Training our brains to see ourselves in a more attractive light

Researchers at the Department of Developmental and Educational Psychology have designed a programme called Mírate bien (Take a good look at yourself). It is a tool designed to enable us to learn to love our bodies and faces; and to improve our physical self-concept. Initiatives of this kind are routinely applied at educational establishments and high schools, but in this case there is a difference. The students participating in the programme are not asked to do any kind of physical activity. It is the cognitive side that has to be trained here: to restructure our perceptions so that we have a more realistic awareness about our image.

Inge Axpe is one of the researchers who has worked on the design of this programme, and has submitted a thesis in which she provides details about this and about the pilot programme carried out using it at the University of the Basque Country (UPV/EHU). It is entitled Diseño y evaluación de un programa para la mejora del autoconcepto físico (Design and evaluation of a programme designed to improve physical self-concept). She has also had papers published on it, for example, in the journal Revista de Psicodidáctica.

First of all, 21 judges —eleven lay judges and ten experts— undertook to evaluate and validate the programme, which was later applied to 813 students. 495 of them were the active part of this experience and the rest were the control population. In these cases students in Primary or Secondary Education tend to be worked with, but this initiative is different in this respect, too, since it was students at the University School of Teacher Training in Leioa (Bizkaia, Basque Country) who were studied. After all, it is they who will be the teachers of the children and teenagers of the future. Axpe believes that they need to be given practical classes before anything else to help them to improve their own physical self-concept. “That way they get to know all the variables relating to this matter and become aware of how important the variables are for young people, and how, as future teachers, they will, in turn, be able to help the youngsters work on them.”
Getting to the root of the problem

Axpe mentions eating disorders as an example to explain what the cognitive perspective consists of. For example, a young person with bulimia may be attractive and do sport, yet have a very low physical self-concept. The programmes that tend to be applied in schools encourage physical activity and a balanced diet, which is of no use whatsoever in this case: it is no use at all telling this young person that he or she has bulimia and that it is not healthy. It is an internal problem, and to get to the root of it, the inadequacy of the approach has to be focused on, not the eating disorder itself.

But how does one go about this? “It is no easy task, because these thoughts are deeply ingrained, but there are activities that allow them to be presented: one needs to get over to the young people the idea that we tend to interpret information in a very specific way. For example, we are affected by the things we are told externally, but the impact depends on our interpretation. Young people need to know that we have these tendencies, and that if we do not try to change them, we won’t be able to change anything else.”

So the programme is divided into various stages: physical activities, healthy habits, external influences, etc. The working procedure is similar in each of them. First of all, it is about trying to awaken the interest of the students through the reading of some texts, and questions are put to them to encourage them to reflect. After that, for example in the physical activity phase, they need to say whether they do sports; in other words, to determine their situation within this stage. After that, the programme displays a list of unsuitable behaviours that seek to build the awareness of the young person through simple examples. As Axpe explains, a good example of inadequate thought is the tendency to generalise the defects: “That is the case of someone who thinks that his or her nose is too big, and when generalising this in an exaggerated way, says he or she is ugly. We offer them alternatives: we tell the young person that we should try and change that, and that he or she may not be happy with his or her nose, but he or she does have some lovely eyes.” In short, this programme aims to bring about a cognitive restructuring and facilitate modifications in one’s self-concept.

According to this pilot experience, the students participating in the programme display signs of improvement in their physical self-concept. Statistically speaking, these early results are not enough to assert this, but there are differences that are worthy of note. As Axpe points out, the programme has shown its potential as a tool for building awareness about the implications of an inadequate physical self-concept, the variants that affect it and the possibility of changing it. She thinks that including tools of this kind is an essential component in the training of these university students, who are studying to become teachers. And she believes that this programme can also be applied to children and teenagers, as long as it is adapted: “It would need adaptations for all the ages. That is in fact our aim: to shape it, adapt the materials, and evaluate them as they are implemented.”
About the author

Inge Axpe-Sáez (Bilbao, 1979) is a graduate in Psychology, and has two Master’s degrees, one in Psychodidactics and another in Analytical Group Psychotherapy. She wrote up her thesis under the supervision of two Professors at the Department of Developmental and Educational Psychology (UPV/EHU): Alfredo Goñi-Grandmontagne (Faculty of Philosophy and Education) and Ana Arribillaga-Iriarte (University Teacher Training College in Leioa). Axpe lectures in this same department in Leioa. This research comes within the framework of the project ‘Self-concept and Psychosocial Adjustment’ (‘Autoconcepto y ajuste psicosocial’) (EDU2009-10102).

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