videos on the platform TikTok. WIEIAD content involves individuals documenting and sharing what it is they consume in a day, and is often employed by lifestyle, food, and health influencers or bloggers. On TikTok, these videos are increasingly being created by average users without large followings or microcelebrity.
This thesis attempts to answer the questions of: 1) How are notions of ‘thinspiration’ and the ideal body being replicated and challenged on TikTok through the production of What I Eat In A Day Content? 2) What are the motivations behind the creation of What I Eat In A Day Videos by female-identifying users on TikTok? 3) Finally, how do attitudes of consumption of WIEIAD videos formed in the vein of self-presentation impact producers’ conceptions of the self?
I employ a mixed methods analysis including in-depth interviews, surveys, and critical discourse analysis to answer these questions. In addition, I conduct an Actor Network Theory analysis of the structure and engrained mechanics of TikTok in order to unpack how the “for you page” harnesses attention from users through intrapersonal socialization and customization.
My analysis focuses on a class of WIEIAD TikToks which I classify as “unruly”. As such, this thesis demonstrates the ways in which feedback and attention that individuals receive from making WIEIAD content is less dependent on the actual food being showcased but discerned based on the aesthetics of the producer.
In accordance with previous feminist cultural theorists, I argue that neoliberalism pushes us to take on affective ideology that prioritizes perfection, constant self-work, and aestheticized performances. When individuals perform in ways that demonstrate otherwise, the freedom of the body becomes a threat to the body politic. These notions are complicated and dependent on the bodies which are performing. In each case of what someone eats in a day, whether “healthy” or “unhealthy”, unruly or not -- how the audience reacts very little has to do with qualified or objective knowledge on health and nutrition. To be in a larger body and free is seen as dangerous; To be in a thinner body and free is seen as fascinating.
With the increasing power and popularity of TikTok, it is of the utmost importance we take this phenomenon and produced self-representations seriously. Although some might see the existence of these videos as signaling vanity, craving attention, silliness -- they have real-world repercussions on how we see our own selves and bodies and the relationships we have with food.

MA (Master of Arts)
Digital Studies, Food Cultures, TikTok, Body Image, What I Eat In A Day (WIEIAD), Platform Studies, Media Bodies, Feminist Cultural Srudies
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