Have you ever looked at pictures of your high school self and longed to look like that again? Or maybe you found a pair of pants in your closet that you know don’t fit, but you can’t make yourself donate them because you want to get back to that size.
Letting go of our previous bodies (or even the body we never had, but wish we did) is an emotional thing. And no wonder: We live in a society where thinness is praised and seen as morally better, even though weight isn’t a moral issue.
If you’re longing for the body you wish you had, you may be struggling with “body grief.”
What does body grief entail?
You may notice body grief mostly pops up when you’re accepting what your body looks like now (or trying to).
“Body grief is the distress caused by the perceived losses that come when you stop attempting to change your body size,” said Bri Campos, a body image educator and the founder of Body Image With Bri. “Body grief is the loss of the ‘thin ideal’ and can be the loss of a body size you used to have.”
She shared other times when you may experience it:
- When you realize you don’t pass as “thin” anymore
- When accessibility becomes a bigger issue for you (e.g. having to get a seat belt extender on an airplane or going to a store that doesn’t stock your size)
- When you don’t get as many compliments on your body
- When family, friends and doctors assume your health habits just from looking at your body
Campos noted body grief isn’t just weight-related, either; you may also feel it when you lose physical strength or motility.
Other than feelings of loss, body grief can lead to social challenges and make you wonder what you truly want: wellness or being thin. “It can cause feelings of questioning identity, social isolation, hopelessness, no light at the end of the tunnel,” Campos said.
The effects of body grief are, therefore, far-reaching. “Body grief also includes grieving the loss of all the amazing things you imagined would happen once you achieved your ideal body,” said Samantha DeCaro, a clinical psychologist and the director of clinical outreach and education at The Renfrew Center. “It may also involve grieving the precious time, energy and money lost to the pursuit of a weight, shape, size or appearance that was ultimately never meant to be, or deeply regretting the times you ignored or punished your body for not looking a certain way.”
Since attempts to change your body can also be a cover-up for trauma and anxiety, those struggles may come up again as you dedicate less brain space to dieting or similar behaviors. “Using mental space to think about your body can function as a distraction from other deeply painful thoughts or emotions, so body grief might also involve grieving the loss of a powerful avoidance strategy,” DeCaro explained.
Unfortunately, body grief is one of those things that may get worse before it gets better. Like other types of grief and recovery, there are ups and downs.
“For lots of people, body grief can deepen dissociation and detachment from our bodies, especially as we work through painful or heavy emotions,” said Meredith Nisbet, a national clinical response manager and certified eating disorders specialist with Eating Recovery Center. She explained you may experience physical aches and pains along with the emotional ones.
“We can also expect that the experience of body grief will not be linear, and must be moved through intentionally and with compassion for ourselves and our bodies,” she added.
How to cope with body grief
So what are some intentional, compassionate ways to deal with that grief? Here are tips you can try on your own or with a therapist.
Realize being thinner won’t solve all your problems.
First, I want to validate that for people experiencing weight discrimination — aka people who lose out on jobs because of their weight, can’t fit into most stores’ clothes, fear going to the doctor because the doctor blames every single problem on their weight, etc. ― being thinner would likely yield a different outcome, and struggling with that is valid. Also, remember that’s a problem with society — not you or your body — and that weight loss isn’t healthy, good or achievable for everyone, anyway.
Other than that, know weight loss isn’t the answer we sometimes (understandably) dream it is.
“We often tell ourselves things like, ‘If I could only have [this type of body], I would be happy, I would be successful, people would like me more, my partner would love me more,’” said Amber Claudon, Lightfully Behavioral Health’s vice president of clinical training. “With these desires and associations, we begin to correlate the voids in our lives to the lack of body changes that we might pursue or chase. Unfortunately, this pursuit is futile and never-ending; it perpetuates feelings of defeat and despair.”
DeCaro blames this on the diet industry. “The diet industry sells us the lie that our basic human wants and needs like love, happiness, respect and belonging will all be part of the package once we hit our ‘body goals,’” she said.
So, we have to find success, meaningful relationships, health and happiness in other ways, whether that’s through hobbies, spending time with loved ones, exercising for fun rather than punishment or something else.
Remember where the thin ideal comes from.
Did you know the idea that “thin is best” actually has racist origins?
“As early as the 1600s, society deemed certain bodies desirable, moral and ideal. According to Sabrina Strings’s ‘Fearing the Black Body,’ the most hated and undesirable bodies were those of fat Black women,” Campos explained.
The thin ideal isn’t even health-related. We know from research that body size isn’t the sole predictor of health; people can be healthy in differently sized bodies. The BMI scale is racist, too, and not an accurate way to measure health.
Also, let’s not forget that people are out there trying to make us feel insecure so we’ll give them our money. (Uh, no thanks.) Campos shared the diet culture industry is worth $72 billion.
Challenge your thoughts and feel your feelings.
Campos uses a four-part framework to help her clients navigate grief:
- Build awareness around the thoughts and beliefs that cause distress
- Unlearn and relearn, aka challenge those thoughts and beliefs
- Continue to observe and challenge them, because they’re likely deeply rooted
- Connect with people who can relate to and/or honor your experience, making a space for those feelings. (“In my community, The Body Grievers Club, we call this ‘sitting in the suck,’” Campos said.)
DeCaro also believes in the importance of accepting your feelings and realizing they won’t last forever. “It can be helpful to remember that all emotions are temporary, and avoidance tends to make emotions stronger in the long run,” she said.
She suggested talking about it, journaling, crying, expressing your pain through art, finding a safe community and/or therapist, living into your other values and more.
Get radically self-compassionate.
“The best encouragement I have for someone struggling with body grief is to practice radical compassion towards yourself,” Nisbet said. “This is your one body, your one life, and cultivating gentleness and forgiveness towards your body can help you come home to yourself.” She encouraged you to spend some quiet time with your body, breathing and practicing grounding techniques.
“Courageously choosing body grief can be an uphill battle that is lonely and isolating in a fatphobic society,” Claudon said. “We must get to the root of the issue versus attempting to control our bodies in a way that is [hollow] and perpetuates self-hate and shame.”