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Ambiguous Loss & Body Image

Where grief counselling and body image meet.

By Emily the Period RDPublished about a month ago 3 min read
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Ambiguous Loss & Body Image
Photo by Ben White on Unsplash

Something that comes up in my work with clients often (and that I didn’t anticipate ever seeing as a dietitian) is the desire to improve body image while also feeling really frustrated that the body isn’t getting smaller via nutrition and self-care. More and more I’ve come to identify this as part of grief and loss work, and as I was pursuing my Graduate Certificate in Sexual Health a term that came up was “ambiguous loss”.

As a general background, “ambiguous loss” is the experience of having lost something while it still exists. You’ll likely see this term more in the context of having loved ones with dementia, where the person is still very much alive but they are no longer the same person that we knew before - changes or losses of memory, changes in personality and even reverting back to older behaviour or routine makes this person very much different. There is a sense of grief in this, knowing that the person we knew is gone while they continue to exist in our lives.

I’ve begun to use this term when talking about general body image work. We can grieve the loss of a body we possibly had before or thought we should have, while existing in a different body. And in the context of trying to detach from diet culture and the pressure of attempting intentional weight loss, that sometimes means we are grieving something we have been taught would reasonably be in our reach if we would just “put in the work”. The number of times I have read social media content from personal trainers, nutritionists and influencers about “preventing weight gain” or “controlling the body” is mind-boggling. It’s no wonder we feel like we’re losing something.

Often this reframing of body image work as grief means we have to sit in the discomfort of loss, and that can be unbearable. It would stand to reason that we might struggle to make some health-promoting changes when they don’t immediately provide body changes that we have been taught to expect.

Some prompts to consider when you find yourself up against this feeling of grief:

Is your body the only valuable indicator of your well-being? When we go about weight loss attempts from the perspective of health improvements, we have to go up against the idea that weight and body measurements are the only measure of whether we are becoming “healthier”. What else might be a better indicator of how well you are?

What values have we assigned to loss and grief? Maybe this is a personal experience, but grief might come with feelings or beliefs of weakness or guilt - that we didn’t do enough or we would have been successful. Grief is a powerful emotion that communicates the level of love and effort we might have put into something, and I think reframing grief as an experience of how much we care can be a radical way to shift into neutralizing the way we view our bodies (and relationships and work and so on).

What kind of messages have we received about bodies and their worth, and how does this perpetuate our grief? Becoming aware of the ways bodies are spoken about and arranged in a hierarchical manner might open us up to understanding why we put so much effort into trying to become something else, and experience so much disappointment when we don’t successfully do so. We can begin to develop new messages that challenge these old narratives and build capacity for more positive viewing.

Loss and grief are not easy areas of work, and it’s natural to feel like this is a scary or forbidden area to explore - humans aren’t good at feeling the not-so-awesome stuff. Working with a specialized therapist who is trained in body image and grief counselling can be a great addition to your team, especially when you feel new to this work!

And cut yourself lots of slack. Body image work is hard, and the world we are in doesn’t always encourage it. With the right supports for you, you can find more peace with and in your body.

weight losswellnessself carepsychologymental healthlongevity magazinelifestylehumanityhow tohealthgriefdietbodyadvice
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About the Creator

Emily the Period RD

I help people with periods navigate menstrual health education & wellness with a healthy serving of sass (and not an ounce of nutrition pseudoscience).

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