Tuesday, 11 April 2017

Self-Compassion is NOT a Diet

Talking NonsenseI saw an article posted on Facebook called “The Big Problem With Oprah And Other Celebs Who Tout Diets”  I started reading the piece and it was pretty good. The author, Jean Fain, who identified herself as “a psychotherapist specializing in eating disorders” was doing a decent take-down of the celebrity diet culture including the quote:

From where I sit, clean eating, lifestyle plans, weight management programs, juice cleanses, support systems… they’re all diets, and they’re all bound to fail. But with their intoxicating blend of impossible expectations, misguided authority and restrictive guidelines, celebrity diets are predestined to fail spectacularly.

Yes!  This all day! The article was going great until it hit this:

Self-compassion also means never going on a diet. When you’re self-compassionate, there’s no need to count points or calories or carbs. That’s because you generally appreciate your body and the food you feed it. You naturally eat less and weigh less without dieting.

What? I couldn’t believe it (that’s not true – I could believe it because we live in such a screwed up diet culture, I just didn’t want to believe it.)  It turns out that the author of the article is also the author of the book called “The Self-Compassion Diet.” The irony of her claiming that diets don’t work – except her diet – and that “Self-compassion means never going on a diet…you naturally eat less and weight loss without dieting” while marketing her book “The Self-Compassion Diet” was not lost on me.

I left a comment in the Facebook discussion:

I think that this is seriously problematic, especially in an eating disorder context. She conflates weight and health, and then she says “When you’re self-compassionate, there’s no need to count points or calories or carbs. That’s because you generally appreciate your body and the food you feed it. You naturally eat less and weigh less without dieting.” While I’m sure saying that helps her sell her diet book, it is completely unsupported by evidence.

She replied:

Ragen, there actually is a study that says just that. I don’t have the citation handy, but if you email me I’m happy to send it to you after vacation.

 

So she sent me the study that, remember, she claimed showed that “When you’re self-compassionate… You naturally eat less and weigh less without dieting.” Let’s take a look, shall we:

  • The entire sample was 159 college students from 18-25 years old (9 were omitted from the final results by the study authors for being “outliers”) so the sample is not exactly robust.
  • 74% of the subjects were “normal weight” to start with so, even using their own messed up ideas about weight and weight loss, we’re down to 39 of the participants having “weight to lose”
  • BMI was only taken only once, by self-report. They did not track a change in BMI or a change in weight at all in the study, so the data are silent on whether self-compassion leads to weight loss.
  • In fact, it’s a study of “associations.” That means that the study is completely correlational, and causality cannot be drawn at all. That’s why the word “may” occurs 53 times in 10 pages.
  • There seems to be quite the hurry to suggest, based on correlation, that having self-compassion leads to a lower BMI.  But it’s just as (if not, perhaps, more?) likely that having a lower BMI in a thoroughly sizeist society may lead to greater self-compassion, since a person with a lower BMI will likely have less experience being ceaselessly barraged with an epic ton of sizeist shame, stigma, bullying, and oppression, while living in a world that isn’t built to accommodate them, all of which gives fat people the message that we aren’t worthy of any compassion – self or otherwise. But sure, it could be that having higher self-compassion causes a lower BMI….  Regardless, that conclusion is beyond the scope of this study.

I asked Deb Burgard, a PhD, eating disorders specialist, and psychologist to check my work just to be sure, and she generously agreed and provided this excellent analysis as well:

The actual hypotheses come back as:

Self-compassion will be positively related to mindful eating      

Yes (college students who are exposed to one are probably more likely to be exposed to the other)

Self-compassion will be inversely related to eating disorder symptomatology

Nope (only dieting)

Self-compassion will be inversely related to BMI  

Yes  (but we don’t know if thin privilege makes it easier to have self- compassion or if dieting is actually the moderator here since the process of dieting is a mindfu*ck that creates a barrier to self-compassion, or if weight stigma creates the barrier, or something else)

Mindful eating will be negatively related to eating disorder syptomatology

Yes   (This is pretty much a tautology since the operational definition of one is the opposite of the other)

Mindful eating will be negatively related to BMI                                            

Nope

Mindful eating will moderate the relationship between self-compassion and eating disorder symptomatology

Nope

Mindful eating will moderate the relationship between self-compassion and BMI

Nope

Here is what I find most interesting:  (From the discussion:) “This study found that self-compassion negatively predicted eating disorder symptomatology and dieting-related eating disorder symptomatology specifically . . .” (p 234).     Actually, self-compassion was unrelated to actual ED symptoms (bulimia, food preoccupation, oral control) and only to the dieting subscale (which was not one of the hypotheses).

So you can imagine that people who are thinner are less likely to diet and also less likely to be exposed to cultural expectations that one is a loser if one can’t “successfully” diet/be thin.

The fact that these researchers are touting mindfulness or intutive eating or self-compassion as a way to be thin is an expression itself of weight stigma.

There are numerous examples in the text of the assumption that higher BMI people must eat more, eat in a more disordered way, etc. but their own finding is that mindful eating is unrelated to BMI!

In any case, this research says exactly zero about the idea that if a higher-weight person has self-compassion, they will lose weight. In fact, that idea may itself be an example of how stigma and oppression make it harder for people to feel supported in practicing self-compassion, since the fact that their bodies don’t stay thin must mean they do not really deserve self-compassion, or they must not be doing it right, or whatever specific f*ckery is on today’s menu.

I think it’s worth delving deeper into that last bit, because it’s easy to think “Hey, even if the weight loss doesn’t happen, the person still ends up with more self-compassion right? So isn’t that a good thing?”

The problem is that’s there’s every chance that when you tell fat people to believe that self-compassion will lead to weight loss, then those people are likely to end up believing that they are not doing self-compassion “correctly” and/or that they don’t deserve self-compassion if they aren’t simultaneously becoming thinner (which they are unlikely to do, especially in the long-term.)

At the same time, you suggest that other people can judge by someone’s body size whether or not they have self-compassion, which just adds to the tremendous stigma and stereotyping that fat people deal with.  And that’s oppressive.

 

So I think that, however well-intentioned she may be, Jean is harming people. From my perspective, she is co-opting the idea of self-compassion in order to make a profit by misleading fat people into buying a big book of magical weight loss beans. Regardless of her intentions – which, again, may well be good – I think that the impact of her work is harmful, and her belief that this study supports her claims is nothing short of disturbing, as is the idea of someone who conflates self-compassion with body size (and markets the diet book she wrote) identifying as a specialist in working with people who have eating disorders.

To be clear, what she is doing is legal – people are (for now) allowed to try to sell promises of weight loss, however unlikely they are to be successful. But we don’t have to buy what they are selling – and we have every right to expect that they will be able to provide evidence that actually backs up their claims.

Regardless, the bottom line here is that we are all worthy of compassion, including self-compassion, at any weight. The only outcome we can currently prove about developing more self-compassion is that it will increase the amount of compassion we have for ourselves (and I’m a fan of that.) I think that self-compassion is not a diet; and anyone who says it is, is trying to sell something.

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