The author discusses composting in a strapless gown for a TikTok video.
I squeeze my body in between the dilapidated structure that collects rainwater off the roof and a 50-gallon barrel of yesterday’s laundry water.
“Can you aim the camera to avoid this clutter,” I ask Emily, the young woman I’ve hired to film me, “and just get me and the laundry water in frame?”
I am nervous — the most insecure I’ve felt since I started posting on TikTok three weeks ago. In the first few videos, I wore that little black club dress with the flattering neckline. But today I’m in an old trapeze costume: a one-shoulder get-up, gold and sparkly. Fifteen years ago, I cut 3 inches off the skirt so it wouldn’t wrap around the bar during a show. My thighs were firmer then, not crinkled or splotchy.
“I’m afraid my legs look flabby,” I say as I stare at Emily’s iPhone camera right inside intimacy range. Emily is from the generation of body positivity. I’m from the Twiggy generation.
“You look amazing,” she says, sounding sincere.
I tell myself to trust her, that I’ve been self-critical for too long. I judge my waistline and beat myself up if I gain 2 pounds. It’s exhausting.
The author wears a short, sparkly costume in her yard while harvesting bananas for a TikTok video.
I know my peers dismiss social media as a waste of time and a threat to mental health, and that TikTok receives the brunt of the criticism because it’s new and we’re supposed to be afraid of it. But to me, it’s a beacon of freedom — young, fun, a place for dancing.
I’ve been bitter lately, sick of faking Little Miss Agreeable for my parents and former bosses, for randos I don’t even know. Sick of trying and failing to contort myself into a soft-spoken, nice lady that I imagine everyone will love.
I am also terrified of that gold sparkly minidress. It is crazy short, it doesn’t hide my tummy, and my right tit wants to pop out. Let it, I tell myself. I don’t care if someone thinks I’m old and ugly. I must believe in myself even if no one else will.
I take a breath.
“Welcome to random bleep in my bleep bleep garden,” I begin. I introduce my system for collecting laundry water and pull Emily over to the bucket. It’s slimy and gross. We laugh.
I talk about drought-tolerant landscaping and keeping microfibers out of the waterways. I sass the camera. I’m sarcastic. I’m myself.
Emily sends the footage the next day.
“I love it except my legs,” I text, adding a scream emoji. “There’s one shot especially where my ass hangs out.” I’m so embarrassed. “Can you crop the clips?”
I squint into the phone, knowing that most people are too wrapped up with their own lives to bother with my imperfections. Still, I ask Emily to hide my legs behind the captions.
She posts the video the next day. It’s one week before my 59th birthday.
“It’s gone insane. Check the numbers,” I text Emily minutes after it goes live.
It’s hard to see the video or the numbers because a flood of comment banners move across the screen. Thousands of people click the “like” button.
The author, age 36 in this photo, hides her body behind baggy clothes in hopes of appearing boyish.
“I would kill to have you as my mother,” one person comments. Another writes, “you’re an icon.” They ask questions about soil composition and washing soap. It’s exhilarating. I wonder if the video will surpass 100,000 views.
I’m overloaded with endorphins. I can’t stop checking my phone or get up from the sofa. The video speeds past 200,000 views. It will cross half a million very soon.
It will cross 5 million.
I feel dizzy — the scrolling, the comments, the likes. Too many people to count tell me I’m beautiful, I’m funny, I’m the best thing they’ve seen on TikTok. People love my dress. They call me Wilma from “The Flintstones” and Jane from “Tarzan” and Chelsea Handler and a better-looking version of Carole Baskin.
I Google Carole Baskin.
I force myself to drink water and feed the dog, then I climb into bed and resolve to do nothing other than look at TikTok. I scroll comments and ponder a lifetime of insecurity around my appearance.
As a child, I slept under a white ruffle canopy in a bedroom wallpapered with pink roses. My mother modeled modesty and body shame in a loose-fitting pinafore dress over a high-necked blouse. She criticized women with large breasts in front of me so often that I learned to believe that nice ladies had small breasts and that gazongas were bad. Throughout my teens and into my 30s, I chose baggy shirts so I would appear flat-chested. It felt safer. I wanted a boy-looking body. I still want a boy-looking body.
Some comments are cruel. Some people act like know-it-alls. I watch as new commenters attack the cruel commenters on my behalf.
The author harvests zucchini in a miniskirt for a TikTok video.
Over the next few months, my TikTok audience grows, sometimes slowly, sometimes in bursts. The dopamine high subsides, and I begin to process the attention. And while my peers and the press continue disparaging social media, three friends I haven’t heard from in ages message me to rave about my channel. Neighbors stop me in the street to tell me how much they love the videos. My brother opens a TikTok account just so he can follow me.
I make more videos. I don’t know what it means to be sexy or to fit into the rules about being a woman, so I break them. I harvest zucchini in a miniskirt, weed in pink booty shorts, and compost in a strapless gown.
One young woman writes, “you’ve inspired me so much, gardening isn’t as complicated as I imagined.” Another says, “I’ve been a better community member because of you.” People ask questions about plants and seeds and soil. They discuss flowers and nontoxic detergents. Sometimes they tell me I’m pretty.
The creators I follow on TikTok talk about the systemic minimization and marginalization of women. It inspires me to practice taking up space. At a public speaking gig, I communicate more slowly and pause for drama. At a salon, I embrace the spotlight rather than feeling ashamed of wanting attention. At a board meeting, I notice when I’m being spoken over in real time so I can call it out and correct it.
For as long as I can remember, I was told by peers and colleagues, even by a yoga teacher, that I am too bold, too loud, too much. Then I step into the world of TikTok, where boldness is celebrated and wildness is an asset, and here I find acceptance. I also find out what it feels like to be noticed — to have agency. It’s fantastic.
The author gains weight over the holidays, focuses on her tummy area, and then has a breakthrough thanks to the objectivity that TikTok gives her.
Over the holidays, I gain a few pounds. I stare at my midsection in a video draft. I don’t notice the rosemary or the bees that are also in frame. All I see is my belly. I’ve done thousands of situps and millions of crunches, and dance class and trapeze and yoga, but to me, my abs have never been flat enough. I know this body shame is harmful and that I need to let my inner critic go.
I watch the draft again. I watch it three more times, focusing on the 2-inch region of my tummy. I try to imagine myself through TikTok eyes, to see what these mostly 20- to 30-year-olds see when they look at me. Something in my brain switches. I’m outside myself, looking at the video with an objective lens. I see my whole body moving, engaging with the environment. It’s shocking. I think I look amazing.
The following morning, instead of judging, I see a confident woman with a nice figure in the bathroom mirror. On date night, I don’t fuss over my outfit. And when Emily sends a new video for review, I’m kind to myself.
At 59, I never would have expected that just six months of interaction with the TikTok generation could impact the way I see myself so profoundly. And while I understand that posting on TikTok isn’t for everyone, for me, it helped heal years of insecurity about my appearance.
A week later I saunter into cardio sculpt class wearing a leopard-print sports bra, determined to look at myself in the floor-to-ceiling gym mirrors. I observe my C-cup chest, my round hips. I slink closer, turn to the side to check my ass. “I love your top,” says Stephanie — tall, slender Stephanie. Her baggy top covers her lean figure. “You have no idea how hard I’ve worked to wear this,” I reply.
Laura Faye Tenenbaum is a writer, public speaker and TikTok creator currently working on a memoir about her love of the natural world and her fight for empowerment within the science community. You can also find her on Instagram @laurafayeten.