How the 5 Stages of Grief Apply to Mourning the Loss of Your Thin Body

Bodies change. That’s an inevitability of life.

Try as we might, it’s impossible to maintain the same body throughout our life span. Sure we can put in our best effort and probably do a good job maintaining a version of our body that we are relatively content with, but the reality is no one is immune to what life brings our way (childbirth, injury, illness), and certainly no one is immune to the effects of time.

In a clear state of mind, there would be no problem.

We would understand that bodies come in all shapes and sizes and abilities, that bodies are always changing, and most importantly, that a body isn’t representative of a person as a whole. We would understand that a body doesn’t tell anything about a person’s heart or character, talents or abilities, or health status. We would know this, and because of that, we wouldn’t give so much credence to a particular type of body.

But we don’t, so we do.

Our Western culture is one with a bodily hierarchy that comprises an intersection of race, gender and health status to name and few, and size being one of the most visible identifiers.

There is no question that in our culture size matters, and the popular consensus is that thinner/fitter bodies are on the top.

Many people spend their entire lives working to either attain or maintain a valuable body. If someone was thin or “fit” when they were younger and their body has since changed, it’s not uncommon to hear them lament their current body, talk about how they want to change or “improve” it, or reminisce about their body of past. Or maybe it was the opposite - as a child they got made fun of for being in a larger body, so as an adult they spend a lot of time and energy attempting to avoid experiencing those circumstances again.  

I can remember on several occasions my grandmother sharing what her weight was when she got married (it was low), as if to say “my body was valuable, and therefore so was I”. Although never said aloud, to me the subtext read “my body is no longer as valuable, and therefore neither am I.”

It’s heartbreaking that so many of us define much of our worth and value as a person, via our body – something that we ultimately have little control over, and will inevitably fail us.

I get that the majority of people want to take as best care of their body as possible, and in our current paradigm where we associate thinness with health, the pursuit of weight loss is a big part of that task.

But the reality is thinness does not equal health, nor does fatness equal sickness. When we really get that, we may make the conscious choice to end the pursuit of thinness as the cost for many is the absence of a joyful life, (it’s difficult to be joyful when counting calories or points and worrying about a number on the scale). They realize that their body is just not going to be a thin body, and that health can be achieved at a variety of different sizes and weights.

For others the pursuit of thinness may end when a woman realizes she’s just not going to get her pre-baby body back (it’s insane this demand is even placed on women in the first place), or a chronic injury prevents someone from engaging in physical activity at the same level of intensity and frequency as they used to. Or perhaps, a life-saving medication has caused a certain amount of weight gain.

Whatever it may be, in a culture that gives preference and value to people based on their bodies, (and this preference is for thinner rather than fatter bodies), mourning the loss (or the dream of achieving) the thin ideal is very much like grieving the death of a loved one.

So let’s take a look at how the 5 Stages of Grief (reinterpreted), can apply to this particular loss.

Stage 1: Denial

At this stage a person is still very much in active pursuit of weight loss (or of keeping off the weight they have lost). The full focus is on getting thin or staying thin. Depending on their circumstance they are either seeing that a) the weight isn’t coming off, b) it comes off short-term but then creeps back on, or c) they are gaining weight and trying to prevent it from escalating. Any number of diets, weight loss programs, exercise programs, medication or surgery may be employed. Some people never leave this stage. I’m reminded of story I read of an old woman declining cake on her 90th birthday because she was watching her weight – she was literally in it until the end.

Stage 2: Anger

It’s very frustrating to be trying and trying and trying, to be doing everything you are told to do, everything you are told “should” work, and it’s not working, the scale isn't budging. At this stage people become angry, and it can be directed in a number of ways: towards the diets for not working, towards family members and friends who are out to “sabotage” their efforts, towards other people who can eat whatever the hell they want and stay thin, and probably most often– towards themselves. However this anger is directed, it’s often damaging.

Stage 3: Bargaining

At this point people are often burnt out from anger and begin to come to terms with the fact that the weight loss effort isn’t working. They have an awareness of how the weight loss efforts are actually hurting their health and denying their happiness rather than giving it to them as they thought it would. At this stage they may have read Health at Every Size or Intuitive Eating and come to realize health is possible without having to lose weight – yet, they still don’t want to give up on the pursuit of thinness just yet, so bargaining takes place.

For me this looked like increasing the number of calories I was allowing myself to eat each day (as I was in the position of trying to keep weight off that I had lost). It sounded like “Ok, I’m not going to be as restrictive as I was. I’ll give myself more calories so I’ll have more energy and can eat more things that I like, but I’ll still be able to control my weight.” For someone else it may look like not restricting the quantity of food they are eating, but instead restricting what they are eating (for example, cutting out a food group like dairy). However long this stage lasts depends on the person and situation – it may be short, or may last forever.

Stage 4: Depression

This is a heavy stage as it’s when deep sadness hits. It’s the stage when the reality sets in that a person can no longer keep up the food and exercise regime they had going, and/or it sets in that their body will never look like it once did. As I said before – this wouldn’t be an issue if we didn’t value thin bodies more than larger bodies – because when it comes to size that’s what we’re mourning – the idea that we’re not as valuable (or won’t ever get to feel as valuable) without a thin body. We may mourn the loss of compliments from others. We may mourn the loss of an identity that was praised and valued and admired (such as being the “fit person”), and we may mourn all the time, energy, money, and years we lost pursuing thinness. It can be a scary period.

I remember a night when I was deep in sadness. I was lying on the couch crying deep, heavy sobs because I knew that there was no turning back for me, I knew that in order to move forward in my life, in order to more fully step into my power and live a life true to myself I could no longer subscribe to a body size that wasn’t mine, and the sadness poured out of me. 

Stage 5: Acceptance

At this stage the majority of the sadness has passed, and a light at the end of the tunnel grows brighter. There is an emotional clearing that has taken place, the slate has been wiped clean and an acceptance occurs that the body cannot be controlled, and it will not be the body that it was before (or was envisioned). What is felt at this stage is different for each person. Overall there resides a feeling of peace that only sitting more fully in the body you have right now can bring. The door of the past is closed, the door to the future is open, and it’s a freer and more stable place than before. At this stage there is a new path forward to embark upon, a new way of learning to relate to food and exercise. It’s not easy, but it’s a path to true freedom.

Like the stages of grief experienced when losing a loved one, the stages of grief experienced when ending the pursuit of thinness may not be clear cut and linear. People can jump stages and they may go back and forth between stages. The time period of each stage is different for everyone. But it is indeed a real loss – the loss of the thin body (or possibility of the thin body). However like every ending, there is a new beginning, and this one – is a coming home.

Looking for support? If you’re ready to finally let go of dieting and live a life free of body disatisfaction, download a free copy of my Body Acceptance Jumpstart Guide!, and if you’re wanting some more personal support, contact me for a one-on-one coaching consultation.