Warning as pandemic stress leads to body image issues

Anxiety around Covid-19 could be causing body image issues among both men and women, research suggests.

Feelings of stress associated with the pandemic are associated with men having a greater desire for muscularity and women having a greater desire for thinness, according to the study led by Anglia Ruskin University.

Researchers surveyed 506 adults in the UK, with an average age of 34, about stress and body image.

Participants were also asked a series of questions about the impact of Covid-19 on their daily lives and to rate their anxiety caused by the pandemic on a seven-point scale.

The survey results indicated that stress and anxiety related to the coronavirus are associated with more negative body image.

Negative body image is one of the main causes of eating disorders, such as anorexia and bulimia.

Lead author Viren Swami, professor of social psychology at Anglia Ruskin University, said: “In addition to the impact of the virus itself, our results suggest the pandemic could also be leading to a rise in body image issues.

“In some cases, these issues can have very serious repercussions, including triggering eating disorders.

“Certainly during the initial spring lockdown period, our screen time increased, meaning that we were more likely to be exposed to thin or athletic ideals through the media, while decreased physical activity may have heightened negative thoughts about weight or shape.

“At the same time, it is possible that the additional anxiety and stress caused by Covid-19 may have diminished the coping mechanisms we typically use to help manage negative thoughts.

“Our study also found that when stressed or anxious, our pre-occupations tend to follow gender-typical lines.

“During lockdown, women may have felt under greater pressure to conform to traditionally feminine roles and norms, and messaging about self-improvement may have led to women feeling dissatisfied with their bodies and having a greater desire for thinness.

“Similarly, our findings reflect the way in which stress and anxiety impact men’s relationships with their bodies, particularly in terms of masculine body ideals.

“Given that masculinity typically emphasises the value of toughness, self-reliance, and the pursuit of status, Covid-19-related stress and anxiety may be leading men to place greater value on the importance of being muscular.”

The authors of the study, published in the journal Personality and Individual Differences, said further research is needed to explain the link between Covid-19 stress and body image.

They said it would be useful to explore changes of behaviour in lockdown and psychological constructs such as loneliness.

The study adds to recent research by the Women and Equalities Committee, which indicated that lockdown exacerbated feelings of negative body image and that most people feel negatively about their body image most of the time.

An online survey with 7,878 responses found that two-thirds of under-18s and 61% of adults feel negative or very negative about their body image most of the time.

More than half (53%) of adults and 58% of under-18s said the coronavirus lockdown made them feel worse or much worse about their appearance.

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