Lindsay Dobson, program coordinator at Hopewell Eating Disorder Support Centre in Ottawa, saw a dramatic increase in clients registering for support group services in summer 2021.
Hopewell is a support centre that offers low-cost accessible services such as group therapy and arts and yoga classes. They also offer educational programs for both those struggling with an eating disorder, as well as friends and family members who are affected. Dobson says that the day she opened online registration to the public, the spots were filled in less than 24 hours.
“Before COVID there was already a high demand for support. Now there is even more,” she says. “This is not going to go away once the pandemic is over. There is no flip switch to turn an eating disorder off.”
Social isolation, increased screen time and general anxiety due to the pandemic has escalated body dissatisfaction. Kyle Ganson, assistant professor at Factor-Inwentash faculty of social work at the University of Toronto, says that disrupted routines can perpetuate eating disorders as individuals seek other opportunities to create control, such as food and exercise. Ganson’s research is primarily focused on eating disorders present in youth and adolescents, with a specific focus on men and boys.
“Adolescence is a particularly stressful time,” he says. “From ages 10 to about 25 is a period of social evolution and physiological evolution. Our bodies are changing, we become involved in relationships, have expectations put on us and lots of transitions are happening, so certainly younger age is a higher risk factor.”
Marginalized communities experience additional stressors that may contribute to the onset of eating disorder behaviours in attempt to fit in. “Most research points to people who identify as gay or lesbian, bisexual, or queer often experience disordered eating, eating disorder behaviours, body image issues, at higher prevalence then their heterosexual peers,” Ganson says.
In the spring of 2020, social media use skyrocketed as in-person social connection with friends, family and peers outside of the household was prohibited. As at-home workouts gained popularity, there was an overwhelming pressure from fitness influencers and diet culture to get in shape to lose the so-called “quarantine 15”—a term that reinforces implicit weight bias. “At a time when survival should have been prioritized, there was an added pressure, coming from social media, to perfect our body,” Dobson says.
Ganson says social media is a problematic piece of today’s culture that should be used mindfully because it can construct a false narrative of someone’s life. “A photograph is a millisecond of what people look like and we don’t really consider that when we’re scrolling,” he says.
For boys and men especially, there is a push to be muscular, lean, athletic and strong.
Fitness tracker apps that allow users to record their activities and share with others can also become troublesome if used to constantly compare and compete with peers. Ganson says that knowing your bandwidth when it comes to partaking in these online communities is crucial. “You have to know yourself and be honest with yourself and why you use these apps. What are my limits and my capacities?”
When it comes to drawing the line between love for fitness and obsession with it, there is still a lot more research to be done. However, if exercise is taking priority over other parts of life such as relationships, school or work, it may be useful to reconsider what is important.
Ways to increase body neutrality and acceptance include challenging advertisers through online petitions, having open conversations around body image with family members and friends and being aware of the language used to talk about bodies.
As lockdown restrictions ease in Ontario and people are allowed to get together with friends and family again, body image anxiety may arise. “Don’t comment on anyone’s body, like, ever,” says Dobson. She challenges people to compliment others on their personality instead.
As for resources, the National Eating Disorders Association offers parents, teachers, coaches and caregivers toolkits to educate themselves on eating disorders and on ways to intervene in a helpful manner. Kids Help Phone is also a free resource and point of contact for youth who may be experiencing body image distress or eating disorder symptoms, while remaining anonymous.
Ganson says that bodies are always evolving. “We don’t stay 7 pounds, 5 ounces from the day we’re born until the day we die,” he says. He encourages people to think about what their body can do rather than how it looks, and to acknowledge that some people’s bodies may not be able to do the things that others can.
“You’ve survived a pandemic, and that is an amazing feat.”