Many of us have experienced body grief. In a society focused on always striving to do and be better versions of ourselves, we often make or renew commitments to change. While these changes are intended to better our lives, sometimes what we strive for can actually make us less happy. One example is the resolution to lose weight or otherwise “fix” how one’s body looks.
Yes, getting more exercise, learning to eat healthy, striving to limit unhealthy snacks, practicing eating mindfully—these are all good things, especially when done with the conscious intention of becoming healthier. But when the motivation is to change how our bodies look, stemming from a negative body image and even self-loathing, that’s when we need to learn to adjust our perceptions of ourselves rather than find external solutions.
The Road to Self Acceptance May Be Paved with Body Grief
The road to physical self-acceptance can be a long one, however, and it often starts with the need to grieve—a step many of us miss. We become attached to a fantasy vision of what our ideal body “should” look like. Every time we fail in our efforts to achieve this unachievable goal, we spiral down into shame and grief, and our self-loathing deepens even more. So the first form of grief we may need to experience is attached to our failure to manifest the perfect body.
Once we start to take steps on the journey to self-acceptance, we must confront that fantasy and allow it to die. There’s grief associated with this process, too. It’s hard to let go of a cherished ideal, one that has likely sustained and motivated us most of our adult life. It may feel like you’re giving up on your goal—or worse, yourself—even when this isn’t actually the case.
As body positive sex coaches, we may often work with clients who are going through their own body image transformation. It’s important for us to hold space for our clients to experience this grief.
What Holding Space Means
“Holding space” means making your session a safe container for the expression of all the emotions associated with this process. Your client needs to know it’s okay to be angry, sad, ashamed, or whatever other emotions they’re feeling toward their body and their perceived failure to achieve their body goals. This safe space is free of judgment, full of compassion and patience, and helps your client feel validated and worthy.
It can be difficult to sit with someone expressing negative emotions, but it’s absolutely essential that you not add to your client’s emotional burden by offering platitudes or toxic positivity. You can support your client’s journey to wholeness without telling them to “cheer up,” or saying things like, “At least you have nice eyes.” Even phrases like, “You’re so beautiful, inside and out,” can land negatively when someone is still in mourning.
How to Hold Space for Body Grief without Toxic Positivity
Instead, try saying things like, “It’s okay to feel these things. Share whatever you need to about this.” You can add things like, “Yes, it makes sense that you’re feeling this way, because…,” or “I understand what you mean when you say…”
You can validate their feelings with expressions such as, “I agree. This sucks.” Or “You’re right; this isn’t easy. It’s hard, but it will be worth it, eventually.” You might even try, “I get it. I had to go through this myself. I totally feel what you’re going through right now.”
Hold the space, validate your client’s emotional expression, and let them know that you’re there for them. Then, once the emotional storm passes, you can start working with them to create a new vision of themselves and a new, healthier perception of their bodies.
Continue the Conversation
Have you ever felt a sense of loss while undergoing your own body image transformation? What kinds of interactions with others helped you get through it? What do you wish people around you had done or said to be more supportive? We’d love to hear about your experiences with body grief and how that might be informing your work with others around their body image. Please join us in the thriving, public Facebook page, Sex Matters, and join the conversation!