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