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Gen Z Speaks: As a teen, I tried a viral waist size challenge and failed. It affected me for a long time

Several years back, I tried out what was known then as the “A4 paper challenge”, a social media trend that involves girls placing a piece of A4-sized paper in front of their waist.

Jillian Lau, 19, is studying communications and media management at Temasek Polytechnic.

Jillian Lau, 19, is studying communications and media management at Temasek Polytechnic.

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Several years back, I tried out what was known then as the “A4 paper challenge”, a social media trend that involves girls placing a piece of A4-sized paper in front of their waist.

If the paper hides the entire waist, they will have “won” that challenge. Believed to have originated from China, thousands participated in this viral trend that took the social media world by storm.

I remember trying this challenge, back when I was only 13 years’ old, and felt a sense of satisfaction when I could pass the challenge. Like many others, I took a photo of this feat for fun and posted the result on social media, feeling proud of this achievement.

A few years later, I tried it again when I was 16.

To my complete dismay then, I failed the challenge. My waist peeked out behind the A4-sized paper – which measures 21cm at the width. This time, I did not take any photos.

I recall what it was like to be a teenager, desperately trying to fit in with my peers and hopping onto cool trends.

But thanks to social media, such trends nowadays have an outsized impact on the teenage experience, influencing pliant girls into thinking that to fit in, they need to have a size zero waist.

At the time, I remember being embarrassed at the fact that I no longer had the waist size I once had as a 13-year-old. And for a while after that, I felt like I had to lose weight to fit this beauty standard, since so many others on social media could attain it.

Back then, many youths like me failed to realise that striving to achieve a waist size of less than 21cm is unhealthy, potentially leading to health problems like anorexia.

This particular challenge was reported in the news at the time to be damaging to the self-esteem of young girls, potentially leading to eating disorders and body dysmorphia.

Yet, the A4 paper challenge was hardly the first or the last social media trend to impose the “skinnier is prettier” ideal onto young people.


It baffles me to this day how social media, which my teenage friends and I originally used as a fun and lighthearted platform for people to keep each other updated, somehow turned into a popularity contest built on harmful standards and deceptions.

For one, there is a dire need for more diversity in the social media that we consume.

Yet, some social media platforms work by pushing “traditionally attractive” people to the front and centre.

I saw how TikTok became so widely adopted by my peers during the pandemic in 2020, elevating the careers of many female influencers like Charli d’Amelio, Bella Poarch and Addison Rae.

They all have something in common – they are three young, fair-skinned and skinny girls that the internet considers having the “right” body proportions.

It has been said that social media platforms ride on the appeal of such influencers to appeal to the masses so that more people want to use their services.

But as cliche as this may sound, I believe that representation matters. It is hard to appreciate the way you look when all the people who are in the limelight look completely different from you.

It is also no secret that social media is a highlight reel of reality. Filters are used to mask bodily imperfections, remove pimples or edit away muffin tops.


Just log out or delete your Instagram or TikTok accounts for good, as some parents might tell their children.

This is also what some of my friends have done, or at least to limit their exposure on platforms that could become toxic to their well-being.

But is it a viable solution for a modern society that is increasingly shifting online? Being popular on social media can be a job in itself, with influencers even bringing in a larger paycheck than most nine-to-five jobs.

The peers of my generation also rely on social media as an important way to interact socially, especially during the coronavirus pandemic.

I wish that a solution that can relieve the body anxiety of teenagers would come from the social media platforms themselves.

However, I was disappointed to come across reports that show that social media companies are already aware of the negative effect their services have on their younger users.

Last year, the Wall Street Journal wrote about how researchers from Instagram, which is owned by Meta, had found serious problems about how their platform exacerbated body image issues.

Shockingly, its own researchers also found that among teens who reported suicidal thoughts, 13 per cent of British users and six per cent of American users traced the desire to kill themselves to Instagram.

A Singapore study by Milieu Insight in August also concluded that one in six adults here are at risk of suffering anxiety over their body image, while those spending more than three hours a day on TikTok and Instagram were at the highest risk.

I believe these companies have the responsibility to intervene. How they choose to act also matters; they cannot simply sprinkle hashtags about self-love and body acceptance and then sweep the problem under the rug.

Social media has drowned a whole generation of teenagers into a vat of self-doubt and self-esteem issues, while the companies profit off our insecurities.

Certainly, more has to be done to help today’s teens recover their self-confidence, and to break the cycle so that future generations are spared from such online harms.



Jillian Lau, 19, is studying communications and media management at Temasek Polytechnic and is no stranger to the effects that social media has on her generation

Related topics

Gen Z Speaks TikTok teenagers Trends Social Media mental health

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