The year is 2021, and a 13-year-old geriatric rescue pug named Noodle has become something of a Delphic oracle to millions. If Noodle wakes up and stands erect on his four little legs, it’s a “bones day.” Bones days are for getting shit done—for tackling your to-do list, asking your boss for that raise, or finally calling up your health insurance provider about that bill you don’t understand. On the contrary, if Noodle flops to the floor like he’s made of Jell-O, that’s a “no bones day.” It’s a day, ideally, for self-care and rest and recharging, so that maybe tomorrow you can make that phone call.
All of this is objectively silly. Noodle the Pug, wizened as he may be in old age, can’t predict the future; his joints don’t have any bearing on anything except, well, him. And yet Noodle’s bones, or lack thereof, have inspired musical numbers about staying in bed, countless tweets about motivation, and even won at least one class of college students an extension on an exam. (Noodle’s very nice owner has, of course, capitalized on Noodle’s 3.7-million follower moment: You can now buy merch.) These TikTok affirmations probably could have sprung up without Noodle and his bones as inspiration, but it’s nice to have an excuse to immerse yourself in them—to have somebody give you permission to go out and be a little more stern when calling your internet company about how your WiFi is terrible, and, yes, you already rebooted the router properly. These are inspired little clips allowing you to take an entire Sunday to indulge yourself in doing absolutely nothing instead of the usual laundry and grocery shopping and vacuuming.
The idea that we need permission to celebrate ourselves, to indulge in self-care, has become something of a running theme among several of TikTok’s most popular trends this fall. The viral obsession du jour before Noodle, for instance, was a bowl of salmon rice whipped up by a content creator named Emily Mariko. In a clip from September that has now been viewed by millions, Mariko wordlessly assembles a lunch of leftover salmon, mixing it with rice and topping it with Kewpie mayonnaise, sriracha, soy sauce, nori, and some avocado slices. It’s part-cooking instructional video, part-ASMR, as her glass containers clank gently atop her clean countertops. (Mariko’s other most popular bits include soothing videos of her cleaning her home.) The salmon recipe itself is a pretty basic, if delicious, dish, but it took off like wildfire on TikTok. It wasn’t just about the tastiness, but rather the core ingredients: mayonnaise. White rice. Foods that, if you’ve lived even a day in the world of diet culture, you’d know are demonized and to be avoided like the plague.
Suddenly, Mariko’s comment section was full of people celebrating those foods, rejoicing about somebody eating them without measuring ounces or calories, talking about how Mariko’s video had healed their own relationships to food. There’s a lot to unpack within the sudden hero worship of Mariko, including her status as a white-passing, thin woman and its ironic re-substantiation of the wellness industry’ many harmful fallacies. None of this is remotely Mariko’s fault; it’s diet culture’s. But the salmon bowl video rocketed her to viral fame as the face of an increasing assemblage of TikTok inspo trends in recent weeks.
Permission porn, as we’ve dubbed this genre, has bred numerous popular audio and video trends of late. TikTokkers have been assuaging hypothetical viewers’ concerns about living life on their own terms; yes, they say, you can eat whatever foods or date whatever person you want to, and you should leave any anxiety about it behind you. Before Mariko-Tok, the predominant affirmation trend featured the song “Mama Says” by Lukas Graham: “Mama said that it was okay, mama said that it was quite alright,” Graham sings. TikTok users would then pair the audio with a negative statement, like, “You can’t wear all that pink to your corporate job,” followed by a photo of the “mama” in question who said it was “okay”—in this case, Elle Woods. These clips ranged from silly to serious, with people shouting out the folks who had helped them with everything from living with specific medical conditions to coming out of the closet. Even Taylor Swift posted one, crediting Shania Twain as her blueprint for pivoting from country to pop music.
“You have to start romanticizing your life,” starts another similarly positive TikTok audio that was popular in 2020 and continues to gain traction on the app. Users pair the audio with videos and photos of them living their best lives. Sometimes they’re scenes of hikes through beautiful wooded forests; others are short, aesthetically pleasing clips of everyday activities, like making your bed and pouring a cup of coffee. The idea is that you should feel inspired to be the “main character” in your life story,the Tiktok version of that feeling you get when you’re walking around with headphones in, listening to Vanessa Carlton’s “A Thousand Miles” and feeling like you’re starring in a biopic about you. (If that sounds anecdotal and hyper-specific, that’s because it is, but you still get the idea.)
Over and over again, app users keep glomming onto esteem-boosting trends like these, ones where the ultimate takeaway is that you should just go do exactly what you want to do and eat what you want and wear what you want. But those things are obviously easier said than done, and that’s where TikTok is so successful: As ridiculous as it sounds, having some stranger on the internet tell you it’s okay to be good to yourself is liberating. It’s like having a trusted, close friend available 24/7 to help you give yourself permission to go ahead and practice the self-care that you do, in fact, deserve, as much as you tell yourself otherwise.
Actually, this might not be ridiculous at all; there might actually be a lot of sense behind the fact that the very same platforms and apps that have the power to make us feel like shit about ourselves are also capable of doing the opposite—that the platforms that have been clinically linked to spikes in depression, anxiety, and loneliness can also pull the puppet strings in our silly little lives and assuage our fears, moving us to finally embrace the good in ourselves that we are so afraid to accept. Is that putting too much stock in social media? Absolutely yes, but somebody on TikTok told me that that was okay.