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Guest Blog: Healing a Negative Body Image by Mary Anne Cohen, LCSW


The actress Kate Upton once declared, “To me, what’s sexy is when you look like you’re having a good time.” 

Many girls and women try to look like they feel sexy. They dress provocatively and carry themselves seductively. One girl wore pants to her therapy session with the word “juicy” scrolled in rhinestones on her backside, and another girl came to her session in four-inch stilettos. 

But if you are happy in your body, you don’t need to turn it into a billboard advertising your wares. Authentic good body image comes from inner self-satisfaction. 

Because the pain of body image dissatisfaction is emotional, we can improve our body image through psychological change. Making peace with body image distress and enhancing our self-acceptance involves a three-prong approach: 

Awareness + Action = Acceptance 

AwarenessBecome aware of your unique triggers that make you feel bad about your appearance. Are there certain people, places, or situations that especially cause you unhappiness about how you look? Is it going to the gym and comparing yourself to other people there? Going out on a date? Are you triggered by clothes shopping? Visiting certain relatives? Being intimate with a partner? 

As a young girl, Arlene’s father scolded her for being too fat. He instructed her to hold in her stomach at all times. Her obedience to his words persisted into her adult life. “I was literally waiting to exhale all my life,” she said. “What’s really sad is I wasn’t fully aware that holding in my stomach had become so automatic.” Expelling his message was a process over time. For Arlene, exhaling involved becoming aware of the hidden anger that had caused her to unwittingly stifle herself. As she reflected on her deep need to please her father even beyond the grave, sadness and tears came welling to the surface. His spell on her was broken. 

Action. Couple your awareness of these personal trigger points with a plan of action. When we stop, look, and listen to our self-defeating thoughts and behaviors, we can begin to intervene in the negative ways we feel about our appearance. 

What is your investment in holding onto a negative body image? How does it help you or keep you safe? What would be uncomfortable or dangerous about accepting your body just as it is? 

Acceptance. You do not have to be perfect to accept the body you have. They key is to call a truce with the adversarial relationship you have with your body and work on appreciating the wondrous ways it does show up for you every day. Consider that your individual idiosyncrasies make you imperfect, quirky, and unique and should not be tamed but, instead, embraced. Perhaps imperfection is the new perfection! 

Decoding one’s fear of fat and body hatred is the first step towards resolving negative body image. The more we can cultivate a deep responsiveness to our needs and the more we can cultivate a rich vocabulary to express our inner emotional selves, the less likely we will speak the language of fat and pain. As we open up the spirit of inquiry into our relationship with food, we continue our progress on the journey of declaring peace with emotional eating. 

Decoding our fear of fat will help us release the energy and power to unfold our most genuine selves—needy and strong, vulnerable and independent, humorous and serious, and all the colors in between! 


Mary Anne Cohen is Director of The New York Center for Eating Disorders and author of three books on healing emotional eating: French Toast for Breakfast: Declaring Peace with Emotional Eating, Lasagna for Lunch: Declaring Peace with Emotional Eating, and Treating the Eating Disorder Self: A Comprehensive Model for the Social Work Therapist. You can visit her at www.EmotionalEating.Org and read excerpts from her books.