Beginning down the Health At Every Size path can trigger a grieving process, because there are a number of things that we once believed and hoped for that we must give up in order to truly make peace with our food and our bodies.
For instance, we have to give up the idea of one day achieving the thin ideal, as well as the idea that we can use food and exercise to control the size of our bodies. We also have to process the idea that we’ve devoted so much time and energy to achieving long-term weight loss, without success (or perhaps with success but copious amounts of misery).
In order to truly heal, the vision of our ideal selves that we have carried for years and years has to come to an end. Because most of us have believed in the thin ideal and the power of dieting for decades, it’s only natural for some very strong emotions to be triggered when we realize we’ve been sold a lie.
I remember when I first learned that permanent weight loss was not sustainable for most people. In a way, it was relieving, because it confirmed my life experiences up to that point. It was also very sad, however. I had convinced myself that if only I could get and stay thin, life would be much, much easier for me. Giving up that dream was not in the slightest bit easy for me, and I imagine it isn’t for you, either.
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. You will likely find the stages she described —denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance — familiar, as they have permeated popular culture in the almost 50 years since she conceived them. Let’s explore how they apply to the process of adopting Health At Every Size beliefs.
Note: It’s important to understand that we don’t necessarily move through the stages of grief linearly. Often we will bounce around as we heal. Use this list to identify the stage or stages you currently occupy and find resources to help you.
When we first learn of Health At Every Size concepts, it is easy to fall into denial, because they contradict our dominant cultural narrative about weight loss and health. “No, no, no, no,” we often think. “It can’t be true!”
We reach back towards the familiar territory of diet culture because it’s all we know, and because it’s so seductive. While in denial, 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.
It is normal to experience denial, and to flirt with the sweet promises of diet culture over and over again as you heal your relationship with food and body. But as you learn more about why dieting doesn’t work, find a community to provide support, and exercise your self-compassion muscles, you’ll spend increasingly less time in denial.
Advice for the denial phase
- Remember it’s normal to fall back into denial repeatedly, particularly given that it’s so hard to extract oneself from the dieting culture present in our families, workplaces, and friendship groups.
- Educate yourself as much as possible about why weight is not an indicator of health. Check out my HAES book recommendations for lots of great literature that explains these ideas.
- Remind yourself of the ways in which dieting has harmed you. Make a list and review it as often as you need.
Often the anger phase of our body acceptance grief process manifests as anger towards ourselves for falling prey to diet culture. However, it is important to know that you are not to blame. 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.
I will repeat because it’s just so important: none of this is your fault.
All of this said, I believe it is really healthy to get angry at the culture that led you to this place. There is no shortage of things to get angry about! Examples include:
- That we were all sold lies about the feasibility of permanent weight loss, despite a lack of trustworthy evidence, leading to the existence of a $60+ billion diet industry.
- That we were likewise told lies about the health benefits we would accrue by being thin.
- That from a very young age, we were manipulated into believing that we are not worthy of love unless we fit the thin ideal.
- That a patriarchal system sets standards for women at levels that lead to self-harm.
I could go on and on and on, and chances are you can too. These are all valid things to get angry about, and expressing that anger is an important part of healing.
Advice for the anger phase
- Let yourself truly feel any anger / frustration / resentment and express it in a productive way. I like to do this somatically, which involves recognizing how we store angry energy in our bodies. Intrigued? Read my how-to guide about how to feel your emotions somatically.
- Try using free writing as another way to process your anger.
- If you feel so inclined, use your anger to motivate yourself to participate in activism (for example, you could start sharing fat positive / Health At Every Size articles on your Facebook page).
- Again, remember that this is not your fault. Get angry at society, not yourself. If you are continually feeling bad about succumbing to diet culture, consider writing “this is not your fault” on a post-it and putting it somewhere prominent in your house to remind yourself (e.g., your bathroom mirror).
Bargaining is negotiating—trying to come up with a trade, or a substitute to pursue instead of taking the difficult road of opting out of diet culture.
A classic example of bargaining is, “Okay, maybe I’ll just go lose some weight and then pursue intuitive eating afterward.” (Unfortunately the people who say this don’t realize that intuitive eating is not a weight maintenance technique; it will restore you to whatever your “set point” weight is, which is likely higher than any weight you’ve dieted yourself down to.)
Advice for the bargaining phase
- Continue your education, much like in the denial phase. Remind yourself that the science shows you cannot lose weight permanently even if you think it will make you feel better. All of the books in the HAES book recommendations section will help you address concerns about health (e.g., Body Respect, Body of Truth).
- Examine the reasons you want to bargain. What do you believe will be better about the thing you’re trying to substitute? Are there ideas there that can be challenged? For instance, are there things you’re holding yourself back from doing until you’re in a smaller body?
- Pursue coaching and/or therapy to start to process why you think you “feel better” at a lighter weight and heal the wounds of your body shame.
Realizing that weight loss is not possible and that you’ve wasted so much time in an effort to be thin and healthy inevitably results in sadness. Much like the anger phase, the important thing here is to allow yourself to truly feel the emotion of sadness.
Advice for the depression phase
- Remember, again, that this is not your fault. You were inculcated in all of this from a young age. There is nothing to feel guilty or shameful about.
- Find community who can understand what you’re going through. Share with them, and know that you’re not the only one who has gone through this.
- Remember that you have a lot of power even though you may be in a larger body, and that you don’t have to be limited by your size. To this end, find body positive role models who inspire you. You might check out my list of body positive Instagrammers for inspiration.
- Allow yourself to feel your emotions using somatic techniques or free writing.
Oh, sweet acceptance. Acceptance is where we have come to terms with the idea that we won’t achieve the thin ideal, the reality that dieting doesn’t work, and the fact that we’ve spent a lot of time getting to this place.
Note, of course, that arriving here doesn’t mean you won’t flirt with the other stages at times as well, though you will likely spend increasing more time here as you steep yourself in knowledge and continue to heal.
Advice for the acceptance phase
- Enjoy yourself by continuing to explore more things that you can do in your body.
- Consider activism; there are others that can benefit from hearing your journey and your message.
In Closing, Some Reassurance
The non-diet, Health At Every Size journey is not an easy one. Grief is a natural and normal part of the process. I hope that these ideas can help you move through the stages of grief patiently and while honoring your very valid emotions.
I also want you to know that even though this process can produce some difficult emotions, the peace that is waiting for you when you truly accept yourself and eat intuitively is positively worth it. Have faith that you can handle the feelings and thoughts that arise for you, and that you will eventually make peace with your food and body.
Sources & Thanks
- Courtney, Jeanne. “Size acceptance as a grief process: Observations from psychotherapy with lesbian feminists.” Journal of lesbian studies 12.4 (2008): 347-363.
- Kübler-Ross, Elisabeth. On death and dying: What the dying have to teach doctors, nurses, clergy and their own families. Taylor & Francis, 2009.
Huge thanks to Dana Sturtevant and Hilary Kinavey of Be Nourished for introducing me to Jeanne Courtney’s paper and for their own thoughtful work on this topic, which was a jumping off point for me.