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.