How COVID-19 increased levels of body dysmorphia

Since lockdown started in 2020, many people have had to start working from home. This entails zoom calls, Facetimes with family, and, for many people, more hours spent on social media. For some, this time spent looking at ourselves on screen and looking at other’s “perfect” lives through social media has worsened their own body image or even led to body dysmorphia. But, what is body dysmorphia? How has the pandemic affected our body image? And what changes can we make?

What is body dysmorphia?

Body dysmorphia, or body dysmorphic disorder (BDD), is a mental disorder that makes a person feel like a part of their body is severely flawed. This can be an exaggeration of a flaw or a complete delusion. People who suffer from BDD often obsess over these flaws, real or not, and it commonly causes extreme anxiety or fear in the affected individual. It may alter one’s behaviour when attempting to cover up their flaws and some even avoid being in social situations. 

Pretty much anyone can suffer from body dysmorphia. However, it is most common in teenagers and young adults. BDD is more likely to occur in people with relatives suffering from body dysmorphic disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), depression, or in people who already suffer from anxiety and OCD.

People with body dysmorphia often spend a large amount of time worrying about a specific area of their body, spending extended periods of time looking in the mirror, or avoiding them altogether, and putting effort into concealing flaws through make-up, grooming, and clothing choices. 

body dysmorphia

Lifestyle changes during lockdown

The COVID-19 pandemic continues to affect people around the world in different ways, including the way that people view themselves and their bodies. The causes for body dysmorphia are many and the numerous lockdowns have created unfavourable environments for some. 

During this time, some people may have put on some weight due to stress, reduced exercise while being locked at home, and the closure of gyms. The daily routine of waking up in the morning and getting ready to go to work has been replaced with sitting at a desk, or even a living room table, only a few steps away from our beds. 

Meanwhile, on social media, and especially during the first lockdown, we were given the impression that everyone was working on “bettering themselves” and their “summer bodies”. It seemed like on every social media platform we were being bombarded with posts of healthy homemade meals and new workout routines. 

A lot of people did, in fact, change their diets and embrace home workouts. The pandemic brought on new resolutions in the same way New Year’s Eve generally does. Fitness YouTubers like Chloe Ting are representative of this sudden surge in home workouts. Her weekly views went from an average of around 4 million at the start of 2020 to an average of over 40 million by mid-May. But, although this might seem like a positive change, the results have been questionable.

A study done in the UK, with over 7000 respondents, found that 53% of adults and 58% of people under 18 reported that the lockdown made them feel worse about their appearance. The following quote by a participant in the study seems very representative of the reality of most people during lockdown: 

“I really struggle with my body image and I have a fear of putting on weight during lockdown. I am scared of losing all my hard work I have done at the gym and having to start over again.” 

Experts have often warned that, when exercise is done with the intention of changing one’s appearance or it becomes an addiction, it can lead to a hyperfocus on one’s body. This can worsen self-esteem and, in some cases, lead to BDD. 

Overall, the changes in routine have led to some people seeing changes in their bodies or embracing home exercise routines to achieve a certain goal. But the pressures on social media and the additional time spent at home, leaving people battling with their own internal conflicts and thoughts, have led to increases in people feeling negative about their own bodies.

body dysmorphia

Video calling

Another big change for many during lockdown has been the never-ending video calls. Whether it be Zoom calls for work or Facetime calls with family and friends, most of us replaced face-to-face interactions with online video calls. However, many didn’t like what they saw.

Usually, when interacting with others, we see everything from an outward-facing perspective. However, on most video calling apps, we are faced with our own reflection in the corner of our screen. Or, at least, so we believe. What most people don’t realise is that the front-facing cameras on our phones and laptops have a distorting effect. The image we see is, thus, not a true reflection.

Nevertheless, this has led to many people questioning the way they look. When this is coupled to the increased time spent on social media, looking at highly edited and/or staged images of others, it comes as no surprise that this has been tied to decreased self-esteem. 

Experts have called the phenomenon “Zoom Dysmorphia” and have even tied this back to increases in cosmetic consultations, even while in the midst of a global pandemic. In 86% of the cases, patients had specifically cited video conferencing as a reason for the cosmetic consultation.

What should we do?

There are a few small and easy changes that help prevent this, that everyone can make. The easiest ones include sitting a little further away from our cameras, as the closer we sit to them, the more distorted our faces will look. Ensuring good lighting and positioning, as well as a high definition camera, are also factors that can drastically change the way we look on camera. 

Another thing which is advised is to cut back on the time we spend on social media. Some devices allow us to set timers on our apps to ensure we limit our time spent on these apps on a daily basis. Otherwise, changing your routine, to avoid reaching for your phone first thing in the morning and putting it away before going to bed, is another way to stop spending too much time on social media.

Furthermore, when comparing ourselves to others on social media, it is important to remember that we all show off the best versions of ourselves online and that most of what we see is not representative of people’s actual appearance or lifestyle.

Finally, if you believe you’re struggling with a serious form of body dysmorphic disorder, you should consult a mental health specialist or your GP to discuss treatments.

Nicole Hennessy
Nicole Hennessy

I'm a 2nd year student at Trinity College Dublin studying Politics and Sociology, who loves traveling, good food, and reading.

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