27/02/2024

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Understanding the Stages of Body Grief — Registered Dietitian Columbia SC

Understanding the Stages of Body Grief — Registered Dietitian Columbia SC

In this phase, it’s also important to take stock of the personal harm dieting has caused. When I’m working with clients, we often spend time exploring their personal history with dieting, discussing what they’ve done to lose weight in the past, how it changed their body and for how long, and how they felt when they were dieting. It’s one thing to know on a logical level that diets don’t work. It’s another to know from personal experience.

That said, I think that it’s just as important (as possibly even more important!) to address the emotions at play here, namely fear. If we’ve learned anything from the last years of politics, it’s that humans don’t always act on facts, and that fear of losing ones place in society can be intense. That’s why I think it’s important to address those intense emotions so you can make more thoughtful decisions about how you want to feed and care for your body.

Part of this involves chipping away at the fear around weight gain. Yes, weight stigma is very real and very painful. And at the same time, part of that fear stems from the lie we’re sold that you can’t be happy if you’re in a bigger body, which is absolutely not the case. You can chip away at that internalized fatphobia by seeing people who identify as fat having fun, dressing in cute clothes, having great relationships and professional success. A few off the top of my head that I recommend are Virgie Tovar, Jessica Torres, Sophie Hagen, Emily Ho (love her style!), and Mirna Valerio. This would also be a good time to engage in activities or work in therapy towards separating your self worth from the scale. 

Anger 

Another feeling you might experience while processing body grief is anger. We are taught that anger is a negative emotion, especially for women, but it’s actually a really important part of the healing process. It’s also a super valid emotion to experience in response to fatphobia and diet culture. Most of us, regardless of size, have been taught that smaller bodies are more worthy than bigger bodies, have been pressured to engage in physically and mentally unhealthy behaviors to manipulate our body size, lied to about the health benefits and sustainability of said weight loss, and blamed if our body was unable to comfort to narrow standards. That should piss you off!

If you’re in the anger phase of body grief, it may be helpful to let yourself really feel that anger and express it, whether it’s through journaling, venting to a friend, or doing something to physically release the anger, like screaming into a pillow (or just screaming!) or tearing up paper. I even had a client who swore by going to a Smash Room, where you can safely smash up things like plates, bottles, and old electronics!

One place where I see people get stuck in this phase is when the anger is misdirected towards themselves. Remember, it is the diet industry that deserves your anger, not you or your body. Even if we knew with 100% certainty that your body is bigger because of something you did, you still do not deserve blame. You were doing what you were taught to do – diet and restrict, and your body did what it’s supposed to do when it’s being starved: slow down metabolism, hold onto calories, and ramp up hunger cues. Your body was just trying to protect you.

Bargaining

In the bargaining phase, you might find new reasons for engaging in restrictive behaviors. You might engage in dieting/restrictive behaviors, but tell yourself it’s about health not weight, or try to lose weight before starting intuitive eating (p.s. that’s a really common thing I hear, so much so that I wrote a blog post on it!).

This phase is all about avoidance and fear, because letting go of dieting and restriction is incredibly scary. Of course you would bargain and try to find a way to avoid it! When you’re in this phase, I encourage you to think about ways you can create a sense of safety. That could look like:

  • Building or finding a community of people who aren’t engaging in diet culture.

  • Identifying restrictive behaviors you feel able to let go of, and give yourself permission to hold on to others (hopefully while still aiming to eat consistently and adequately throughout the day!). This might sound odd, but intuitive eating is often the process of slowly letting go of dieting behaviors while still clinging to others. Here’s some ideas for baby steps towards intuitive eating. You don’t have to jump head first into making peace with ALL the foods. You’re allowed to be where you need to be right now to maintain a sense of safety, while still challenging yourself to take steps towards healing.

  • Processing body image with your therapist.

  • Engaging in practices that help you feel safe in your body. That’s different for everyone, but might involve yoga, meditation/deep breathing, somatic processing techniques, or wearing more comfortable clothes.

  • Setting boundaries that protect you from diet culture and fatphobia.

Depression

There is a lot of understandable sadness when you realize weight loss is very likely not possible, or would require more than you are willing to give. Letting go of the fantasy of who you will be and what life will be like after losing weight can feel like losing an actual person.

I think a lot of that depression stems from feeling like the goals, hopes and dreams you’ve hedged on “once I lose the weight,” suddenly feel off limits. If you think that you can only be in a happy relationship in a smaller body, that’s depressing. If you think that you can only wear fashionable clothes you live in a smaller body, that’s depressing too. If you’ve been told the only way you can be healthy and physically feel good in a smaller body, again, that is depressing.

There may be some very real negative consequences of weight gain (anti-fatness is a real thing), and yet a lot the fears about what will happen after gaining weight aren’t actually based in reality, but rather the myths and stereotypes we’ve been sold. Working with a therapist or anti-diet dietitian to help distinguish these things and challenge those myths may be helpful.

At the end of the day, if you’re feeling depressed, let yourself feel depressed. Find people you can talk to who understand. It’s OK to feel these emotions and let them pass!

Acceptance

Acceptance is a space where you come to terms with your here-and-now body. It’s not necessarily a place where you look in the mirror and love everything you see like Instagram body positivity makes it seem (although that is very cool if you get to that place!). There might be part of you that wishes your body was different, and still be in a place of acceptance. The difference is that you respect it, care for it, and are committed to not harming it.

I’d love to say once you get there, you’re there, but acceptance is a place you’ll slip in and out of. You may be in a place of acceptance, and then your body changes or you experience a triggering event that puts you back into an active grieving process.

One thing that I like to talk about with clients who are in a place of acceptance is how they can make their body feel like their home. Here’s a blog post I wrote about making your body into a cozy space for yourself.

If you’re experiencing body grief…

If you’re experiencing any of these feelings, I hope this post will help you feel more normal and less alone in what you are feeling. While the process of letting go of dieting and restriction can be painful and hard and scary, there is also so much joy and liberation on the other end.

If you’re struggling through body grief, please reach out! We work with clients individually helping them nurture a healthier relationship with food and their body, and aim to create a space where you can process the feelings that come up through body grief. Learn more about our practice here. Also, big thanks to Be Nourished and Bri Campos, whose work inspired this post. I also want to point you to another post by Meredith Noble on the topic, which is also fantastic!

This post on body grief was originally published in April 2018. It has been updated to give you the best possible content.