If you spend any amount of time on TikTok, you have almost assuredly been lured by the algorithm into a particularly weird niche of beverage videos in recent days. You’ve likely seen a woman, probably a thin woman, smiling as she fills her giant Stanley tumbler with crushed ice and purified water. That all seems perfectly normal, but then the woman pulls out an arsenal of syrups, powders, and liquid flavor enhancers that transform her boring glass of H2O into “birthday cake water” or “peach ring water.” Welcome to #watertok.
In this hydration-obsessed corner of TikTok, where videos hashtagged with #watertok have been viewed more than 84 million times, creators present a slew of “recipes” for spicing up water, that beverage we all need to survive. A particularly prolific creator in the trend is a woman named Tonya, who uses the handle @takingmylifebackat42. Since 2022, she’s racked up millions of views on videos in which she makes a wide range of low-calorie foods, but her water recipes are especially popular. She has recipes for bubblegum water, banana split water, unicorn cotton candy water and, of course, she has an affiliate code where you can purchase syrups to make your own flavored waters (and help her make a little bit of cash).
The people who post #watertok videos receive tons of comments, and some of these dismissively insist that what these creators are making is actually juice, or glorified Kool-Aid, or soda. But while I can’t really get worked up about whether or not these gross-sounding beverages can be reasonably called water, what’s actually upsetting is that #watertok is yet another diet culture fad that has gone mainstream via social media.
The recipes for lemon cake water and strawberry Starburst water didn’t spring fully formed out of the ether. The key thing that most of these water additives, which include sugar-free flavor packets made by brands like Hawaiian Punch and Crystal Light, have in common is that they’re made with artificial sweeteners, and thus, have zero or very few calories. Drinks like these have long been popular in the bariatric surgery community, where people who have undergone surgery are restricted to extremely low calorie diets.
In this context, it’s easy to see why something that tastes like a dessert but doesn’t have any calories has mainstream appeal right now, considering how many people, celebrities and regular folks alike, are taking semaglutide drugs originally intended to treat diabetes to lose weight. If thin is back in, as many cultural experts have observed in recent months, then so are the modern versions of Snackwell’s diet desserts. There is also likely some connection to the “loaded tea” phenomenon, where sugar-free drinks originally made with products from the multi-level marketing company Herbalife have achieved popularity on social media and in small towns across the country. But because it’s 2023, when nothing garners more “likes” and eyeballs than a ridiculous recipe, the popularity of #watertok also has a lot to do with creators packing drinks with an over-the-top number of additives solely for the purpose of driving views.
On some level, I get it. I’m a Stanley tumbler girlie, and an unabashed beverage girlie. I am not surprised that TikTok served this content to me, because I can’t get enough of a weird recipe trend. And for people who hate the taste of plain water, and there are many, the idea of getting hydrated while not drinking a beverage you loathe must be pretty enticing. But good grief, unless you have an actual medical need, just throw a slice of lemon in there or something.