Mindfulness and Body Image Issues

01 Nov 2023
The commentators unabashedly criticized the participants’ bodies in the control room, each trying to hold back tears. Dr. Krittinee Nuttavuthisit, Associate Professor of Marketing at Sasin School of Management, presented a film on the impact of body criticism. Statements range from seemingly innocent comments to downright mean: “You look too big,” “You’re not feminine enough,” and “You’re so disgusting to look at.” Dr. Krittinee talked about her research “Mindfulness and Body Issues,” co-authored with Associate Professor Alisara Charinsarn at Thammasat Business School during Sasin Research Seminar. The initial study consisted of eight semi-structured interviews with four Buddhist males and females. Later, they expanded the study to encompass a more diverse range of participants, including five Buddhists, three Christians, and four Muslims. The research participants were from different social classes and occupations, aged 20-60 years. Her research found that mindfulness could be a solution to body image issues as the research participants used it as a coping tool to feel better when faced with criticisms or concerns about their bodies, whether internal or external. Dr. Krittinee said body image issues are a global concern. She elaborated on the concept of “body image,” stating that it encompasses subjective, perceptual, and attitudinal experiences concerning one’s own body. These experiences can result in either satisfaction or dissatisfaction and may lead to various psychological and behavioral consequences, as discussed in the works of Cash (1990, 2004) and Cash, Melnyk, and Hrabosky (2004). Furthermore, body dissatisfaction can result in issues such as internalization, diminished self-esteem regarding one’s body, and increased self-monitoring, ultimately contributing to feelings of anxiety and depression. Some individuals resort to spending money on fashion or plastic surgery in an attempt to improve their self-perception. Concerning behavior, the negative body image stemming from societal stigmatization may lead to practices like dieting, binge eating, and even anorexia. Participants in her research encountered harsh comments about their bodies, in which Dr. Krittinee observed that it is a norm in Thailand to greet one another by commenting on their physical appearance. Participants shared comments they have received ranging from remarks like, “You are this fat, will you be able to find a boyfriend?” to “You are older and bigger, you’ve really let yourself go.” In previous academic research, Dr. Krittinee discovered studies that explored cognitive-behavioral principles such as emotion regulation and cognitive therapy, including consumer culture transformational techniques and educational and media literacy. However, despite the various interventions proposed in these studies, Dr. Krittinee and her co-researcher did not find any research that addressed body image issues through mindfulness interventions. She referenced a study that supported this observation, stating, “Discussions on mindfulness have been limited, despite the growing promotion of this practice as a means to enhance consumer well-being” (Bahl et al., 2016). Their research found that mindfulness is a solution to body image issues. “Mindfulness aims to be aware of the current state of mind and body without judgmental thoughts,” said Dr. Krittinee, adding that being present would set individuals free from regret or anger from the past, as well as worries about the future. She quoted, “Experiencing and accepting reality as it is helps gain insights into its nature. In doing so, one can be less impaired by external interferences and internal psychological difficulties” (Kabat-Zinn, 2009). The research also outlined the “Transformative Potential of Mindful Consumption,” beneficial in coping with negative body image issues in five steps according to Shalini Bahl et al. (2016).
  1. Attention and Acceptance: Attention to body sensations, thoughts, feelings, and external stimuli while being nonjudgmental, compassionate, and flexible.
  2. Awareness: Awareness of inner and outer stimuli
  3. Insight: having insights on the transient self or causes of suffering.
  4. Weakening Attachments to Habitual Behaviors
  5. Transforming Choices and Experiences
An example of the application of these steps could be a woman noticing the wrinkles forming on her face. Instead of trying to evade the negative feelings that come with aging, she chooses to confront them with complete acceptance. She acknowledges that aging is a natural part of life. Instead of opting for Botox or plastic surgery, she embraces self-acceptance and reconciles with herself on the aging process. One research participant in her 20s unconsciously applied ‘Anicca’ or the Buddhist belief that all things are impermanent to combat negative thoughts. “Anicca has something to do with it. All things we do will not last. Eventually, we will become old and finally die. If I undergo plastic surgery, it might be beautiful for now, but I do not know about the future. For instance, in the next ten years, a nose job can drop or change shape,” she commented. Mindfulness is about using the body to support the practice of mindfulness beyond formal rituals or training by observing appearance and bodily sensations, feelings, and thoughts. “Unlike other interventions, mindfulness practice is not aimed at fixing problems or bringing about changes but opening up to experiences, while the alleviation of problems is a by-product,” said Dr. Krittinee. By applying mindfulness, people facing negative body image issues can learn to let go of the criticisms, come to terms with their body issues, and live a peaceful life.  
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