Poor Body Image, Disordered Eating, and Self-Compassion
The world we live in can be unkind, judgemental, and unforgiving. The media, for example, bombards us with images of beautiful, ultra-thin females and muscular males with six-pack abs – many of which have been digitally altered to achieve a standard of perfection that’s completely unattainable in real life. Failure to achieve these standards leaves many of us feeling inadequate and less than. Meanwhile, food companies spend billions of dollars developing, marketing, and advertising highly palatable, ultra-processed foods that are impossible to resist and tempt us at every turn. Is it any wonder we’re riddled with guilt and shame when it comes to our bodies and our eating habits? How do we survive, and even thrive, in such a harsh environment? The practice of self-compassion is essential.
Self-compassion is about attending to your own pain or suffering with kindness and care, rather than neglect or self-criticism. It includes three primary components:
* Acknowledging or noticing when you’re experiencing pain or suffering
* Recognizing you’re not alone in that suffering – everyone suffers and pain is part of life
* Responding or turning towards your pain with real kindness and tenderness, just as a loving parent would do for a hurt child
Benefits of Tending to Pain with Kindness
The relationship we have with food suffers greatly when we participate in harsh self-judgements and self-criticism about our bodies or our eating habits. Beating ourselves up with negative self-evaluations leads to feelings of inadequacy and insecurity. This, in turn, promotes the development and maintenance of disordered eating. Self-compassion, however, has the power to change this. Based on a review of 28 studies by the University of Connecticut, self-compassion protects significantly against poor body image and disordered eating. When we respond to our perceived imperfections or flaws with self-compassion, we’re much less likely to engage in binge eating, overeating, emotional eating, or unhealthy food restriction.
Self-compassion protects us in a multitude of ways. For example, the practice self-compassion is linked to decreases in:
- the need to focus on your appearance
- the need to compare your appearance to others
- the need to let negative thoughts or emotions about your body cause you to make choices inconsistent with good health (for example, going on a crash diet or skipping meals)
The practice of self-compassion is also linked to increases in:
- overall mental health, including happiness and kindness
- the ability to regulate emotions, which includes tolerating negative ones
- self-acceptance, regardless of what others may think of you
- the ability to change bad habits and take care of your health
- the quality of your relationships with parents, family, and friends
- the quality of your relationship with your “self” (self-compassion has been described as social support turned inwards)
To further demonstrate and reinforce the power of self-compassion, here are a handful of specific, research studies:
- Based on research from the University of Waterloo involving female undergraduates, on days when women were less self-compassionate than usual and they had interactions with people who were body-focused, they experienced greater body image concerns and emotional distress, and were less likely to eat intuitively. These relationships were absent or inversed, however, on the days women practiced more self-compassion than usual.
- In a study from the University of Coimbra, in Portugal, overweight women who enrolled in a program that taught acceptance, mindfulness, and self-compassion, improved their quality of life, ate healthier, became more physically activity, and lost weight. They were also less likely to devalue themselves, because of their weight. In another study, a similar program helped overweight woman who suffered from binge eating disorder establish healthier eating patterns, while significantly decreasing depression, shame, self-criticism, and poor body image.
- In research from George Washington University, on days when college women experienced social rejection, they were more likely to experience emotional distress and engage in restrictive eating behaviours. This relationship was especially strong in those who scored low in self-compassion. For those who scored high in self-compassion, however, it acted as a buffer against the fallout from social rejection.
Self-Compassion – Action Required
Perhaps, the most important thing you need to know about self-compassion is this… self-compassion, just like exercise or physical activity, must be practiced! You can’t just read about it. You must do it, and do it regularly, to reap the benefits. For example, each time you catch yourself beating yourself up, because you don’t like your body or you feel bad about something you just ate, make a real effort to shift into self-compassion. To help you in this process, I suggest taking a “self-compassion break”, as outlined by Kristen Neff, PhD, a leading researcher in the field of self-compassion. Writing a letter of self-compassion is also worthwhile. Here are the links to assist you with either of these practices:
Finally, it’s critically important to understand that the practice of self-compassion often feels very uncomfortable at first. Most of us are not used to being kind to ourselves. Persevere. Self-compassion is an extremely powerful practice with powerful results. Love is always kind. Learning to be kind to ourselves, especially when we’re in pain, should be a top priority for all.
Self-compassion is about attending to your own pain or suffering with profound kindness and care. It’s a practice, strongly supported by science, that greatly protects against poor body image and disordered eating. It is, perhaps, the most important way to love and nurture yourself on a regular basis.