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)

Apart but not Alone? Neighbour support during lockdown

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By Amy Beardmore, Research Associate in Public Health and Community Development

As the UK went into lockdown on 23 March in response to the Covid-19 pandemic, communities across the country sprang into action and initiated a rapid process of self-organisation, the likes of which had never been seen before. Help for people within communities was quickly coordinated using online platforms such as Facebook, WhatsApp and the hyperlocal social network Nextdoor, alongside more traditional forms of communication such as phoning neighbours or dropping notes through letterboxes. The pace at which this unprecedented community response to the crisis was organised appeared to overtake the implementation of more formalised voluntary and statutory sector support in the area. The result was a complex network of street, neighbourhood and community level help, support and resources.

Rapid research

It quickly became apparent to researchers in the Centre for Public Health and Wellbeing that a unique opportunity was emerging to document the extent of this sudden surge in ground level support and how it might be affected by levels of social deprivation. Enlisting the help of colleagues from within the centre and external partner organisations, as well as a number of community researchers and public contributors, the team designed a piece of research consisting of three distinct phases. This work began just four days after lockdown on 27 March under the heading Apart but not Alone, starting with an online cross-sectional survey.

Survey One

Launched on 2 April and promoted largely through online channels, email and text messages, the first survey asked respondents about who and how they were helping, and their wider experiences of personal involvement in neighbourhood life. Of the 862 people who responded to the survey, a total of 539 responses from the Bristol built-up area were eligible for analysis.

Complex picture in areas of higher deprivation

The results showed that help and support unsurprisingly tended to be aimed at the most vulnerable in communities – specifically the over 70s and those self-isolating. Interestingly, the data also indicated that respondents from more deprived areas of the city and surrounding areas tended to be disproportionately supporting those with disabilities and mobility issues, those with no access to outdoor space and those experiencing financial difficulties. These areas of higher deprivation were also less likely to strongly agree that neighbours were supporting each other well.

Women shouldering majority of the burden?

It is notable that 80.9% of survey respondents were female. There could be a number of reasons for this, including the possibility that women are more actively engaged in social and community networks – both on and offline – and men’s helping behaviours therefore exist but are simply less visible. It may also be that women are shouldering the burden of caring for their community as well as immediate family members, with many also trying to work from home, often with children present.

Low BAME response rate

Bristol has a BAME population of around 14% (although this figure is much lower for South Gloucestershire and North Somerset), so a survey response rate of 5.3% does not appear to be representative of the local population. This may well be due to the restrictive nature of an online survey promoted largely via social media, although the sample did specifically include BAME organisations. It is hoped that the experiences of the BAME population will be explored in more detail through the qualitative element of the project.

In-depth interviews reveal lived experience

The second phase of the project consists of in-depth qualitative interviews with some of the survey participants in order to get a better understanding of how social capital – the resources and connections that people have access to that can influence their ability to navigate systems or to generally do well in life – influences individual and community experiences of lockdown. Eighteen interviews have been conducted so far as part of a unique piece of research in which the researchers themselves are living through the same experience as their interviewees.

“Two of my neighbour’s cousins have died because of Covid-19…and it’s difficult for her because they can’t get together as a family to mourn…”

Research participant

Follow-up survey on community spirit

Participants from the original survey who expressed an interest in taking part in further research were also invited to take part in Phase Three – a follow up survey, published on 27 May. This survey asked about positive and negative experiences in communities since the easing of lockdown on 10 May, and early analysis suggests that whilst many reported a continuation of positive activity (such as increased communication, street level events and volunteering), participants also identified a number of emerging concerns. These tended to indicate that tensions were starting to creep in, particularly associated with confusion over the rules and social distancing as well as more general concerns about previous negative behaviours being exhibited by some members of the community. Of particular note were a number of negative comments about the behaviour of young people and teenagers, indicating potential generational conflict.

What next?

Results from Survey One were recently published in Emerald Open Research, and it is hoped that a second article will be published in the next few weeks summarising the findings of Survey Two, which is currently undergoing analysis. The qualitative element remains ongoing as we continue to explore the participant links to social capital and the impact it has had on their experiences of lockdown. For regular project updates, please follow us on Twitter @ApartAlone.

Isolation – Film & TV drama might be best coping mechanisms

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By Professor Jane Roscoe, Pro Vice Chancellor and Executive Dean, Faculty of Arts, Creative Industries and Education

The world is streaming more than ever before as millions of us are living in lockdown and turning to television, films and gaming to fill our time. But immersing ourselves in TV drama and film is not just about relaxing or being entertained by our favourite shows, turning to Netflix or a drama boxset provides us with the opportunity to explore and evaluate our anxieties over the coronavirus and helps us to deal with the challenges of our new reality.

TV drama is the perfect cultural site in which to explore and work out our anxieties over Covid-19. As we are self-isolating, or consciously limiting the time we spend outside of the home, we are left with our fears and anxieties – could screen drama help us?

Television and film have always been a site in which we tell stories about the world around us. Watching and talking about those stories has given us many opportunities to build our own narratives and rehearse our thoughts and ideas. Many have argued our collective memories of key events such as the holocaust, have been in part, built through the screen representations of those events.

Fearful

Facing a pandemic and fast-changing circumstances has made many of us feel anxious, fearful, uncertain and isolated. These feelings are not new, the screen industry has produced a lifetime’s worth of content that explores, exploits and engages us in these very emotions. Importantly, it has also created a safe space in which we can engage in ways that can help us understand the very things that frighten us.

Not surprisingly, many of us have been watching Contagion (Soderbergh, 2011), Outbreak (Petersen, 1995) and Pandemic (Suits, 2016) alongside all the news and documentary productions exploring Covid-19. Documentaries and news provide us with facts, statistics and commentary on what is happening around us, but dramas give us the opportunity to explore how we feel. We are allowed to be scared and horrified as we watch.

While we may have to ‘keep it together’ for our family and friends in our day to day of lockdown life, these moments, when we deeply engage in the narratives of these films, provides the relief of feeling. We also get to see how it might feel to follow through different scenarios. What happens if I get sick? What happens if……

Screen drama is a safe space because it is a site of the imagination, of make believe, magic and the suspension of disbelief. We talk of ‘losing ourselves in a story’, of the ‘dreamlike qualities of a drama’ and often refer to the pleasures escaping into and through a complex narrative. Drama opens up the freedom for producers, actors, and audiences to go deeply into this space, to make sense of the world with no other obligation that to explore the story. In an era of fake news, drama doesn’t need to pretend to be anything other than it is. We are free to explore the narrative, the characters and the scenarios. Perhaps the relief is that we can watch and feel without any obligation to act.

Reinvents world

Screen drama brings the world to us; places, people, events that we may not have experience of, or sometimes, even want. Drama reinvents the world every day, minute by minute, building screen worlds of fantasy and strangeness, alongside those that are more realistic and familiar. Costume dramas create versions of the past allowing us to imagine what was, and science fiction presents versions of our future and the possibility of imaging what could be. Every day, drama is creating a space to imagine aspects of our lives, and those of others in the world around us. Watching these dramas connects us with characters dealing with some of the fears and worries we are also experiencing. That is both a comfort, and the start of a journey to think about how we might cope with those fears. The beauty of these screen dramas is that we can do this in our own space, and at our own pace.

So as we face this new reality of Covid-19, watching those dramas about pandemics, the apocalypse, the end of the world, is not just about judging whether the dramatists got it right or not, but more about allowing us to feel the fear, and use it to help us understand how to get through it.

This article was first published in The London Economic