Understanding body shame, stigma, disgust, and depression: How can developing self-compassion help in living with a visible skin condition


Dr Andrew Thompson (Psychology), Professor Andrew Messenger (Medicine), and Dr Julia Moses (History)


This project is one of three in a University-funded network studying the impact of shame and stigma in a variety of diseases. All projects are interdisciplinary collaborative projects coordinated by Medical Humanities Sheffield. The projects will run in a network with regular meetings, providing cross-discipline insights into clinically relevant problems, with a translational humanities perspective.

As the barrier between the individual and the broader world of social interactions, the skin acts as a liminal zone in which ideas of the self, including self worth, are constructed. Advertising campaigns targeted at beauty and fashion, in particular, have served to shape an idealised image of skin, and this image – and contrasting portrayals of ‘shameful’ or ‘disgusting’ skin – has changed over time, following historically specific contexts. Self-disgust is conceptually related to the construct of body-shame, and both constructs may account for the increased risk of depression in individuals living with appearance altering conditions, like skin conditions. However, we know relatively little about how factors relating to appearance concern, shame, and disgust interact and the way in which they may have an influence on depression. The proposed project would therefore seek to address this gap in our understanding by bringing together methods drawn from History and Psychology and applying them to findings from Dermatology.

The studentship will first aim to tease out how self-understandings of the skin are constructed. This process involves two components: examining the broader social and historical context which shapes self-perceptions, and situating individuals’ experiences against this backdrop. On one level, the studentship would identify ways in which skin has been portrayed in the media in the UK over the past century in order to gain an understanding of the wider historical and cultural pressures on individual sufferers of skin conditions. The PhD student will therefore undertake a close reading of public discourse and portrayals of skin since the early 1900s, comparing early twentieth-century representations with those made in the recent past and situating these representations against their immediate context in British history, including the history of consumer culture in the UK. In this way, the studentship will aim to situate self-perceptions against this essential, and historically contingent, backdrop. Against this backdrop, the student would then undertake a mixed-methods psychological survey examining the role played by emotions of disgust and shame in depression associated with visible skin conditions. Various psychological constructs related to ideas about body image, such as the value of appearance, shame and disgust, would be examined using statistical methods. Qualitative analysis of written entries on the survey will also add to the findings and enable specific participants to be invited to record narratives of their body image.

The findings from these historical and psychological studies would facilitate the choice of techniques to be used in a feasibility trial of self-help with a population living with a skin condition with clinical levels of depression. In the final study a small number of people would be invited to use recognised self-soothing techniques and their reactions to the study and the materials would be recorded in comparison to a ‘control’ group who would be offered the techniques at a later date. We would envisage that the studentship would have the potential to have theoretical impact on the understanding of body shame and disgust and create a pathway for clinical impact in deducing distress associated with this.

Entry Requirements

Candidates must have a relevant first or upper second class honors degree or significant research experience.


Interested candidates should in the first instance contact Dr Andrew Thompson.

How to apply

Please send your cover letter, CV, references and transcripts to Ms Jodie Burnham (j.a.burnham@sheffield.ac.uk).

Closing date

18 April 2014