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The global COVID-19 pandemic is the greatest public health crisis in a generation, creating significant risks and unprecedented disruption for billions of people worldwide. Much of the medical attention so far has understandably focused on preventing the worst physical effects of the virus itself - but there are also mental health consequences that should not be overlooked.

In addition to the stress caused by fear of the disease and its effects, millions across the UK and worldwide are currently confined to their homes under strict lockdown conditions, creating feelings of isolation, anxiety and depression. For those who already struggled with body image issues, the effect could be even more pronounced, leading to greater insecurity about the way they look than ever before.

With no immediate end in sight to the current lockdown conditions, it is therefore important for those who lack self-esteem and body positivity to examine the external impact that COVID-19 could be having on their wellbeing. In doing so, it may be possible to put things in perspective and find better ways to cope during this difficult time.

How is COVID-19 contributing to body image issues?

The damaging mental health consequences of the current pandemic have not gone unnoticed by the global medical community, with the World Health Organization warning that the sustained quarantine conditions will lead to rising levels of “loneliness, depression, harmful alcohol and drug use, and self-harm or suicidal behaviour”.

Public health bodies around the world are moving to take action to mitigate this impact, with Public Health England offering detailed advice to help people deal with mood and wellbeing issues during this period. Helpful measures include connecting with others online, talking through worries with loved ones and sticking to a productive routine, as well as limiting exposure to excessive news coverage of the crisis.

Looking after physical wellbeing has also been recommended as a key priority - but many will be feeling that this is easier said than done, given the limitations currently being placed on their mobility, as well as their access to food supplies. This is making it harder to avoid gaining weight - a factor that is likely to seriously exacerbate the body image issues that many people already have.

Speaking to Vice, Mayo Clinic psychologist and body image specialist Leslie Sim said the current period of lockdown isolation is creating “millions of variables that make body image preoccupation a lot higher”, adding: “Research says that loneliness is a strong predictor of disordered eating. Feeling disconnected from others can make us focus more on body image.”

The link between poor body image and cosmetic surgery

These damaging trends are coming at a time when individuals are more reliant than ever on social media to maintain a connection to the outside world - and could be exacerbating the previously observed link between social media usage and a desire for cosmetic surgery.

A 2019 study published in Current Psychology monitored social media use among 118 women aged between 18 and 29 years, finding that exposure to imagery of females who had undergone cosmetic enhancements affected the young women’s desire to undergo cosmetic surgery themselves. This was especially the case among those who spent a significant amount of time on social media, followed many accounts, and were generally dissatisfied with their own appearance.

The likelihood that many women in this category are now spending even more time on the internet, while grappling with deepening mental health issues brought about by the COVID-19 crisis, is therefore a cause for serious concern.

Those with low self-esteem may be poorly equipped to deal with these issues proactively, especially in the context of a deadly pandemic that can make other problems feel “trivial” by comparison. However, it is important to remember that the mental health consequences of the lockdown are widely recognised as a serious concern, and that support is available for those who are suffering.

Adopting the right focus to feel better

While it is certainly true that the COVID-19 lockdown is accelerating many of the issues that turn body insecurities into a desire for cosmetic surgery, there are a few ways in which the current situation is simultaneously interrupting this process.

A recent piece for the Independent by author Suzy Katz, a self-confessed cosmetic surgery addict, noted that her dependency on surgical procedures to address self-esteem problems has been forcibly disrupted by COVID-19. With the widespread cancellation of non-essential elective surgeries in the UK and elsewhere, individuals who might have been inclined to seek out inappropriate or unsafe surgery are no longer able to - meaning the situation may offer a potential opportunity to reflect and adopt a healthier focus.

Ms Katz said the pause on elective surgeries “will keep those of us that are vulnerable to disordered thinking from making rash choices that could cost us our lives”, while emphasising the need to break free of the cycle of “trying to fix my internal world by changing how I was perceived on the outside”. Others in a similar position should make efforts to do the same, taking advice from experts on how best to do so.

Public Health England’s mental health guidance offers a good starting point, emphasising the need to make good use of short outdoor exercise breaks, as well as setting clear goals, focusing on exploring new hobbies and maintaining social connections wherever possible.

Vice’s advice piece on body positivity, meanwhile, offers more specific advice for those affected by body image issues. It includes taking some time to step away from stress-inducing online content and social media accounts, as well as eating on a healthy schedule and getting involved in physical tasks that utilise the body in positive ways.

Clearly, the current pandemic is proving to be a time of great stress for everyone, especially those with underlying mental health issues. However, by taking the opportunity to press pause on some harmful mental habits and adopt a new focus, people with body image problems can find a way through - and potentially emerge on the other side feeling better about themselves.

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