Coronavirus and Body Image: How the Pandemic is Affecting How We Feel About Our Bodies

It shouldn’t really surprise anyone that the COVID-19 pandemic, and restrictions to curb the spread of the virus, have devastated mental health [1]. In the United States, for instance, nationally representative surveys have reported that the prevalence of depressive symptoms and serious psychological distress tripled during the pandemic compared to levels measured in 2018 [2-3]. In the United Kingdom, data from the Household Longitudinal Study panel shows that the first nationwide lockdown led to an increase in the prevalence of clinically-significant mental health distress [4]. With as many as 10 million people in the United Kingdom needing new or additional mental health support as a result of the pandemic [5], some have suggested that the crisis poses the greatest threat to mental health since the Second World War [6]. 

Illness or fear of illness, limited opportunities for social contact, the loss of loved ones, reduced access to educational and work opportunities, and disruptions to daily routines are all known risk factors for depression and anxiety. But the pandemic may also be having a negative impact on how we feel about, and relate to, our bodies. To test this, my colleagues and I asked adults in the United Kingdom to complete measures of negative body image, along with various measures of stress and anxiety, in May 2020 when most of the country was locked down [7]. Our results showed that the stress and anxiety triggered specifically by the pandemic was associated with more negative body image in both women and men. In a second study, we found that pandemic-related stress was associated with body image disturbance that impaired social relations, social activities, and occupational functioning [8]. 

We think there may be a number of explanations for these findings. First, it is clear that eating habits have undergone major shifts during the pandemic, with emotional eating in particular on the rise [9-10]. These changing eating patterns, combined with limited opportunities to exercise [11], may have led to concerns about body weight and shape management. Narratives about using the time under lockdown for self-improvement and fear-mongering over weight-gain – reflected in social media posts about the “Quarantine 15” and the proliferation of workout plans, “pandemic diets”, and “before-and-after quarantine” memes warning against weight-gain – may also be fuelling such concerns, leading to ruminations about weight control and food restriction that are central to negative body image [12]. 

Photo by Elena Mozhvilo on Unsplash
Second, screen-time has increased dramatically during the pandemic, with some studies showing that we are spending about 30 more hours per week in front of a screen compared to pre-lockdown [13]. While this can be beneficial, particularly in terms of maintaining social relationships, increased screen-time also increases the likelihood of exposure to idealised appearance standards and fear-mongering over weight gain. In fact, one study of Spanish girls and women found that use of social networking sites had increased under lockdown, which in turn was associated with more negative body image [14]. More generally, changes to daily routines and the stress triggered by the pandemic may impede body image coping mechanisms and increase the frequency of negative thoughts about our bodies and appearance [15]. Given the disproportionate effect that the pandemic has had on women – women are more likely to have lost their jobs during the pandemic or be left dealing with childcare – it’s quite likely that the impact of the pandemic may be greater on women’s body image [16]. 

What are we to do? Clearly, more research is needed to understand the impact is having on body image but, in the meantime, there are some steps that we can all take. First, as Rebecca Pearl has suggested [12], we can try to flood social and popular media with positive health messages that encourage positive body image and self-compassion, which our study showed to be associated with lower body image disturbance during the pandemic [8]. Second, we need to intervene and shape conversations about weight-change during the pandemic, and encourage individuals to adopt strategies that we know promote healthier body image, such as limiting media consumption and engaging with natural environments [17]. Helping individuals and communities to shift their attention away from body aesthetics onto valued activities that promote self-esteem and positive affect in non-appearance-related areas of life may also be vital. But perhaps most of all, we need to be aware of the toll that the pandemic is having on mental health and be ready to provide both short- and long-term care where needed.

Viren Swami
Professor of Social Psychology, Anglia Ruskin University & Perdana University

[1] Xiong, J., Lipsitz, O., Nasri, F., Lui, L. M. W., Gill, H., et al. (2020). Impact of COVID-19 pandemic on mental health in the general population: A systematic review. Journal of Affective Disorders, 277, 55-64.
[2] Ettman, C. K., Abdalla, S. M., Cohen, G. H., Sampson, L., Vivier, P. M., & Galea, S. (2020). Prevalence of depression symptoms in US adults before and during the COVID-19 pandemic. Journal of the American Medical Association Network Open, 3(9), e2019686.
[3] McGinty, E. E., Presskreischer, R., Han, H., & Barry, C. L. (2020). Psychological distress and loneliness reported by US adults in 2018 and April 2020. Journal of the American Medical Association, 324(1), 93-94.
[4] Pierce, M., Hope, H., Ford, T., Hatch, S., Hotopf, M., et al. (2020). Mental health before and during the COVID-19 pandemic: a longitudinal probability sample survey of the UK population. The Lancet Psychiatry, 7(10), 883-892.
[5] Centre for Mental Health. (2020). Covid-19 and the nation’s mental health: October 2020. Centre for Mental Health.
[6] Sample, I. (2020, December 27). Covid poses ‘greatest threat to mental health since second world war’. The Guardian.
[7] Swami, V., Horne, G., Furnham, A. (2021). COVID-19-related stress and anxiety are associated with negative body image in adults from the United Kingdom. Personality and Individual Differences, 170, 110426.
[8] Swami, V., Todd, J., Robinson, C., & Furnham, A. (2021). COVID-19-related stress and body image disturbance? Is self-compassion a mediating factor? Evidence from the United Kingdom under lockdown. Manuscript under review.
[9] Papandreou, C., Arija, V., Aretouli, E., Tsilidis, K. K., et al. (2020). Comparing eating behaviors, and symptoms of depression and anxiety between Spain and Greece during the COVID-19 outbreak: Cross-sectional analysis of two different confinement strategies. European Eating Disorders Review, 28, 836-846.
[10] Di Renzo, L., Gualtieri, P., Cinelli, G., Bigioni, G., Soldati, L., et al. (2020). Psychological aspecs and eating habits during COVID-19 home confinement: Results of the EHLC-COVID-19 Italian online survey. Nutrients, 12, 2152.
[11] Ammar, A., Brach, M., Trabelsi, K., Chtourou, H., Boukhris, O., et al. (2020). Effects of COVID-19 home confinement on eating behaviors and physical activity: Results of the ECBL-COVID19 international online survey. Nutrients, 12, 1583.
[12] Pearl, R. L. (2020). Weight stigma and the “Quarantine-15”. Obesity, 28(7), 1180-1181.
[13] Xiang, M., Zhang, Z., & Kuwahara, K. (2020). Impact of COVID-10 pandemic on children and adolescents’ lifestyle behavior larger than expected. Progress in Cardiovascular Disease, 63(4) 531-532.
[14] Vall-Roqué, H., Andrés, A., & Saldaña, C. (2020). The impact of COVID-19 lockdown on social network site use, body image disturbances and self-esteem among adolescents and young women. Research Square.
[15] Cooper, M., Reilly, E., Siegel, J., Coniglio, K., Sadeh-Sharvit, S., Pisetsky, E., & Anderson, L. (2020). Eating disorders during the COVID-19 pandemic and quarantine: An overview of risks and recommendations for treatment and early intervention. Eating Disorders. Advanced online publication.
[16] Robertson, M., Duffy, F., Newman, E., Prieto Bravo, C., Ates, H., & Sharpe, H. (2021). Exploring changes in body image, eating and exercise during the COVID-19 lockdown: A UK survey. Appetite, 159, 105062.


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