In the future, space aliens trying to understand this moment in human history might wonder why, during a catastrophic global pandemic, so many teenage girls were posting videos about sculpting their abs.
Over the past several months, as many people hunkered down inside, the #chloetingchallenge has flourished on TikTok. On the video-sharing app hashtags related to “Chloe Ting” clocked more than 800 million views as of mid-August. To scroll through them is to discover strange archival footage from the spring and summer of 2020 set to a barrage of pop music, where women and girls do up-and-down planks, lip sync, dance, and crack jokes about motivation. There’s also earnest documentation of progress, with frequent before-and-after shots. The pandemic isn’t the point, but it looms silently in the background: The videos often appear to be filmed at home, women working out alone with no more than a mat and a body.
So who is the mastermind behind this viral trend? Chloe Ting, an exuberant fitness star who was born in Brunei and later moved to Australia, according to one of her videos. She studied econometrics, statistics and finance, has a master’s degree, and has been working out for over three years, she said in 2019. The oldest video on her YouTube channel, which now has more than 13.8 million subscribers, is from 2016 and is about fashion hacks. In more recent years, however, her free workout videos have exploded in popularity, regularly attracting over millions of views.Her most popular: “get Abs in 2 WEEKS” video from August 2019 counts over 220 million views.
Though Ting’s workouts are popular on TikTok, and she has just under a half-million followers on the platform, she almost never posts. In an April video, she appeared mystified by TikTok and her popularity on the app. “I’m too old for this shit,” she joked.
On her website, her challenges, like the 4-week “Summer Shred” feature a free series of workout videos for each day of the program with timed bodyweight moves such as side plank crunches and curtsy lunge side kicks, along with designated rest days. The video names sparkle with the promise of swift transformation, backed by the model abs of Ting herself. Her perfection is such that the website Jezebel recently reassured readers the tireless Ting is not, in fact, a robot. (She told ELLE.com in an email she doesn’t do media interviews.)
At the beginning of the pandemic, with many states in the U.S. under lockdown orders and gyms closed, the appeal of online at-home workouts seemed obvious. From the outside, it’s hard to say if Ting’s videos drew more viewers due to lockdown—her six most viewed videos were posted before the pandemic—but she does reference the moment: “I know being in isolation isn’t the easiest, but remember you’re not alone,” she says in a “Tiny Waist & Round Butt” video from April 6.
It seems absurd now, but early on, for some, the pandemic came with a desire for self-improvement. If you weren’t facing eviction, job loss, child and family care demands, structural racism, mental health issues or illness, it felt as if you should be baking, reading literature, and getting toned. As the New York Times’ Amanda Hess succinctly put it, in an article on how influencers have sought to transform the pandemic into a self-care opportunity, “health may be scarce, but wellness is still in stock.” It’s not surprising that teen girls in particular, sequestered from school and friends, felt called to share their workouts on TikTok.
The TikToks posted by those doing Ting’s workouts are often funny, like commiserating over a tough workout with a friend. They’re threaded with self-awareness, but also self-flagellation: “Me only eating spinach and doing Chloe Ting workouts,” one caption reads. “Running to do chloe tings ab work out after realizing pregnant gigi hadid is still skinnier than me,” reads another. “When chloe ting controls your life,” reads a third. Then there’s the frequent shots of stomachs, and sometimes measurements and scales.
I reached out to one of the women posting about the challenges on TikTok, who identified herself over email as Ingrid Lopez, a 19-year-old student from Miami. She has more than 9,000 followers on the platform. “Since going into lockdown, I finally had more time to work out,” she says. She calls her experience with the workouts “amazing” and says that she decided to share videos on TikTok to hold herself accountable. “People started saying that I was a huge motivation for them, which in turn motivated me to keep going and keep posting.”
This type of challenge “can indeed promote healthy behaviors among people—as long as the viewers are having fun,” says Emma Laing, director of dietetics at the University of Georgia, who seeks to challenge diet culture in her courses. On TikTok however, she identified images she considered potentially harmful, such as when users post their weight and size statistics. “Bodies are so different in terms of metabolism and body composition, so it is impossible to guarantee that your results will look like others that you see on social media,” Laing says.
“Another reason why unhealthy behaviors might develop, particularly among marginalized identities, is because the thin ideal standards of beauty often promoted in advertising these challenges are unrealistic for people who are genetically larger or who have physical limitations,” she adds. (In response to a critic, Ting recently posted a video featuring a psychologist with expertise on body dysmorphic disorder, who praised her content, and said Ting focuses on the way people feel, rather than how they look.)
Lopez says that she’s careful about not posting her weight on TikTok, “because one of my followers told me it could be potentially triggering.” Instead, she tries to focus on “non-scale victories,” such as how her clothes fit and improving her stress and anxiety, and she tells her followers not to compare their progress to others. “I’ve found this whole community to be extremely inspiring, motivating, and uplifting,” she notes.
Though my teenage years are long gone, I, too, find the TikToks inspiring and far more fun than the workout plans I ripped out of magazines in high-school, which promised to transform me over summer break. But the videos also reminded me of my unhappy old habit of scrutinizing my body and wondering if my stomach could be flatter — a trap that is especially irresistible lately, when abs seem to be about the only thing I can control.
Everdeen Mason, my equally non-teenage friend who first told me about Ting, also pointed to the current moment when explaining why she’d started doing the workouts. These days, she’s thinking about everything from when she’ll go back to the office, to the health of her friends and family, to “the inherent racism that keeps killing people that look like me,” she says. When “everything feels indefinite” there is “something special about having a very concrete goal and sense of accomplishment.”
“In this time of uncertainty and mental instability and confusion I have turned to Chloe Ting,” she says. Indeed, when space aliens look back at this moment, perhaps they will mistake the indefatigable Chloe Ting for our leader.
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