How the Pandemic Is Affecting People’s Body Image

Former D1 athlete-turned-advocate Victoria Garrick has some advice for people struggling right now 

As the pandemic enters a disastrous new stage, the world is also experiencing a mental health crisis. With normal routines upended, feelings of depression and anxiety are on the rise — and sedentary time stuck at home is also having a negative influence on people’s body image. 

The National Eating Disorders Association says hotline calls have risen by nearly 80% in recent months. Plus, in a recent U.K. study, 58% of respondents under the age of 18 say they’ve felt worse about their physical appearance over the course of the pandemic. 

Victoria Garrick, a body image advocate, first spoke out about her own struggles with anxiety, depression, and a binge-eating disorder — as a Division 1 (D1) volleyball player at the University of Southern California  — in a 2017 Ted Talk. She has since continued the dialogue around mental health and body image on TikTok and Instagram, and now on her podcast, Real Pod

She offers some advice below for anyone struggling with anxiety, depression or their relationship with their body right now, explains why diet culture is so toxic, and offers some tips on how to change the way you talk about food. 

Wake-Up Call: Why did you become so outspoken about this subject matter? 

Victoria Garrick: I was a Division 1 volleyball player at USC and my freshman year, I started to really feel the pressure and the stress that came along with being a student athlete. That’s when my performance anxiety developed, as well as a binge-eating disorder. After a year of struggling, I fell into a depression my sophomore year. It was the first time in my life that I had ever felt this way. I’d never felt so low. I just felt inclined to share my story in hopes that other student athletes at other schools would know they were not alone and hopefully, even be kind of warned about the pressures of college, so that they wouldn’t have to be as blindsided as I was. 

How do you think the pandemic has impacted the public’s mental health in general? 

Every single person’s mental health is being tried and tested in some way due to the abrupt change to our normal daily lives. And you know, the biggest message I have for anyone struggling during this time is to not minimize their feelings, to know that they’re valid, despite what anyone else is going through, what someone might tell you, or how you might perceive yourself. 

Furthermore, how have lockdowns and stay-at-home orders impacted people’s relationships with food and their bodies, especially if they’ve struggled with an eating disorder or disordered eating in the past? 

This current situation is putting a lot of pressure on people who have had struggles with food, or have struggled with eating disorders, because our normal routines have completely changed. I’m hearing from friends and college athletes that they’re not training as much. They’re not working out like they used to. And now many of them don’t know how they should be eating. 

Then, just in general, many people are working from home right now. You’re not going outside a lot. The kitchen is right there. Some people are experiencing the darkest times of their life right now. And sometimes food can be a comfort. I know, firsthand as someone who was an emotional eater — I used to turn to food to cope with what I was going through. 

You’re super active on Instagram and TikTok, and one thing I’ve noticed is that you’ll make lighthearted videos showing your stomach — unedited like many of the images that appear on social media today. What are you hoping to accomplish with this type of content? 

I’m really trying to show that there can be so much manipulation online. When it comes to social media, you might see a picture of someone and think that their body is perfect or they’re super happy. And through my content, I like to show what’s real and what you don’t see in those perfect pictures. When I was dealing with a binge-eating disorder, I really struggled because I felt like I was the only one feeling this way, and felt so ashamed about it. These topics are heavy, but I try to address them in fun ways. I jump on trends, but I make the trends about mental health, because I want to normalize these conversations. 

With the pandemic, terminology like the “Covid 15” has popped up. How does this impact people? And how do we need to change how we talk about weight and our bodies as a culture? 

We have a huge issue in our society when it comes to weight stigma and diet culture. People are shamed for their bodies. They’re shamed for just living in their own skin. And that absolutely needs to stop. We need to stop looking at people and shaming them for their size. You can be healthy at every size.

What is diet culture? And why is it dangerous? 

Diet culture is essentially the part of society that’s telling you what to eat, how to eat, how to look. And it’s disguised in magazines, in articles when you see people being praised for having six-pack abs, or for losing 15 to 20 pounds in a week. It also appears in rules surrounding food: “You shouldn’t eat this, and you should eat this.” 

The diet industry makes billions, globally, essentially convincing us that there’s one type of way we’re supposed to look and then giving us products to help us get to that body, which 95% of the time do not work. Instead, to break free, I’ve embraced intuitive eating, a method and a way of approaching food that helped me recover from disordered eating. 

I know that certain families and households have different ways about talking about food. Many people are in unique living situations right now. What advice do you have for people trying to maintain a sensitive dialogue in their homes about food? 

It’s super tough to navigate. Some people have moved back home with their parents. And sometimes, family members from different generations make unsolicited comments about your appearance or talk differently about what you’re eating. 

I think the number one thing is just not to comment on what someone else is eating or what their body looks like, because you never know what someone’s going through. On a recent podcast episode, I interviewed Elyse Resch, a nutrition therapist , about how to navigate food and body image around the holidays. She gave some incredibly helpful advice.

We, as a society, celebrate weight loss, people getting thinner and people shrinking. And the truth is, you never know how anyone is changing their body, and how it could actually be unhealthy. And so I think just in general, we should never assume what someone’s personal relationship is with food and their body. 

And for people who are struggling right now, with anxiety, depression, or their body image, what can they turn to for help? 

There are so many incredible resources and people out there who are talking about eating disorders, intuitive eating, mental health, and all of the other conversations that need to be had. I think really exploring and educating yourself is really important. 

Intuitive eating is such a valuable practice, there’s an incredible book called Intuitive Eating, which I recommend to anyone interested in learning about how to identify and get rid of diet culture in your life, and practice a more mindful, kind approach to your body and food. Anti-Diet by Kristi Harrison is an incredible book, all about the same topic. I also think Mindset is a fantastic book for anyone who is struggling to find the optimism and the hope and the joy in their life. 

Written and reported by Amanda Svachula.