Self-Compassion and Body Image

Unfortunately, there often seems to be a wide chasm between what happens in the research lab and what happens on the front lines of clinical work. On the one hand, researchers need to listen to clinicians and learn about their direct experiences with clients. On the other hand, clinicians can benefit from hearing about clinically relevant research. We hope these posts reviewing recent research can help improve your practice with highly shame prone and self-critical clients. 

Key Terms

  • Body mass index (BMI): body weight to height ratio, calculated by dividing a person’s weight in kilograms by the square of their height in meters
  • Body Image flexibility: the ability to accept negative thoughts or feelings about one’s body with openness, while staying committed to important goals or values
  • Self-compassion: In the way that Kristen Neff defines it, self-compassion is the tendency to respond to one’s struggles and disappointments with kindness (rather than criticism), mindfulness (rather than getting ‘swept away’ by feelings/thoughts), and common humanity (rather than feelings of isolation)
  • Intuitive eating: eating according to one’s physiological cues (i.e. eating when hungry, and stopping when full)

Research Report

JulyPost_Image_350.jpgIn general, people who have a higher weight to height ratio are more likely to struggle with eating/body image (e.g. weight concern, shape concern, and dietary restrictions), and are less likely to have body image flexibility. In this study, Dr. Allison Kelly and her colleagues explored whether self-compassion could promote healthier thoughts/behaviors for young women with higher BMI’s. As expected, the researchers found that higher BMIs were related to more struggles with eating and body image, as well as less body image flexibility. Yet, they only found this relationship amongst people with low or average levels of self-compassion. Amongst people with higher levels of self-compassion, BMI had no bearing on eating behaviors, body image, or body image flexibility.

Dr. Kelly and colleagues later explored how fluctuations in self-compassion on a day-to-day basis affect body image and eating behaviors. Each day for a week, female college students reported the extent to which they treated themselves with self-compassion, restricted their eating, ate intuitively, appreciated their body, and felt satisfied/dissatisfied with their body. The researchers not only found that overall levels of self-compassion promoted healthier eating/body image, but also found that daily fluctuations in self-compassion contributed to daily fluctuations in eating behaviors/body image.

Clinical Take-away

Helping young female clients cultivate self-compassion could help lessen eating disturbances and promote a positive/flexible body image. Although the first study focused on self-compassion’s helpful role for people with higher BMI’s, other research also suggests that self-compassion could be helpful in preventing disordered eating for young women with lower BMI’s. The findings presented here are based upon research on young, predominately white females; it’s unclear whether self-compassion is as helpful for older folks, men/genderqueer folks, or people of different ethnicities.

Read the original papers here and here.

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