Compassion can reduce stress caused by appearance comparison

Monday, April 30, 2018

Women who frequently compare themselves to others can develop a healthier body image and engage less in disordered eating if they shift their mindset away from seeing other women as competitors, according to a study by the University of Waterloo. 

“Making comparisons with one another comes naturally to us, and in modern society, that is especially common when it comes to women and their bodies,” said Kiruthiha Vimalakanthan, a PhD candidate, who co-authored the study with Allison Kelly, a professor of psychology at Waterloo.

The study found that comparison-focused women who deliberately exercise compassion towards the females they compare themselves to experience less body dissatisfaction, a lower motivation to diet, and a reduced tendency to compare their appearance to those around them. 

This study is the first to demonstrate that trying to cultivate compassion for others—by wishing them to be happy and free from suffering— may, in turn, benefit one’s own body image and eating attitudes. 

The researchers collected data from 120 females with mixed ethnicities and a mean age of 20.7 years. Participants used a “self-help strategy” over a 48-hour period to combat any negative comparisons they made with other individuals on the basis of physical appearance. Some participants used a caregiving mindset to enhance feelings of compassion and social connectedness towards their comparison target. Others practiced a competitive mindset to think of ways they may be superior to their comparison target.

A third group used a distraction strategy to intercept comparison-related thoughts by counting back from 50 in intervals of three. The caregiving practice was the most helpful self-help strategy for the women in the sample who were most prone to comparing themselves to others. 

“In a world where it is increasingly becoming easier to focus on competing and comparing oneself with others, especially with social media and other technological advances, this research is an important contribution to eking out more space for us to practice compassion in our daily lives,” said Vimalakanthan. 

By cultivating compassion for the subject of comparison, the researchers suggest this practice may facilitate a transformation from viewing others as competitors to instead seeing them as fellow human beings, providing an opportunity to feel less threatened by and more connected to other people. 

The study was recently published in the journal Body Image. 

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About the University of Waterloo

University of Waterloo is Canada’s top innovation university. With more than 36,000 students we are home to the world's largest co-operative education system of its kind. Our unmatched entrepreneurial culture, combined with an intensive focus on research, powers one of the top innovation hubs in the world. Find out more at uwaterloo.ca.

Media Contact:

Ryon Jones
University of Waterloo
519-888-4567 ext. 30031
www.uwaterloo.ca/news
@UWaterlooNews

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