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Want to Improve Your Body Image? Try this…it’s not what you think

Written by Dr. Gia Marson

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 – after all, who ever said you were supposed to be perfect?

Neff, 2018 (1)

If you are like most Americans, you often view your body as an object, rather than as an aspect of your whole self. Most of your body focused thoughts may revolve around changing, depriving, comparing, cajoling, punishing, or improving. The problem isn’t your desire for change… it is that a lack of self-compassion and high levels of self-criticism often accompany body image thoughts and a variety of other psychological problems such as panic, social phobia, PTSD, depression, generalized anxiety, and eating disorders. (2)

You can improve your body image with one intervention…apply self-compassion. 

Take a moment to notice thoughts about your body and body image. How often are yours based on appreciating and accepting the body that carries you through each day? How often are they gentle? How often do your view your body image through a lens of care and acceptance? We are all imperfect. While there is nothing wrong with seeking improvement, when change is paired with acceptance and kindness rather than disdain it is likely to improve your overall mental health and body image. That is, adding in self-compassion on the path to reaching your body based goals can make you feel better even if you choose to continue striving.

What is self-compassion? Self-compassion, as defined by lead researcher and clinician Kristin Neff, is comprised of three main parts. They are simple to understand and straightforawrd to apply.

  • Be kind to yourself: “Self-compassion entails being warm and understanding toward ourselves when we suffer, fail, or feel inadequate, rather than ignoring our pain or flagellating ourselves with self-criticism.  Self-compassionate people recognize that being imperfect, failing, and experiencing life difficulties is inevitable, so they tend to be gentle with themselves when confronted with painful experiences rather than getting angry when life falls short of set ideals.” (Neff, 2018)
  • Recognize your humanness: “Self-compassion involves recognizing that suffering and personal inadequacy is part of the shared human experience – something that we all go through rather than being something that happens to “me” alone.” (Neff, 2018)
  • Acknowledge your emotions & stay mindful: “Mindfulness is a non-judgmental, receptive mind state in which one observes thoughts and feelings as they are, without trying to suppress or deny them. We cannot ignore our pain and feel compassion for it at the same time.” (Neff, 2018)

How does self-compassion relate to body image? We know from research that emotion regulation, negative body image and eating problems often go together. Now, a new study shows that emotion regulation may be a mechanism of change in the relationship between self-compassion and mental health. (3) Self-compassion seems to reduce the tendency to avoid negative emotions and therefore icreases your potential for better emotion regulation. Beyond reducing self-criticism, self-compassion is independently central to reducing stress, depression, overeating, undereating AND it seems to buffer against negative body image.

Greater self-compassion is associated with less body dissatisfaction, body preoccupation  and weight worries. It starts with accepting where you are wholeheartedly, even if you simultaneously want to change. Self-compassion is linked to better mental health. You can start improving your mental health and body image today. Click here to try some of Dr. Neff’s self-compassion exercises.

1 Neff, Kristin. 2018. “What is compassion?” Accessed on May 5, 2018.

2 Warren, R., Smeets, E., Neff, K. 2016. Self-criticism and Self-compassion. Current Psychiatry 15 (12). 18-32.

3 Inwood, E. & Ferrari, M. 2018. “Mechanisms of Change in the Relationship between Self-Compassion, Emotion Regulation, and Mental Health: A Systematic Review.” Appl Psychol Health Well Being.” Apr 19. doi: 10.1111/aphw.12127.

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