At 59, I Went Viral on TikTok. I Was Afraid of His Comments — But I Never Expected This.

I squeezed my body between a dilapidated building that collected rainwater from the roof and yesterday’s 50-gallon laundry barrel.

“Can you turn the camera around this mess,” I asked Emily, the young woman I hired to film me, “and get me and the dishwater in frame?”

I was nervous — the most insecure I’ve felt since I started posting on TikTok three weeks ago. In the first few videos, I wore a little black club dress with a flattering neckline. But today I’m wearing an old trapeze costume: a one-shouldered outfit, gold and shiny. Fifteen years ago, I cut the skirt 3 inches so it wouldn’t wrap around the bar during the show. My thighs are firmer, no wrinkles or spots.

“I’m worried my legs look flabby,” I said, looking at Emily’s iPhone camera right within intimacy range. Emily comes from the body positivity generation. I’m from the Twiggy generation.

“You look amazing,” he said, sounding sincere.

I told myself to believe it, that I had been criticizing myself for too long. I assess my waistline and beat myself up if I gain 2 pounds. This is tiring.

The author wore a short, sparkly costume in her yard while harvesting bananas for a TikTok video.

Courtesy of Laura Faye Tenenbaum

The author wore a short, sparkly costume in her yard while harvesting bananas for a TikTok video.

I know my friends think social media is a waste of time and a threat to mental health, and TikTok is taking the brunt of the criticism because it’s new and we should be afraid of it. But to me, it’s a beacon of freedom — young, fun, a place to dance.

I’ve been feeling bitter lately, sick of pretending to be Little Miss Fun in front of my parents and my ex-boss, for some rando I don’t even know. Sick of trying and failing to transform myself into the soft-spoken, kind woman I thought everyone would love.

I’m also afraid of that shiny gold minidress. It’s very short, doesn’t hide my stomach, and my right breast wants to pop out. Just let it go, I told myself. I don’t care if anyone thinks I’m old and ugly. I have to believe in myself even if no one else will.

“Welcome to the random bleeps in my bleep bleep garden,” I began. I introduced my system for collecting wash water and pulled Emily into the bucket. It was slimy and dirty. We laughed.

I’m talking about drought-resistant landscaping and keeping microfibers out of waterways. I’m disappointed with the camera. I’m sarcastic. I am myself.

Emily sent the recording the next day.

“I love it except for my feet,” I texted, adding a screaming emoji. “There was one scene in particular that featured my butt.” I am very embarrassed. “Can you cut the clip?”

I squinted at the phone, knowing that most people were too busy with their own lives to care about my imperfections. Still, I asked Emily to hide my feet behind her captions.

He posted the video the next day. It’s one week before my 59th birthday.

“It’s getting crazy. Check the number,” I texted Emily a few minutes after going live.

It’s hard to see the video or the numbers because of the flood of comment banners across the screen. Thousands of people clicked the “like” button.

The author, 36 years old in this photo, hides her body under baggy clothes in the hope of appearing childish.

Courtesy of Laura Faye Tenenbaum

The author, 36 years old in this photo, hides her body under baggy clothes in the hope of appearing childish.

“I would die if you were my mother,” someone commented. Another wrote, “You are an icon.” They ask about the composition of the soil and laundry soap. This is encouraging. I wonder if the video will surpass 100,000 views.

I was filled with endorphins. I can’t stop checking my phone or getting off the couch. The speed of the video surpassed 200,000 views. It will soon surpass half a million.

I feel dizzy – scrolling, comments, likes. Too many people say I’m beautiful, I’m funny, I’m the best they’ve ever seen on TikTok. People love my dresses. They call me Wilma from “The Flintstones” and Jane from “Tarzan” and Chelsea Handler and a prettier version of Carole Baskin.

I forced myself to drink water and feed the dog, then climbed into bed and decided to do nothing but watch TikTok. I scrolled through the comments and reflected on a lifetime of insecurities surrounding my appearance.

As a child, I slept under a white ruffle canopy in a bedroom covered in pink rose wallpaper. My mother modeled modesty and body-shaming in a loose pinafore dress over a high-necked blouse. He criticized women with big breasts in front of me so often that I learned to believe that good women had small breasts and that gazongas were bad. Throughout my teens and into my 30s, I opted for loose-fitting shirts to flatter my chest. It feels safer. I wanted a body that looked like a man. I still wanted a body that looked like a man.

Some comments are cruel. Some people act like know-it-alls. I witnessed new commenters attacking cruel commenters on my behalf.

The author harvests zucchini in a miniskirt for a TikTok video.

Courtesy of Laura Faye Tenenbaum

The author harvests zucchini in a miniskirt for a TikTok video.

Over the next few months, my TikTok audience grew, sometimes slowly, sometimes soaringly. The dopamine high subsides, and I begin to process the attention. And while my friends and the mass media continued to belittle social media, three friends I hadn’t heard from in a long time sent me messages praising my channel. Neighbors stopped me on the street to tell me how much they liked the video. My sister opened a TikTok account so she could follow me.

I made more videos. I didn’t know what it meant to be sexy or follow the rules of being a woman, so I broke them. I harvest zucchini in a miniskirt, marijuana in pink booty shorts, and compost in a strapless dress.

One young woman wrote, “You have inspired me so much, gardening is not as complicated as I imagined.” Another said, “I am a better member of my community because of you.” People ask about plants, seeds, and soil. They discuss flowers and non-toxic detergent. Sometimes they say I’m beautiful.

The content creators I follow on TikTok talk about the systemic minimization and marginalization of women. This inspired me to practice taking up space. At public speaking gigs, I communicate more slowly and pause for drama. At the salon, I embrace the spotlight rather than feel embarrassed about wanting attention. At board meetings, I pay attention to when I’m being talked about in real time so I can mention it and fix it.

For as long as I can remember, I’ve been told by peers and colleagues, even by a yoga teacher, that I was too bold, too loud, too much. Then I stepped into the world of TikTok, where bravery is celebrated and wildness is an asset, and here I found acceptance. I’m also finding out what it’s like to be cared for — to have agency. This is amazing.

The author gained weight over the holidays, focused on her stomach area, and then had a breakthrough thanks to the objectivity that TikTok provided.

Courtesy of Laura Faye Tenenbaum

The author gained weight over the holidays, focused on her stomach area, and then had a breakthrough thanks to the objectivity that TikTok provided.

During the holidays, I gained a few pounds. I stared at my midsection in the video draft. I didn’t notice the rosemary or the bees that were also in the frame. All I saw was my stomach. I’ve done thousands of crunches and millions of sit-ups, as well as dance, trapeze, and yoga classes, but for me, my stomach was never flat enough. I knew this body shame was dangerous and I had to let go of my inner critic.

I watched the draft again. I watched it three more times, focusing on the 2 inches of my stomach. I tried to imagine myself through TikTok eyes, to see what most 20 to 30 year olds see when they look at me. Something in my brain changed. I was outside myself, looking at the video with an objective lens. I saw my whole body moving, engaging with the environment. This is surprising. I think I look amazing.

The next morning, instead of judging, I saw a confident woman with a beautiful figure in the bathroom mirror. On date night, I don’t mind my outfit. And when Emily sends me a new video to review, I’m kind to myself.

At 59 years old, I never would have thought that just six months of interaction with the TikTok generation could have such a profound impact on the way I see myself. While I understand that posting on TikTok isn’t for everyone, for me, it helped heal years of insecurities about my appearance.

A week later I wandered into cardio sculpting class wearing a leopard-print sports bra, determined to see myself in the gym’s floor-to-ceiling mirrors. I studied my C-cup breasts, my round hips. I snuck closer, turning my head to the side to check my ass. “I like your top,” said Stephanie — tall, slim Stephanie. Her loose top covered her slim figure. “You have no idea how hard I worked to wear this,” I replied.

Laura Faye Tenenbaum is an author, public speaker, and TikTok creator currently working on a memoir about her love of nature and her fight for empowerment in the science community. You can also find her on Instagram @laurafayeten.

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