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A 12-month longitudinal exploration of body image and disordered eating in the UK during the COVID-19 pandemic

Research suggests that the COVID-19 pandemic is negatively impacting mental health, with rates of eating disorder referrals in particular rising steeply during the pandemic. This study aimed to examine 12-month changes in body image and disordered eating during the COVID-19 pandemic, and explore whether any changes were moderated by gender, age, or eating disorder history.

This study used a longitudinal survey design in which 587 adults living in the UK (85% women; mean age = 32.87 years) completed assessments every two months from May/June 2020 (i.e., during the first UK lockdown). Measures included body esteem (Body Esteem Scale for Adults and Adolescence), disordered eating (Eating Disorder Examination – Questionnaire Short Form) and psychological distress (Patient Health Questionnaire – 4).

Mixed effects models showed no change in body esteem between May/June 2020 and Sept/Oct 2020, followed by a small but significant increase in body esteem at Nov/Dec 2020 (compared with May/June), which was maintained at Jan/Feb 2021. A similar pattern emerged for disordered eating behaviours, with lower levels of disordered eating in all future time points compared with May/June 2020. These improvements were independent of changes in psychological distress, and did not vary by gender, age or eating disorder history.

Whilst poor body image and disordered eating may have been elevated in the early period of the pandemic, this study suggest improvements, rather than worsening, of these outcomes over time. This may reflect adaptation to this changing context.

MacKenzie Robertston

MacKenzie started her PhD at the University in Edinburgh in September 2019 after completing her MSc in Social Psychology at the University of Victoria (BC, Canada). Prior to this she worked at BC Children's Hospital as a research associate for the Eating Disorders Program for Children and Adolescents and received her BA (Hons.) in Psychology from Simon Fraser University (BC, Canada). Her PhD dissertation is focused on dieting and health(ism) attitudes.