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Watertok Tiktok.jpg

I’ve Fallen Into the Well of Watertok and I Can’t Get Out

By Kayleigh Donaldson | Social Media | July 3, 2023 |

By Kayleigh Donaldson | Social Media | July 3, 2023 |

Watertok Tiktok.jpg

Last year, I finally managed to quit fizzy drinks. After many starts and stops, and falling off the wagon more times than I care to admit, I went cold turkey and cut soft drinks from my life altogether. This was one of my greater achievements given that I was used to drinking four cans of Coca Cola, Lemon Fanta, or Diet Irn Bru a day, consuming the addicting sugary fluids more than actual water. I’ve been off the stuff for eight months now, and it’s been an immense relief for my stomach, my teeth, and my general ability to sleep at night. I totally understand the pressures of quitting a food or drink you’re addicted to, and trying to find some sort of substitute that will ease the transition. I tried it all and nothing worked for me until I utilized sheer spite. So, when I tell you that my initial response to the madness of watertok was, ‘I kind of get it,’ I’m being sincere. But it didn’t make the rabbit hole of content any less baffling to watch.

Watertok is the name given to the casual community of TikTok users who specialise in flavouring their water and sharing their concoctions to the masses. Creators share their ‘water of the day’ and the recipes for drinks as varied as ‘birthday cake water’, ‘pina colada water’, and ‘orange mermaid water.’ These flavours require lots of syrups and powders, all mixed together typically with ‘the good ice’ and in a large Stanley cup for ease of consumption. Most of the big names in Watertok are older women, typically white and from the American south. They love Skittles mixes, Tang, and a brand of Skinny syrups that promise sugar-free, calorie-free, and carb-free experiences. Many of them have ‘water stations’, where they show off their vast collections of cups and fancy ice (the aesthetic ices of TikTok is a whole other trend I’m annoyingly fascinated by.)

This trend fascinates me for so many reasons. The first part is mostly semantics-based. It’s hard to watch someone add several pumps of cotton candy syrup and packs of pina colada powder mix into a cup and still claim it’s just water. That’s juice, objectively speaking. As someone who grew up drinking Ribena and different kinds of fruit squash, Watertok feels like watching someone try to reinvent the wheel, only with way more flavours. Sure, it is fun to watch all of these colours mix together, like when you made up potions with random liquids during nursery. Mostly, however, you just end up in a strange existential quandary about word meanings. Like, that’s not water! Then you’re weirdly aggravated by the redefining of basic language, and wondering where the line stops. When does water stop being just water? Is coffee water to Watertok? What about squash? Then there are the Watertok women who add Red Bull (?), protein powder (??), or milk (?!) to their waters. And that doesn’t even get into some of these syrup flavours, like unicorn and mermaid (help me.)

TikTok is an app where users are encouraged to get their faces right into everyone’s business, so it’s no surprise that Watertok has the girlies talking about these drinks. The stench of diet culture is all over this trend, especially as creators constantly emphasize the lack of sugar and calories in their additions. So much is made about the lack of calories and carbs (which, I presume, is why so many of them justify just calling it water), all while overlooking the aspartame, food colouring, and additives that give me a headache just thinking about it. It reminds me of that brief period a few years ago when everyone online seemed obsessed with adding fruits to their water bottles for the kiss of flavour.

This connection to weight loss isn’t an accident. The trend seems to have started with creator Tonya Spanglo, under the username @takingmylifebackat42, who giddily shares her rainbow drinks and tastes them with the fervour of a toddler discovering chocolate for the first time. She has long shared her water hacks as part of her own weight loss journey following bariatric surgery. Patients are required to go on a liquid diet both before and after the surgery, and Spanglo says her doctor required her to consume at least 64 ounces of water a day (close to 1.9 litres.) Many who have undergone gastric bypasses or bandings find it difficult to consume plain water, so turn to flavourings to jazz things up or make the process easier. Spanglo, who is no longer on a solely liquid diet, has continued to spice up her water intake to ensure she is appropriately hydrated.

There’s a curious kind of weight behind the oft-parroted ethos of ‘stay hydrated’ when used online. It’s simple, rather necessary advice, but it’s often tied up with diet culture, bastardized notions of wellness, and judgmental beauty standards. All too often, telling people to just drink more water rather than eat a meal is a big red flag in terms of encouraging disordered eating. Many diet programmes love to push ‘sugar and calorie-free’ options that assume health is rooted in those numbers, regardless of the e-numbers or citric acids contained within. So much of the internet is polluted by weirdos telling us which foods are ‘good’ or ‘bad’, ‘clean’ or ‘dirty’, and seeing flavoured water become the new skinny battleground is inevitable but exhausting.

Is this wellness culture? I don’t think so, at least not deliberately, even with the diet talk and implications. Most of these Watertok creators aren’t offering wildly expensive quick-fix schemes. All of these syrups and flavours are pretty cheap, with Wal-Mart and the Dollar Store cited as places to buy them. So much of bullshit diet culture is dependent on shilling overly expensive snake oils and Goop-esque tinctures that imply a kind of healthiness through grassy palates and dirt flavours. It’s a far cry from Starburst strawberry mixes, Margaritaville-branded pina colada powder, and unicorn syrups. If wellness is coded as ‘upper class’ then the water mixes are for everyone else, for better or worse.

We put a lot of ourselves into the food we consume. It’s a marker of our identity, our childhoods, and our attitudes towards our bodies and those of others. Talk of food online is pernicious at best, and we seem to be in the midst of a new kind of body tyranny thanks to buccal fat removal, the return of thinspo, and Ozempic use. Diet brands like Jenny Craig may be dying off but its replacement, the scourge of self-hatred and starvation disguised as wellness, isn’t much better. I’m not sure Watertok is exactly a welcome alternative to fit teas and sex dust. Again, so many additives! The endless propaganda over ‘water goals’ ignores how we can get crucial hydration from the foods we eat and that forcing down 2 litres a day isn’t necessarily going to fix your health issues. Watertok users have their fun, and many turned to this method for legitimate personal reasons. As with all sincere things online, alas, I’m just waiting for it to get hijacked into something more expensive, less accessible, and way more dangerous.

And it’s still not water. It’s juice.