5 Ways Self-Compassion Promotes a Healthy Body Image

When it comes to appearance, we’re often too hard on ourselves.

In this age of social media, we’re surrounded by idealized images of beauty more than ever before. These images can create expectations that are impossible to meet, leaving us feeling inadequate and ashamed about our own looks. It’s no surprise, then, that a majority of young women and many men feel insecure about some aspect of their appearance.

As “normal” as body dissatisfaction may seem, it can have serious negative effects. For some people, it can lead to eating disorders or other mental illness. But even if it doesn’t reach those extremes, it can detract from quality of life in other ways. For example, research has shown that body image concerns can impair academic performance and reduce sexual pleasure in both men and women.

One way to address body dissatisfaction is to change the way we think about our bodies, shifting the focus from evaluation and critique to care and appreciation. Recent research suggests that self-compassion may be particularly helpful for easing appearance-related concerns and promoting a positive body image. Here are five ways it works.
1. It puts media images into perspective. One major source of body shame comes from taking media images of beauty to heart and feeling compelled to live up to them. In one study, self-compassionate women were less likely to internalize media pressure to be thin or to engage in disordered eating related to media exposure. But self-compassion goes beyond simply turning the tables on which body types are valued and which ones are disparaged. Instead, it involves acknowledging that beauty comes in many forms, and that no one is perfect.

2. It helps us stay in tune with our physical states. Attention is a limited resource: When we’re focused on how our body looks, we’re often less aware of how it feels—and therefore less in touch with signs of hunger and fullness, feelings of pleasure and pain, and even the sensation of our heartbeat. Research suggests that self-compassion is associated with lower levels of self-objectification, the tendency to habitually take an observer’s perspective on one’s own body rather than experiencing it from the inside out.

3. It makes us appreciate what our bodies can do. Because self-compassion is rooted in a genuine sense of care and concern for our psychological and physical well-being, it should lead us to view our bodies as precious and motivate us to be loving and kind to our physical selves, rather than harshly self-critical. Consistent with this idea, one study found that participants who completed three weeks of self-compassion meditation training reported an increase in body appreciation, which involves feelings of body acceptance and respect.

4. It reduces self-punishment. Being compassionate about perceived body flaws doesn’t necessarily take away their sting, but it can minimize the extent to which feeling unattractive makes people feel worthless or undeserving. In one study, exposure to a self-compassion intervention reduced the extent to which participants based their self-worth on their appearance, and in another, participants who were more self-compassionate about a perceived body flaw were less likely to report that they turned down a chocolate candy (offered by the experimenter) in order to punish themselves.

5. It makes other people allies, not competition. One of the key components of self-compassion is common humanity, which refers to the recognition that other people struggle too. That friend who seems to always look perfect on social media is probably spending a lot of time behind the scenes setting up their shots and deleting outtakes—and might have plenty of insecurities of their own. When other people become targets of social comparison and competition, we might miss what’s really going on with them under the surface, and we might berate ourselves for failing to live us to standards that aren’t even real.

Specific practices for increasing appearance-related self-compassion are described in this article and are available here under Practices. Research suggests that making a habit of these practices can lead to lasting improvements in body image. 

Source: Juliana Breines Ph.D for Psychology Today 

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Topless Swimming: A truly uplifting experience

Being 38 years of age and having breastfed two children, suffice it to say that my previously perky and proud breasts are, sadly, no longer quite the upstanding citizens that they used to be. Don’t get me wrong: all is not lost and I can certainly hold my own in a plunging neckline, should this be required. But there have been changes. This in itself doesn’t particularly bother me, as I firmly (no pun intended) believe that paying for a good bra, one that is supportive whilst remaining pretty, sexy, lacy, feminine or all of the above, is one of those necessary evils and fortunately can hide a multitude of sins. I am aware, however, of time taking its toll and am observing with quizzical interest how my body has changed over time.

Many of my friends are in a similar boat, and one (who shall remain anonymous, for obvious reasons) morosely described her boobs as ‘’n lang haas wat langs my op die bed le**’ after a few glasses of Chardonnay with the girls one evening.  As such, it’s probably not such a surprise that the issue of boob lifts / enhancements has raised its head in recent times. A few of my friends have had work done already, some are toying with the idea, some are vehemently opposed to it and some are saving up for their second time on the slate, so thrilled have they been with the results the first time around.  I am somewhere in the middle: at this moment in time, I don’t feel any burning desire to get myself pumped up, tightened, lifted or otherwise enhanced, and in principle I embrace the concept of ‘growing older gracefully’ and learning to live with one’s body as it changes over time, rather than doing something as drastic as going under the knife. That said, I reserve the right to change my mind at any point (and certainly, as time marches on and my bra size keeps going down, I fiercely defend that right).

What intrigues me is why so many women feel that they need to do something about the subtle but insidious southward slide of their breasts.  Is it a completely personal issue, or does it have more to do with the relentless pressure in our modern day lives to look eternally youthful? Is it to do with keeping our men happy and close to our sides? I have another friend (who shall also remain anonymous) who mentioned to her husband that she was considering having a breast lift done. His response: ‘Where is the benefit in that for me?’ He feels that a lift is pretty much pointless (sorry), and would much prefer a full-blown enlargement, both to justify the not-insubstantial cost as well as to know that he was also going to get something out of the whole thing. It made both my friend and I shriek with mirth at how her boobs had somehow become shared property – that rather than making a decision for herself to have an operation on her own body, paid for with her own hard-earned money, it also had to have a tangible – literally – ‘benefit’ for the spouse.

Now, back to topless swimming. Today was one of the hottest days this summer. At midday, my car thermometer read 43⁰ Celsius, and it was parked in the shade. This is hot. So hot, in fact, that when I dived headfirst into the pool in the late afternoon, it even felt too warm to wear my bikini top. Fortunately our garden is beautifully secluded and no one can see in from the street, so I did my 100 lengths sans bikini top. That in itself was a glorious, unrestricted and liberating feeling. But it got better. Way better. As I rested in the deep end after my swim, with my elbows supported by the pool edge and just my head and shoulders sticking out above the water, I happened to look down at my submerged body. ‘Halleluja’ is all that I can say. We all know about water’s ability to defy gravity. I have subsequently found out that there is an actual physical principle describing this very phenomenon. It is called Archimedes’ principle and is stated thus: “Any object, wholly or partially immersed in a fluid, is buoyed up by a force equal to the weight of the fluid displaced by the object”. And let me tell you what: it works with boobs too! Miraculously, I was restored to my former glory, resembling myself back in my early twenties, and was quite giddy with delight at finding myself buoyed both physically and emotionally by the kind, gentle water in our pool.

In a way, it was a dangerous discovery because it absolutely made me see how much room for improvement there is in my chest department. But for now, I am perfectly content to just whip off my top and go and loll about in the deep end should I ever feel the need for a fleeting moment of feeling pert and completely supported by the elements of nature.

At the end of the day, I believe in women having the right to make their own choices, particularly when it comes to their own bodies, and I genuinely support (oh dear, how do these tired puns keep creeping in here?) anyone who does something that boosts their confidence and makes them feel better about themselves, whether it’s having highlights put in their hair, their nails manicured, running a marathon, going on a shopping spree, a yoga retreat, whatever floats their boat, as long as no-one is getting hurt.

And when I look at my two precious children, I don’t regret a single cup size that’s disappeared as a result of their appearance.

** Roughly translated from Afrikaans: ‘a long rabbit lying on the bed next to me’.