The impact of lockdown on body image and eating behaviours

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By Dr Helena Lewis-Smith, Senior Research Fellow, and Sharon Haywood, Research Associate, from the Centre for Appearance Research

Lockdown has changed our lives in unprecedented ways. Not only has it transformed how we study and work, but it has also impacted how we socialise. Social media usage has soared to new heights, helping us feel less isolated, but could spending more time on your favourite social media site bring negative effects?

Long before lockdown, researchers from various countries established that a significant link exists between social media use and body dissatisfaction and disordered eating. Since lockdown, the message of “bettering” ourselves has been persistent, bringing with it a surge of diet and fitness tutorials, usually featuring “ideal” bodies. Past research has shown that the popular social media trend of “fitspiration”—intended to inspire people to exercise—can lead us to compare our bodies with those we see online, which can then increase body dissatisfaction, so this heightened pressure to be healthy might actually be counterproductive to our well-being. Adding to these demands is Covid-related fat-phobic content, such as memes about pre- and post-lockdown bodies, making us feel ashamed if we’ve gained weight. When we combine all these factors, it’s unsurprising that early research has identified adverse impacts on people’s eating behaviours and mental health.

Researchers in Australia found that since lockdown began, adults in the general population reported engaging in more dieting behaviours and binge eating. They also found that individuals with a history of disordered eating were particularly vulnerable to maladaptive changes to their eating and exercise habits. In the US and Netherlands research revealed that people with an eating disorder are facing greater challenges in moving towards recovery. Not only did they report worsening of their symptoms, but they also noted increases in anxiety and concerns related to their overall mental health.

Collectively, this early research highlights the importance of providing psychological support to individuals with disordered eating or a diagnosis of an eating disorder (past or present). For those struggling with this, we recommend contacting Beat, the UK’s largest eating disorder charity, which provides free support to anyone affected by disordered eating. Here at UWE Bristol’s Centre for Appearance Research (CAR), we are currently running a study to explore the impact of lockdown on recovery from an eating disorder or disordered eating to help inform knowledge of what support might be helpful. Although recruitment is presently on hold, additional participants may be required. If you (or someone you know) is interested in taking part, please add your contact details here.

Even though it seems that lockdown is coming to an end, the possibility of a second lockdown later this year is possible, so here are some tips on how to cope with body image and food wobbles—that you can also put to use when not in lockdown!

  • Avoid getting pulled into comparing yourself with others on social media. While it’s completely natural, it just makes us feel worse. Diversify the content you’re following so your feed contains a wide variety of body types and messages that promote self-acceptance.
  • Avoid viewing and sharing Covid-19 weight-shaming memes. Not only does it stigmatise larger bodies, it may also trigger negative thoughts about your own body.
  • Practice self-compassion. Difficult emotions are part of the human experience. Treat yourself with the kindness and patience that you would someone you love.
  • Remember that it’s natural for our bodies to change throughout different stages of life and when our routines change. Be kind to yourself if you’re eating due to stress, loneliness or boredom – this is a challenging time! Consider other ways to self-soothe, such as reading, going for a walk, or calling a friend.
  • Engage in movement that you enjoy and adjust your expectations about exercise. Instead of exercising to compensate for more sedentary behaviour or changes in eating habits, focus on engaging in physical activity that stimulates your mind and body. For example, you might want to play rounders with some friends, go for a walk with family members, or do an online dance class.
  • Appreciate what your body can do. Rather than focusing on what it looks like, shift your attention to the functionality of your body. Think of all the amazing things your body allows you do: Perhaps it’s playing football with your kids, taking in the fragrance of your favourite flowers, or restoring itself with sleep.

For more tips and strategies, listen to CAR’s 49th Appearance Matters podcast episode Managing Body Image and Food Wobbles During Lockdown.

Photo credit via Instagram @Meg.Boggs (www.megboggs.com)

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