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Lockdown exacerbated body image struggles, poll finds

By Jemma Crew
The majority of people feel negatively about their body image most of the time and lockdown has exacerbated these feelings, research by a UK Commons committee suggests.

Two-thirds of under-18s and 61% of adults feel negative or very negative about their body image most of the time, according to an online poll by the UK Women and Equalities Committee (WEC).

The survey, which received 7,878 responses, was shared on social media between July 6 and 19.

It also found that over half (53%) of adults and 58% of under-18s said the coronavirus lockdown made them feel worse or much worse about their appearance.

Women said they felt anxious about gaining weight during lockdown and were bombarded with online adverts to improve their appearances as they spent more time inside consuming media.

The closure of gyms, less support for eating disorders and widespread discussions in the media of lockdown weight gain added to the pressure they felt.

One young woman wrote: “I feel women constantly have diet and exercise adverts thrown at us on social media and TV and it’s very overwhelming, particularly during this lockdown I’ve noticed it more.

“It makes you feel like you HAVE to be on some sort of diet.”

Another respondent said: “As a clinical psychologist working with children and young people the impact… is apparent younger and younger. They are less able to ignore the ‘ideals’ pushed via social media.

“In addition, as someone who has recently become pregnant … social media is already flooding me with ‘bouncing back’ to ‘pre-baby body’ advertisements. Very very unhelpful.”

But others said the lockdown had given them a break from having to scrutinise their appearance each morning.

The findings suggest the majority of people do not feel reflected in the images they see, with people who are transgender, disabled and from black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) backgrounds least likely to feel represented.

Some 57% of adults reported ‘rarely’ or ‘never’ seeing themselves or people who look like them regularly reflected in images in media and advertising.

Not a single transgender respondent felt ‘very positive’ about their body image, according to the poll.

Almost twice as many (23%) reported feeling ‘very negative’ most of the time about their appearance compared with 12% of cisgender participants.

One transgender woman said: “I have gone from hating my body due to dysphoria to hating my body due to pressures on women to conform.”

Some women said they were being bombarded with diet adverts, despite having curated their social media feeds to feature body positive content.

One woman said: “It is horrendous that I’m advertised weight-loss products and methods every single time I use social media.

“I have an eating disorder and am trying to recover and actively curate my feed to try and avoid content that might be triggering. It is unacceptable that I should be faced with content that targets my illness.”

Men also said they felt pressure to conform to stereotypes such as being tall and muscular, and were frequently targeted by adverts encouraging them to bulk up.

The Women and Equalities Committee will hear evidence on Wednesday afternoon as part of its body image inquiry.

WEC chairwoman Caroline Nokes said: “Because it’s such a widespread problem, influenced by multiple factors, it’s easy to underestimate the real misery it causes – and to so many people. There has been plenty of commentary on the problem, but identifying proposals to tackle it is more challenging.

“Our inquiry aims to do exactly that: we will be hearing from a wide range of witnesses – both experts and individuals speaking from their own experience, and we will be making recommendations to [UK] Government early next year.”

Labelling altered images ‘not effective and may be harmful’, UK committee told
By Jemma Crew
Labelling images that have been photoshopped, airbrushed or otherwise enhanced is not effective in alleviating body image concerns, a UK committee has heard.

A multitude of studies over the last decade have shown this is not effective, the Women and Equalities committee was told in the first evidence session of its body image inquiry.

There have been calls for social media users and advertisers to make it clear when photographs have been enhanced or altered.

But Amy Slater, from the Centre for Appearance Research, said research has shown this is not effective, and the practice may even be harmful in “increasing appearance concerns and body dissatisfaction”.

While initially hopeful the idea could work, she said: “Unfortunately, we now have about 10 years of research investigating whether this is an effective strategy, and it has not been found to be effective, overwhelmingly now.”

She said most of the early evidence concerns images in magazines or adverts, but a number of studies have also looked into labelling social media images.

She added: “So far we have not seen any evidence that it is effective in the social media environment as well.”
The panel also said that public health campaigns that focus on weight rather than health, calorie labelling and measuring health by body mass index can be potentially harmful.

There is little to no evidence that such campaigns are successful in reducing weight loss at a population level in the long term, while anti-obesity language and campaigns can often be stigmatising, the committee heard.

Dr Francesca Solmi, from University College London’s psychiatry department, said: “With respect to policies around weight and obesity, a lot of how they are framed are potentially causing dangerous behaviours, especially in young people.

“For instance, calorie labelling as a way of controlling portions around eating can lead to an unhealthy relationship with food and people becoming increasingly concerned with the calories, around what they eat. We know that is a central feature, is very common, among people with eating disorders.”

While body image is now included in the curriculum for secondary school students, Professor Clare Chambers, from the Nuffield Council for Bioethics, said this should take place for younger pupils.

She cited research showing that 24% of childhood professionals in England and Wales reported seeing children as young as 3-5-years old experiencing unhappiness about their appearance.

Education should start from “very early childhood” to help children develop positive, nurturing relationships with their bodies, Ms Slater added.

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