If you are on the intuitive eating journey, at some point in time you will learn about body acceptance and the idea of “letting go of dieting” will likely coincide with the idea of letting go of your “dream” weight/size/shape.
You may have spent years and thousands of dollars trying to control the size of your body. Most of us before finding intuitive eating have bought into the pursuit of the “thin ideal” and subsequent weight loss attempts. Maybe some of these things worked for you (short term) but over the long term, it’s likely your body decided to take back its control (weight gain happens for most dieters over long term).
We must come to terms with the idea that we may never achieve this “thin ideal.” We have to give up the idea we’ve held onto for so long that believed we could exercise or eat our way to a smaller body. In order to heal our disordered relationship to food/body, we must let go of this belief system and identity that no longer serves us. Doing so, will bring up strong emotions. This is where we begin the grieving process.
Grief arises in the dissonance between wanting to believe we can control the size of our bodies and coming to terms with the biological reality that we cannot, that there are complex regulatory systems at play that will kick in to restore your body to the place it naturally wants to be. (Hilary & Dana of Be Nourished)
We can spend our entire lives chasing the fantasy and blaming ourselves when another plan doesn’t work…yet again. Or, we can begin to fully let the truth sink in and experience loss. Attending to the grief that accompanies this loss is part of the healing process.
To help you move through your emotions about giving up the thin ideal and dieting, it can be helpful to consider the “stages of grief” model described by Elisabeth Kübler-Ross (1969).
There are 5 stages of grief: Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression and Acceptance.
When we first embark on the Intuitive Eating journey, we may think “It can’t be true,” and “No, No, No” are usual phrases of this stage.
“In this phase, people experience avoidance, confusion, elation, shock, fear. You may find yourself continuing to diet despite acknowledging that sustained weight loss is impossible for most people. Or you may cling to a belief that sustained weight loss is a realistic goal for anyone who tries hard enough. You continue to exist from the neck up, feeling detached or disassociated from the body, and navigating life through the language of “food and fat” instead of your hungers or feelings.” (Hilary & Dana of Be Nourished)
It’s common in this stage to want to go back to dieting. It’s so seductive and it “worked” – it’s easy to forget or minimize the struggle of dieting. The struggle of always feeling hungry or having to avoid social situations where triggering foods are around, the misery of having to watch the scale go up and then down and back and forth. It makes so much sense that we would want to go back to the familiar territory of dieting. Meredith Noble writes, “We forget that dieting has been a fair-weather friend. We remember the intoxicating joy of our weight loss successes, but forget our misery when the scale is higher than we want it to be, the pain of bingeing to the point of feeling unwell, or the despair of realizing we’re starving but have already eaten our maximum number of calories for the day.”
Tips for the DENIAL stage:
- When you find yourself wanting to go back to dieting or controlling what/how much you eat, notice what pulls you back in. Normalize this response and challenge it. Remember it’s normal to fall back into denial repeatedly, given that we live in diet culture and it seems everyone around you is dieting.
- Channel your strong emotions by educating yourself. Read as many books and blogs as you can to support you in this stage. My favorite is, Your Body is Not an Apology by Sonya Renee Taylor.
- Make a list of all the ways that dieting has harmed you. Brain dump all the negative aspects of dieting and having to work so hard to control your weight/body size.
- Work to detach your worthiness from how your body shows up in the world.
In this stage of grief, we may ask experience a range of strong emotions such as: frustration, irritation, anxiety, anger, rage, envy, and resentment. We ask over and over, “Why? Why? Why?”
We blame ourselves and feel a lot shame. It’s important to know that nothing is wrong with you, and you did nothing wrong/bad. You were just trying to survive in a fat phobic culture. “You were taught that you weren’t worthy unless you lived in a small body, and that message was reinforced in millions of large and small ways over the course of your life.” (Noble)
Feeling intense anger/rage during this time is appropriate. Instead of directing that anger towards yourself (by self neglect or other harmful behaviors like dieting), instead, harness this energy outward/externalize it. Get anger at the lies that were sold to you from diet culture. Get angry at the lies that told you must be in a smaller body to feel worthy of love and belonging. Get anger at the $70 Billion dollar diet industry that sells you on the feasibility that weight loss works in spite of very little evidence that it does (long term). Get angry at the lies that told you to be healthy you need to be thin. Get angry at the lies of the patriarchy that sells us into believing that our bodies are problems to be fixed.
Staci Jordan Shelton says “before the truth can set you free, you have to recognize the lies that are holding you hostage.” What lies are still holding you hostage?
Tips for the ANGER stage:
- Make a list of the ways you’ve been harmed by diet culture. What would go on that list? Notice what feeling come up for you.
- Move the energy. Anger is a strong emotion. Where do you feel this in your body? How can you express this? How can you move this energy around/out? Dancing, yell into a pillow, shred the pillow, journal it out, vent to a friend/therapist.
- Fuel this anger into activism. Becoming involved in fat activism – and broader social justice movements is an integral part of your healing path.
Bargaining in this stage is when we keep negotiating and postponing the inevitable by rationalizing all the ways we will keep opting into diet culture. We just aren’t ready to let go and fully opt-out of diet culture. Or, we just don’t believe we can let go and “be healthy.” We may say to ourselves, “I’ll lose a few pounds first before I start intuitive eating.”
You may feel like you have one foot in the door, and one foot out the door. You dabble in “clean” eating and then you come back to trusting your body more. This stage involves a deep reckoning with the deep knowing that diets don’t work, and that you can’t go on another one. You know deep down that the jig is up. You have hit diet bottom.
“You will also come to understand how your doctors’ training (and the research they spout off) is incredibly biased and how health care is basically outsourcing itself to the multi-billion dollar diet industry with no long-term data to support its efficacy. “ (Hilary & Dana of Be Nourished)
Tips for the BARGAINING stage:
- Continue to educate yourself as much as possible. Read books such as: Body Respect, Body of Truth, Your Body is Not an Apology and Belly of the Beast.
- Ask yourself these questions: Explore the reasons you want to bargain. What do you believe will be better if you keep trying to be healthy/lose weight? Write out why you think you would “feel better” at a lower weight/smaller body. Can any of this be challenged? Are there things you’re holding yourself back from doing until you’re in a smaller body?
- Consider writing a letter to your body. Explore your body story and share it with people who have earned the right to hear it.
- If possible, reach out to a fat positive therapist/coach/dietitian coach to process all the feelings of grief that you are moving through.
This stage brings up strong feelings of sadness. You realize that you have spent (wasted) countless hours in the pursuit of attaining a smaller “healthier” body that did not result in this outcome. You can’t get back the time and money you spent chasing the thin ideal. It’s important to let yourself feel sad about this. Part of the work of becoming an intuitive eater means leaning into discomfort. This is not an easy thing to do. So be gentle with yourself and take your time. Feeling depression is hard work but essential to living a more embodied life. It’s important to remind yourself that your feelings are normal and that none of this is your fault/you did nothing wrong.
If you have felt disconnected from your body for a long time, and/or feel overwhelmed by just even thinking about this, working with someone who specializes in somatic therapy can help you learn ways to gently access sensations and build distress tolerance over time.
Tips for the DEPRESSION stage:
- Find community who can empathize what you are going through and support your liberation from diet culture.
- Follow and learn from fat positive providers and activists who inspire and lift you up and remind you of your inherent value and worth.
- Find activities that nurture your inner world and give you back meaning and purpose in life.
- If accessible, work with a somatic therapist or body worker to move these emotions through your body.
The stage of the grief process is coming to terms with the reality that dieting will never work and that your here-and-now body is not going to change (by dieting). Acceptance is often misinterpreted to mean giving up. Letting go of dieting is not the same thing as giving up. True, you might be giving up dieting, but you are not giving up taking good care of yourself.
“In this stage, the opinions and actions of others do not preoccupy you. Your size will not be seen as a reason to delay activities you want to try. You’ll be less reliant on external definitions of what normal eating behavior is supposed to be. “ (Hilary & Dana)
When you reach acceptance, this doesn’t mean you won’t be tempted to go back to another stage. Grief is not a linear process. But with time, you will find that dieting will become less and less seductive. Throughout your healing journey, you’ll find it easier to come back to your truth and life a life that gives you meaning and purpose without fixating on trying to control the size of your body.
Tips for the ACCEPTANCE stage:
- Continue to surround yourself with like-minded friends, folks and coaches/ therapists.
- Ask yourself: What’s the difference between letting go and giving up?
- Are there some things you’ve been “weighting” to do that you might be interested in exploring now?
- Consider creating an alter that is a sacred container for your grief.
In conclusion, the process of letting go of dieting and accepting your body is not an easy task. Going through the stages of grief is uncomfortable and painful.
For many this type of grieving never feels like it resolves.
According to Nicola Haggett, …” there are also painful aspects of this grief that I’m not sure will ever be resolved.
I have found that it’s both possible & sometimes hard to sit with this kind of unresolved loss. Both/And.
And yet it’s often hard to explain & make sense of why this experience feels hard.
I find the concept of Ambiguous Loss to be helpful here. Ambiguous Loss (named by Dr. Pauline Boss) is a loss where there is no certainty that the person will come back or return to the way they used to be (e.g. dementia/addiction/catastrophe…).
An unclear loss that defies closure.
Ambiguity is created by the paradox of both absence & presence, the ongoing experience of which causes us significant stress.
Systemic fat phobia creates ambiguity for fat folks, by continually punishing us for the “choice” of fatness & by insisting that we can become thin if we just try hard enough (“& have you considered weight loss surgery?”).
The ongoing presence & impact of this ambiguity means that grieving the thin ideal often defies closure.
But it is possible to live with & transform this grief while also holding space for the ambiguity.” (Haggett)
In reading more about Ambiguous Loss, I have found that a lot of what eases suffering in that area has applied to my (Nicola’s) experience of body grief:
- We can transform & find MEANING in our experience
- We can NORMALIZE AMBIGUITY & know that Diet Culture & Fat phobia mean that it will continue to show up from time to time (& along with it, mixed emotions)
- We can RECONSTRUCT OUR IDENTITY by rewriting our body story & externalizing shame, blame, & bias towards our body
- We can challenge & REVISE OUR ATTACHMENT to the fantasy (letting go, while remembering)
- We can accept that we can’t “overcome” all aspects of this grief, & that’s OK
- We can find new HOPE in body liberation communities. (Nicola Haggett)
Eventually, you will come through to the other side where peace and freedom is found. Keep going. It’s so worth it. Even if it feels impossible, have faith that you can handle the feelings, you can do hard things and that you’ll eventually make peace with food and your body.
This article was inspired by the following references below.
References: Hilary & Dana of Be Nourished. The School for Unlearning. https://benourished.org/
Body Acceptance Begins by Grieving the Thin Ideal byMeredithNoble https://www.generousplan.com/body-acceptance-grieving-thin-ideal/
Nicola Haggett at https://nicolahaggett.com/