Podculture: Dinner and a TikTok

Hannah Cole, Reporter

While eating disorders look different for each individual person, the culture on college campuses can sometimes further hurt students’ relationships with eating. The emergence of “eat with me” videos on TikTok stems from creators wanting to provide a safe space to discuss and enjoy food. The Daily sat down with a Northwestern student, an eating disorder specialist and TikToker “Snackqween” to chat about how these videos are helping some students.

HANNAH COLE: Before we begin, a content warning: this episode contains explicit language and discussion of eating disorders.

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HANNAH COLE: According to the 2011 Collegiate Survey Project, 4.4 to 5.9 percent of teens entered college with a preexisting, untreated eating disorder. However, that same survey found that the percent of eating disorders for college students was between 23.4 and 32.6 percent. While eating disorders look different for each individual, the culture of college campuses can sometimes further hurt students’ relationships with food. Things like “the freshman fifteen” trope and gym culture, or more autonomy with food in dining halls may factor into a developing eating disorder. The emergence of “eat with me” videos on TikTok stems from creators wanting to provide a safe space to discuss and enjoy food. From The Daily Northwestern, I’m Hannah Cole. This is Podculture, a podcast about arts and culture on campus and beyond.

JEN CURLEY [TIKTOK AUDIO]: I always talk about intuitive eating on here and eating when you’re hungry and eating what your body craves.

HANNAH COLE: That was TikToker Jen Curley, also known as Snackqween, who has amassed over 500,000 followers on her account. She films herself eating food to provide followers with a comfortable eating environment or a gentle reminder to eat.

JEN CURLEY: I do a range of different videos. I do anywhere from fun snack requests to eating people’s fear foods. Most commonly, my videos are about me sitting down, talking with the audience and responding to their questions — whether it’s about food, recipes, or about eating disorder recovery, symptoms, struggles.

HANNAH COLE: Jen said that while she began her account for fun, she felt like she had a responsibility to talk openly about her past struggles with food once she gained a larger following.

JEN CURLEY: I was starting to get a lot of comments about, “Oh, you know, must be nice to eat whatever you want” and “you don’t have to worry about your weight.” I think once those comments started, I felt the need to address it, and by addressing it, is when I came forward with my own struggles with my relationship with food in the past.

HANNAH COLE: From her first video trying a Taco Bell grilled cheese burrito in July 2020 to her more recent content discussing fears like bloating and weighing oneself, viewers expressed how much Jen’s eating videos and advice have helped them.

JEN CURLEY: I feel like I got a very, very overwhelming reaction and feedback in that people will just message me saying that I’ve just helped them so much, whether it’s just simply remembering to eat, or I’ve helped them in their eating disorder recovery. This past weekend, actually, a teenage girl had recognized me and she was the first one that actually got kind of emotional about it. She started crying a little and she was just saying, “Oh my gosh, you’ve helped me so much, you wouldn’t believe. You’ve really helped me get out of a really dark place with food.”

HANNAH COLE: Communication sophomore Gwen Giedeman also expressed their opinion on “eat with me” videos, both on days when these TikToks provide helpful support and when they seem ineffective.

GWEN GIEDEMAN: I think it depends, even for me as a person from day to day. I’m like, “this is stupid,” I don’t think personally this would help me. But then on other days, I’m like, “you know what, actually, yeah it is nice,” even if you don’t have people in real life that you can eat with. Because for a lot of people eating alone feels bad, but you need to eat something.

HANNAH COLE: These videos can also help when the resources and culture on Northwestern’s campus falls short. NU students and researchers have expressed in the past that campus medical services and messaging within dining halls don’t offer sufficient support for students with eating disorders. Sometimes, other people’s insecurities and lack of information lead to a stressful environment for those struggling with food.

GWEN GIEDEMAN: I don’t currently see a lot of open conversations around food at Northwestern, but there definitely could be. People will comment on what you’re eating and in no way are you asking for that. Like it’s so hard to be sensitive around the topics of food and eating, and I get that, but there’s not a whole lot at Northwestern in terms of, I wouldn’t even say education, but just being knowledgeable about what could be hurtful or not to say.

HANNAH COLE: For some students, conversations about food can be triggering. The “eat with me” community purposefully tailors videos to match people’s comfort level. Jen recognizes that eating videos might prove helpful to some of her followers, but that, for others, the content might be harmful.

JEN CURLEY: What works for one person definitely could be detrimental, even, to the next. For me, personally, I’m not a dieter. For me, something like keto is very extreme, and it would absolutely be a big trigger.

HANNAH COLE: While people like Snackqween try to help, food-focused content on social media can often be harmful for people with an eating disorder. Dr. Michelle Gebhardt, the clinical director of Mindful Psychology Associates in Evanston and a certified eating disorder specialist, warns clients about the information they consume online.

DR. MICHELLE GEBHARDT: Intent versus impact plays a big role there too. Sometimes when people are posting information out there, their intent isn’t necessarily to cause harm, and yet, they’re clouded by their eating disorder so they’re not always necessarily fully aware of what they’re posting. It can promote some pretty harmful behaviors that can influence somebody else’s eating in individuals that struggle with eating disorders.

HANNAH COLE: Dr. Gebhardt also noticed an increased need for eating disorder services after the onset of the pandemic.

DR. MICHELLE GEBHARDT: Everybody’s anxiety was on high alert to begin with. And then the shift in the daily structure and support that became available to them, they were relying on a treatment program, or additional family support to be able to provide them with the meals. Suddenly, those supports were no longer available.

HANNAH COLE: Dr. Gebhardt attributes the popularity of “eat with me” TikToks to this increased need for support, whether it was influenced by the stress of college or pandemic hardships.

DR. MICHELLE GEBHARDT: For people who are really struggling in terms of battling isolation, sometimes it can really make the difference between somebody eating or not eating that day. And it can be something that helps that person just get the additional structure and support around food. So in that sense, TikToks like that can be really helpful.

HANNAH COLE: Ultimately, the goal for “eat with me” TikTok is to provide a safe space to eat. Whether discussions of food are difficult because of home, college or the pandemic, these TikTokers want to help create positive relationships with food for their viewers.

JEN CURLEY: If you are more comfortable eating in your room alone, you’re more comfortable eating at the dining hall or eating outside on a bench, just find your space where you feel safe, and prioritize eating food. Your body is your own, and you are f–king wonderful.

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HANNAH COLE: From The Daily Northwestern, I’m Hannah Cole. Thanks for listening to another episode of Podculture. For more information on eating disorders, you can visit nationaleatingdisorders.org. This episode was reported and produced by me, Hannah Cole. The audio editor of The Daily Northwestern is Madison Smith, the digital managing editor is Haley Fuller and the editor in chief is Sneha Dey.

Email: [email protected] 

Twitter: @ahh_hec

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