So what is there to grieve when it comes to body image?
The biggest loss most people experience as they move out of diet culture, beauty culture, body obsession and control, body anxiety, and negative body image, is the loss of their “dream body,” and what that dream body represented.
Your dream body is the body you tell yourself you would have if only you were better, stronger, more disciplined, harder working or had the time/money. For some folks this is about a number on the scale, certain proportions or measurements, or a specific clothing size. For others, it’s about fixing every perceived flaw from cellulite to acne to body hair to stubby eyelashes.
Whatever your personal “dream body” might look like, giving up that fantasy is devastating and requires grief.
But it’s not just the body itself you’re giving up. It’s also everything that body represents.
Because in your fantasy, you don’t look perfect but still feel the same way and live the same life, right??
No. In the fantasy, you look different and you feel confident, energetic, peaceful, happy, sexy, fulfilled, popular, and/or vibrant. In the fantasy, looking different is like having the keys to the proverbial kingdom! Looking that way means life will be easier, intimacy and love will be easy and abundant, you’ll be accepted and respected by everyone, suffering will cease, and rejection and abandonment will be practically impossible.
This is what you’re actually grieving: the loss of a world in which looking “better” has the power to fix all your problems and give you the life you want. The loss of a world in which your appearance could keep you safe from rejection, abandonment, or pain; in which your body could give you freedom, confidence, belonging, and a feeling of finally being “good enough.”
When you start digging into body neutrality work you’ll quickly realize that your body can’t get your emotional needs met; that your appearance isn’t actually that powerful, and that no amount of controlling it will change the reality we live in.
But we must acknowledge that the loss of a fantasy in which safety, love, belonging, respect, and acceptance were within your reach and control if you just tried hard enough is the loss of something precious, and it needs to be grieved in order to let it go and move on.
There are other losses too. The loss of feeling superior to other people who didn’t “work as hard” and “look as good” is a one for many people in small bodies. The loss of a reality in which you can avoid fatphobic oppression and erasure is a huge one for many people in large bodies.
I once had a client tell me she couldn’t stop ruminating and obsessing over what she ate, and we discovered grief work to be done there. She had a habit of imagining who she would be if she had “been better” and resisted eating, after every meal. Like the guy re-hashing his glory days, she re-hashed her imaginary glory days; she tortured herself with an image of herself thinner, happier, freer, more popular, and more confident.
For a while, after every meal she had to acknowledge the painful loss of this appetite-free person, this impossible fantasy of herself. She told me she would repeat “that person doesn’t exist,” and that it felt like her best friend had died, after every meal, for weeks.
If you’re struggling with body image, you may need to acknowledge the loss of your fantasy body, or fantasy self. That better, more disciplined, less hungry, thinner, more perfect different version of you doesn’t exist… or maybe can’t exist without costing too much.
You must let that imagined version of yourself die, in order to live fully as the person you are.
You must mourn the loss of your perfect life in order to find peace and joy in this one.
Grieve for the loss of her, and for everything her existence ever promised or represented.
- Grieve for the fantasy of being a “tiny, perfect bride” on your wedding day, or the fantasy that by looking thin and pretty enough you won’t have to work as hard to get your connection and intimacy needs met.