“Nothing tastes as good as skinny feels,” the iconic supermodel Kate Moss once famously said, presumably suggesting that no indulgence is worth the damage it does to a slim figure. Being slim, of course, is the unquestioned standard of beauty and health set by the media and respective industries. It is also a cause for widespread body dissatisfaction, eating disorders, and low self-esteem that often develop in childhood and affect people of all ages, especially women.
Studies have shown that being considered overweight by oneself or others can lead to an array of emotional disturbances, including clinical depression. These effects likely worsen when contrary body images are idealized.
Women, in particular, tend to share their weight concerns with others, which often reinforces the negative views they already have of themselves, says Dr. Susan Krauss Whitbourne, a professor of psychological and brain sciences at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. When women get together and have a “fat talk,” their feelings of guilt and failure become ever more aggravated, and it gets even harder to overcome obstacles. Engaging in conversations about body imperfections has often a contagious effect, Whitbourne warns, and should better be avoided.
A more constructive approach would be what some have coined “self-compassion.” Being compassionate with oneself and others means to realize that suffering, failure and imperfection are part of our shared human experience, says Dr. Kristin Neff, a psychology professor at the University of Texas, Austin, and well-known expert on the subject.
“Instead of mercilessly judging and criticizing yourself for various inadequacies or shortcomings, self-compassion means you are kind and understanding when confronted with personal failings,” she explains the concept.
That doesn’t mean that self-compassionate people give themselves an easy way out. Self-compassion is not to be confused with self-pity or self-indulgence where anything goes. It’s not even about lifting up your self-esteem, Neff says. It’s about self-clarity, about developing a better sense of what is real and what is possible.
Failings are more acceptable when they are not denied or covered up because of shame. By dealing openly with inevitable shortcomings, a self-compassionate person can become more resilient and able to overcome hurdles in the future.
For example, studies have found that women with disturbed body images who listened to audiotapes on self-compassion judged their appearance less harshly over time and developed attitudes that were more constructive in terms of weight management.
A lot of people have to relearn to love themselves, if they ever did. For someone who was subjected to constant scrutiny and criticism as a child or who never experienced unconditional love, compassionate self-acceptance can be hard to practice.
But it can be learned, step by step, according to Deepak Chopra, the prominent wellness guru. By following certain exercises of compassionate self-love and self-acceptance, he says, a new self-image can emerge that is healing and empowering. Such a transformation may take some time, but the benefits can be immeasurable.
TIMI GUSTAFSON, a registered dietitian and health counselor, is the author of “The Healthy Diner: How to Et Right and Still Have Fun.”