'Body Grief' Can Happen After a Weight Change. Here's How to Cope With It
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By some estimates, nearly half of American adults gained weight during the pandemic. And according to the inevitabilities of life, 100% of us will at some point or another—but that doesn’t mean we’ll like it, or be quick to accept and embrace our new bodies.
Some people have such a difficult time adjusting to weight gain that mental-health experts have coined the term “body grief” to describe their anguish, which revolves around a deep sense of loss. Coping with this grief means mourning, and eventually letting go of, our previous bodies—or those we envisioned ourselves one day having.
“Grief is so significant when it comes to our bodies and relationships to food,” says Sarah Herstich, a Pennsylvania-based therapist who specializes in trauma and eating disorders. “It’s jarring for people—the sadness around what you lost.”
Herstich often introduces the term to clients who describe no longer being able to fit into their favorite clothes, or to easily find their size at the store. They might be grappling with new hardships, like not being able to fit into an airplane seat—or feeling like they don’t belong in a society that loudly (and problematically) prizes thinness. Body grief is frequently triggered by weight gain due to factors like age, pregnancy, and mental or physical health challenges.
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“Bodies will change, and throughout each season of life, how we care for ourselves and what our bodies need will be different,” Herstich says. “One of the hardest parts is learning to be OK with that”—and if that’s not yet possible, not judging yourself for how long it takes to get there.
We asked Herstich and other experts to share their best strategies for coping with body grief.
Lean into it
Immersing yourself in your grief might sound counterintuitive—but it’s necessary, says Meredith Nisbet, a national clinical response manager and certified eating disorders specialist with Eating Recovery Center. “I always tell people that body grief is the same as any other kind of grief. The more time you spend trying to pretend it’s not happening, the longer you’re going to keep experiencing it, and the more intense it will be.”
Sit with your discomfort, and acknowledge what you’re feeling and why. Nisbet suggests you might say: “I’m really sad that my body doesn’t look the way it used to, that people don’t treat me the same way, or that I can’t move through the world as easily as I once did.” Those feelings are all valid, and recognizing them can be a powerful step in the process of moving forward.
Do a body scan
We often think of our body as an object outside of ourselves—something to be managed and contorted into an ideal shape, Nisbet says. When that happens, “we’re disassociated from it and can’t process our emotions, because it’s like we’re viewing something from far away.” She encourages her clients to get in tune with themselves by conducting a body scan. Start by sitting on a comfortable chair with your feet on the ground, and close your eyes. Then “think about what feels good in your body, and what feels bad. Notice your breath,” she instructs.
This exercise, which is an example of mindfulness meditation, can help you feel more connected to your physical and emotional self—and cultivate a positive relationship with your body, Nisbet says.
Consider the cost of maintaining your previous body
If catching a glimpse of an old photo of yourself ruins your day—my arms used to be so toned!—that’s a clear sign of body grief.
Going back in time isn’t possible, so instead, aim to rejigger your perspective, advises Bri Campos, a licensed professional counselor and body-image coach in New Jersey. “When I’m missing my [smaller] body, I have to remind myself what it would cost me to look like that,” she says—financially, physically, and emotionally.
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Campos has reached a point where she’s able to appreciate how she looks in old photos—yet she also remembers ”that I was miserable.” There’s one set of pictures, for example, in which she’s smiling in a pastel dress at a wedding. What the images don’t reveal is that she was spending a fortune for a gym membership and drinking protein shakes so disgusting, she had to pinch her nose to consume them. Would she be willing to go through all that again to feel fleetingly happy about how she looked? Not a chance, she says.
Don’t opt out of every photo
Perhaps you’re tempted to forbid people from taking pictures of you, lest there be a visual record of this new, uncomfortable iteration of your body. Nisbet suggests a couple ways to overcome such an urge.
First, consider what’s happening in that very moment. Are you celebrating a special occasion? Enjoying a beautiful place you’ve never visited before? Maybe you’re standing next to someone you love. “Think about the full human experience of that time,” she says.
It can also be helpful to envision who might treasure photos of you in the future. Ask yourself: “Do I not want to be in these pictures at all? What does that say to my kids and friends and loved ones, who are going to want photos of me one day?” They’ll be grateful to see you in any form, she adds—and wouldn’t want you to wait to take photos until you’ve landed the “perfect body.”
Diversify your social media feeds
External messages about weight can be difficult to escape—but do your best to mute them. Unfollow social-media accounts focused on diet or “fitspo,” or that make you feel bad about your body, Herstich suggests. You can also report and block ads featuring weight-loss content.
Then, focus on following accounts that are inclusive of all body types, especially those that are similar to your own. If you’re a size 12, for example, follow other people who use hashtags indicating they wear that size, too. Doing so will help normalize your shape, while delivering a sense of belonging—and lots of outfit ideas.
Set boundaries around body talk
All it takes is one thoughtless comment to derail the inner progress you’ve made. Be assertive—not aggressive or passive—if people comment on your body, says Lana Banegas, a therapist based in Marietta, Georgia. That means not simply ignoring it, but not spiraling into attack-mode, either.
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Benagas offers these potential retorts: “I really don’t appreciate that comment,” “Let’s talk about something else,” or “I’m not comfortable with you talking to me like that.” Exactly what you say will depend on the relationship; how you respond to a close friend will likely differ from the language you use with a colleague. The important thing, she adds, is limiting your exposure to harmful dialogue.
Overhaul your wardrobe
If your closet is full of clothes that you wore one year and three sizes ago, it’s time for a change. Campos thinks of it like this: “Imagine you have a pebble in your shoe,” she says. “It’s probably not going to bother you too much. But if you walk around continuously with a pebble in your shoe, it’s going to create injury. So will trying to fit into clothes that don’t fit your current body.”
Clearing out your wardrobe is often invigorating, she says. Consider checking out a secondhand shop (in person or at an online retailer like Poshmark), or pop into your local thrift store; both are financially savvy ways to experiment with dressing your new body.
Talk nicely to yourself
Negative self-talk and body grief go hand-in-hand, so consider creating a mantra that’s empowering and focuses on non-physical qualities that you like about yourself.
One way to do this, Banegas says, is to identify exactly what you think you lost by gaining weight. Maybe you can’t hike for as long as you used to, leading you to deem yourself weak or inferior. A mantra that counters this type of thinking could be: “My body is weaker than it had been before, but I have other strengths, and I’m still full of worth. I can’t walk 10 miles, but I can walk one mile.” Take it a step farther by listing all the ways you’re still strong.
Treating yourself with compassion benefits not only you, but everyone around you. “The relationship with the self translates to other relationships,” Banegas says. “If you’re kind to yourself, you’re more likely to be kind to your partner or your friend or someone on the street. But if you’re mean and hateful, that’s going to be translated into your relationships as well.”