Exploring Body Image & the Grief of Letting Go




“What’s on the other side of the tiny gigantic revolution in which I move from loathing to loving my own skin?"--Cheryl Strayed, Dear Sugar

The five stages of grief are familiar to most --though often only in a context of losing a loved one.

Elisabeth Kubler-Ross’s research and work on the stages of grief also gave a framework for terminally ill patients to process their own grief. The proposed stages helped patients grieve the loss of a part of themselves or coming to terms with their own death.

By viewing the stages through a lense of therapeutic body image work, we can move towards letting go and grieving unrealistic expectations that we may have about what our body “should” be or “should” look like. This often painful (but necessary!) grief process can help individuals move from a place of self hatred towards body acceptance, freedom and liberation.

In doing this type body image grief work, we are often letting go of a lifetime of restrictive dieting, weight cycling (up and down & up and down) as well as the “should be” body--a fantasy version of ourselves that may never come to be.When we begin to let go of those unrealistic or harmful ideals the grief will arise.

The five stages of grief can help us heal and process our lived experience. While in grief individuals may pass back and forth through a series of emotional responses. This back and forth is normal and the stages are not linear. For example, individuals may experience a stage rapidly or get stuck in one particular stage for a very long time, or float between several stages many times over. Each person's response to body image grief is unique and is particular to their own experience in their body.

Let’s look more closely at the stages. How do they parallel with where you may be in your own body image or body liberation journey?

Denial: A person grieving an idealized body may minimize the reality of their situation. This is often a defense mechanism towards the initial intense emotions that comes with shifting their perspective and body image beliefs.

“Let me try one more time to change my body! This time I’ll reach my goal” Anger: A person grieving the loss may channel intense emotions through anger or direct their anger towards others or even back at themselves. Anger is often expressed at diet culture itself or at parents who encouraged them to diet or restrict at a very young age.

“It’s unfair that I have to give up my idealized body, but other people can keep restricting or over-exercising!” Bargaining: A person grieving the loss may feel helpless and want to take control of their body size, they may try to reverse the situation by making a deal.

“I’ll only go on this restrictive diet for a few weeks and then I’ll stop dieting for good. I just need to get to this size and then I’ll be happy.” Depression: A person grieving the loss may feel deep sadness. There feels like a finality to the loss and a large aspect of their identity has shifted or lost meaning.

“I can’t believe how many years I spent trying to change. I’m sad about all the wasted time and energy I spent on making myself small. What do I do now?” Acceptance: A person grieving the loss has made their way through the stages and enter a new stage of freedom--a coming to terms. The griever has hope for something different.

“I may not love my body, but I like it and I respect it. I’m no longer focusing on changing my weight, but rather meeting my body's needs and caring for it the best I can.” (Stages adapted from BALANCE EDTC, 2019)

To find a new way of being with our bodies, we must let go and grieve for the body that is not meant for us and hope for acceptance and something new. Would you like to do your own therapeutic work around body grief?

  • Find a Health At Every Size® therapist at https://www.sizediversityandhealth.org

  • Read Body Respect: What Conventional Health Books Get Wrong, Leave Out, and Just Plain Fail to Understand about Weight by Linda Bacon & Lucy Ampramor or Body Kindness: Transform Your Health from the Inside Out--and Never Say Diet Again by Rebecca Scritchfield

  • Consider a support group such as Body Grivers with Brianna Campos, LPC (IG: bodyimagewithbri)

Previously posted: https://www.intuitivehealingnyc.com/blog/2020/8/24/exploring-body-image-amp-the-grief-of-letting-go

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