'Body Grief' Can Happen After a Weight Change. Here's How to Cope With It
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.
“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.
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.