Could self compassion be the answer to a more positive body image?

Posted on February 23, 2014 in Uncategorized -

An interview with Cathy Dart, Psychologist and Eating Disorder specialist during Eating Disorders Awareness Week 23 Feb-1March 2104

iStock_000001387457MediumIt’s cool to be thin, or so the media tells us. So what exactly is body image and how do we maintain a positive body image when there is so much pressure to be perfect.

Q1. Cathy, you must see a lot of patients who have a negative body image. Do you ever see women (and men) who are proud or at least satisfied with their bodies? And what fundamental difference do you see between these patients and those with a negative body image?

There are so many people who have a negative attitude to their body image and not all of them have eating disorders but I am pleased to say that at least some of my patients, particularly those who do not have an eating disorder can be pretty happy with their bodies.

It can be very puzzling to know why some do and some don’t like their bodies.  I think the most fundamental difference for those who are content with their bodies is self compassion. The people who are proud or at least satisfied with their bodies generally are a little bit better at being kind to themselves, understanding theirs and other’s limitations and are usually more aware of their emotional state.

Sadly though, body image is one of the biggest concerns for 11 – 24 year olds – a very high percentage of surveyed males and females rate it as a major issue.  Research demonstrates that less than a quarter of Australian girls and a third of Australian boys are satisfied with their weight.(Paxton.S.J. 2002, no.6 body image research overview) and more recent evidence supports an increase in these percentages.  Dissatisfaction with weight will often lead to negative body image that is in turn closely linked to poor self-esteem.  Low self-esteem in adolescents increases the likelihood of eating disorders, early sexual activity, substance use, and suicidal thoughts.

Q2. What causes negative body image and whom does it most commonly affect?

A thin body in our society is given a lot of credit, there seems to be many benefits for looking or appearing slim and fit.  Research has shown that society expresses more approval, acceptance and inclusion for a slim person, but at what cost?  And what if we are not genetically designed to be the perfect height, weight and appearance?

We often judge ourselves and place our self-worth on our outwards appearance, striving to be something we are not.  And no, this isn’t just a female or a youth problem.  Men are striving to have the perfect muscle tone, to look ‘manly’ enough to fit in.  People of all ages are feeling the pressure – to look younger, slimmer, fitter, healthier and more glamorous.

In warring with our own bodies, there is a real risk of developing an eating disorder through trying to attain that elusive, ‘correct’ body or we might become overweight from constant dieting and metabolism failure.  There is reason to believe that there is No Obesity Crisis, what we have is an obesity ‘hysteria’ because the “health” and “beauty” industries stand to lose billions of dollars annually if women and men stopped hating their bodies.

Too often we are overly influenced by other people – or popular media – assuming ‘they’ will define and shape our identities for us.  So much of our time, emotional energy and money can be wasted in trying to fit into someone else’s idea of what we should look like and how we should be.

And all the while we are killing ourselves to try and achieve these impossible standards when we need to realise that we are all in some way insecure, no one is perfect and we need to spend more time trying to be happy and content, not fixated on appearance.

Q3. Do you think that if a positive body image is adopted from a younger age that eating disorders and other related health issues could be avoided?

It makes a lot of sense doesn’t it that we should encourage everyone and particularly our children and young people to have a more positive body image.  Encouraging a common sense approach to caring for our bodies would go a long way towards reinforcing old fashioned ideas of feeding, exercise and maintaining good health.

Developing self acceptance, identity, esteem and confidence are also integral factors to reduce the likelihood that someone will be severely affected by poor body image.

Limit certain influences: Studies show that young people, especially women, who are more focused on mainstream media and in particular reality television, place a greater importance on sexiness and overall appearance than those who do not access as much media.

Adopt non-judgmental language:  focus on the skills and talents of your young person, and encourage them to choose positive and realistic role models.

Model yourself: Don’t diet, don’t talk about dieting or criticise yours or other’s weight and shape.  Remove the emphasis on Good and Bad foods, choose words like ‘healthy’ or ‘sometimes food’ to discriminate types of food.  More than a third of the people who admit to ‘normal dieting,’ the kind you might tell your family about, will merge into pathological dieting. Roughly a quarter of those will suffer from a partial or full-on eating disorder.

Limit Processed or Artificial foods:  In particular limit foods that are based on caffeine and artificial sweeteners.  There is a growing understanding of the negative effects of the overuse of colas and the new wave of energy drinks.  Not only are these chemicals harmful to your body but they come laced with media expectations of perfect.  “You will be happy and beautiful if you drink this cola”!  Not to mention ‘awake’ but ‘awake’ can be achieved by a healthy balanced lifestyle and good mental health.

A healthy body:  Can be maintained by eating a normal range of foods, normal portion sizes and eating them regularly (that is eating every 2 – 3 hours starting from the time you wake up, yes that is right 6 times a day!).  Exercise is important but needs to be realistic and consistent: 20 mins a day (ranging from walking around your office/school to vigorous sport) will have wonderful physical and emotional benefits.

Q4. What are the signs that parents and friends should look for? After all, most of us are pretty hard on ourselves.

Perfectionism, a personality trait (meaning a consistent ideal held by an individual) or a goal of perfection determined by some event or perceived benefit is one of the most significant  indicators of excessive expectations, thoughts and behaviours that might lead to poor self esteem, negative body image and/or disordered eating and exercise habits.

Ban the idea that we have to be a brand of perfect that is determined by someone or something else.  The perception that “what they think of us is more important than what we think of ourselves” is clearly destructive and problematic.

What others Think of Us is None of Our Business.

Teach your children that value is placed on what you do with your life rather than what you look like. When children feel good about themselves they are better equipped to resist negative pressures and handle conflict.

Q5. What should our daily mantra be to maintain a positive body image? And should women take a different approach to men?

Self Compassion is a great start.  Self compassion means relating to yourself in a compassionate way, regardless of what you don’t like about yourself.  It is about feeling, thinking and behaving towards yourself with love and care just the same as you would do for someone else you care for.  Practice acceptance of theirs and/or your personal failings, inadequacies and painful experiences.

High self compassion is positively correlated with health and wellness, including greater life satisfaction, social connectedness, autonomy, resilience, emotional intelligence, personal growth, wisdom, curiosity, attachment, security and relationship satisfaction.

Self Compassion has many of the benefits of high self esteem, however, it is not contingent on perceived success or positive experiences occurring.

Self compassion has 3 elements: self kindness; common humanity; and mindfulness.

Focusing on ‘health and energy’, ‘being good enough’ and ‘caring for myself’ are very useful mantra’s for all of us and I find they also make a lot of sense to men.  Men of all ages can benefit from some introspection – How do I feel?  Do I have the energy and motivation to do the things that I want to do?  What helps me to focus on myself in a healthy positive way?  When can I fit small positive changes into my daily routine?  What helps to build my self compassion?

Only 10 percent of people suffering from an eating disorder will seek professional help.  Don’t waste precious time, if your body image, eating and exercise routines are out of control in some way ‘Ask for help’, ….

An exciting website to look at Promotes the following ideas:

Accept the diversity of our bodies, embracing all body types, shapes, sizes, colours and revelling in the beauty of the human form.

Celebrate the journey our bodies have been on.  Growing old, and acknowledging the privilege to do so.

Focus on things that are important, rather than comparing ourselves to others.

Teach women (and men) that their body is not an ornament, but a vehicle to their dreams.

Teach women (and men) to arm themselves with the skills which will make them resilient and unshakable when bombarded with negative body image in the media.

Being healthy at every weight.

If you or someone you know if suffering from an Eating Disorder, don’t waste another day, make an appointment with your GP today. For more information on Cathy or our team of Psychologists, visit

About The Author