The 5 Stages of Grief in Body Acceptance You Need to Know About

When you’re working on having a better relationship with your body, lots of emotions come up. I know, sounds pretty obvious, right? The emotions that arise might feel really weird and uncomfortable, and like you’re doing something wrong. The emotions might be intense, but they are actually very normal.

The process of healing your relationship with your body triggers the five stages of body grief. That’s right; just like the stages of grief when someone passes away. When you embark on a path of body neutrality and acceptance, you go through denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and then acceptance.

I will take you through each of these stages of body grief, and give you suggestions that help my clients cope.

When you stop engaging in disordered eating behaviours and start eating more intuitively, your body can:

  1. Stay the same size (very unlikely if you’ve been restricting food)
  2. Get smaller
  3. Get bigger

Even knowing how harmful disordered eating and dieting is, many with disordered eating still hope to lose weight or change their body. The uncertainty of what will happen to your body can be a huge barrier to recovery. It can keep you stuck for years – I’ve seen it time and time again, unfortunately.

It’s natural to struggle with the unknown of what will happen to your body in recovery. This is especially true for those in larger bodies, in marginalised identities, and those with trauma related to their body. It’s no wonder you have to go through body grief to heal!

Accepting what your body will look like once you heal your relationship with food and your body takes time. And before acceptance, comes four other stages! The five stages of grief—denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance — also apply to body acceptance.

Learning about these stages has helped me and my clients with disordered eating understand and process their emotions better. Understanding these stages can help you feel more normal and aid in your healing process. Remember, these stages aren’t linear, and it’s okay to move back and forth between them.

Let’s dive into the five stages…

Denial

When you first came across the research behind why having a more peaceful relationship with food is beneficial [aka finding out a framework like Intuitive Eating or the Non-Diet Approach – if you haven’t reach about this yet, click the links], they tend to accept it pretty quickly.

But, it’s easy to slip into denial and convience yourself that a less restrictive and controlled way of eating won’t work for you. Perhaps you feel like it makes sense to read, but you could never live that like.

It is important to take stock of the personal harm disordered eating has caused. My clients explore their history with disordered eating [e.g. restricting, dieting, binging, purging, food rules] when we work together. That’s because it’s quite cathartic to see everything you’ve done with your body laid out on the table [pardon the pun!]

Addressing the emotions at play here, namely fear, is important. It’s vital to address those intense emotions so that you make more thoughtful decisions about how they want to feed and care for your body.

Part of addressing the fear around weight gain involves chipping away at the internalized fatphobia. Seeing people who identify as fat having fun, dressing in cute clothes, having great relationships and professional success can help to achieve this.

Anger

You might feel anger about:

  • How much time you’ve spent engaging in disordered eating
  • How the world sets you up to dislike your body and be weird around food
  • How damaged your body is physically from disordered behaviours
  • How entrenched disordered eating thoughts are in your brain
  • Certain people or situations that caused you to engage in disordered behaviours
  • Maybe how difficult it is to break free from disordered eating
  • How less happy you are in your life than you would be if you could have been more peaceful in your body

Most people, 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 behaviours to manipulate their body size, lied to about the health benefits and sustainability of said weight loss, and blamed if their body was unable to conform to narrow standards. But, to be clear: People in bigger bodies have it worse here.

That for sure makes me feel pretty angry, what about you?

If you’re in the anger phase of body grief, it may be helpful to let yourself really feel that anger and express it. This could be done through journaling, venting to a friend, or doing something to physically release the anger, like screaming into a pillow or tearing up paper. It’s important to remember that it is the diet and wellness industry that deserves anger; not yourself or your body.

Bargaining

In the bargaining phase, you might find new reasons to engage in disordered behaviours.

You might hear yourself say or think:

  • “I won’t take it as far thing time”
  • “I need to do this for my health”
  • “I’ll just restrict for a few weeks then I’ll start this Intuitive Eating thing”
  • “Those books and people online don’t know me, I’m stuck living like this”
  • ‘This isn’t about becoming smaller, this is truly about feeling my best”
  • “I can stop purging whenever I want, I just choose to do this”
  • “This isn’t dieting, this is just being healthy”

When you’re in this stage, you’re really looking for safety. Your world views are changing and you’re starting to live more in line with your values. This can shake you to the core.

You can create a feeling of safety in yourself by:

  • Building or finding a community of people who aren’t engaging in diet culture and disordered eating
  • Identifying restrictive behaviours and make plans to let go of them
  • Process with a therapist or nutrition therapist
  • Engage in practices that help one feel safe in your body such as self-care
  • Start setting boundaries that protect you from diet culture, fatphobia, and disordered mindsets

Depression

There’s a lot of understandable sadness when you realise that you can’t engage in disordered eating anymore, and that you have to accept your body as it is. You realise that body change through disordered eating is not sustainable, and has too much negative impact on your life.

You know that you have to let go of the fantasy of being smaller, looking different, or whatever image you have in your head. You know that you will have to let go of the idea of what your life will be like if you stayed stuck in disordered eating. You know you need to step out of it.

It can feel like losing someone. In a way, it is. When you make peace with your body, you lose a part of yourself that has been there for a long time. But, you know it’s not a healthy part or part that makes you happy.

It’s important to let yourself feel depressed. It’s okay to feel these emotions and let them pass. It’s the way to move through into the final stage of acceptance…

Acceptance

Acceptance is a space where you come to terms with your here-and-now body. It’s also key to accept your body if it changes or becomes larger. I work with a lot of people who feel okay with their body right now, but if they were to gain weight they would spiral.

It’s not necessarily a place where you look in the mirror and love everything you see like Instagram body positivity makes it seem. There might be a part of you that wishes your body was different and still be in a place of acceptance.

The difference is that you respect your body, care for it, and are committed to not harming it.

Acceptance is a place you will 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.

What are the typical stages of grieving one experiences while accepting their body post eating disorder recovery?

Grieving the loss of your previous body can be a difficult process that involves several stages. The stages of grief are not necessarily linear, and everyone’s journey is unique. However, some common stages of grief that you may experience while accepting their new body image include denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance.

Eating disorder recovery hopefully will take you through these stages!

In what ways does grief manifest physically when struggling with body acceptance?

Grief can manifest physically when struggling with body acceptance. Some physical symptoms that you may experience include changes in appetite, difficulty sleeping, fatigue, and a weakened immune system. Just like you would with regular grief, take care of yourself the best you can.

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