Longing for the body you used to have? 'Body grief' is a real thing - an expert explains how to deal

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Anyone can experience body grief and it isn't only weight-related.
Anyone can experience body grief and it isn't only weight-related.
  • Our bodies are an important part of our identity.
  • Sometimes we may experience body grief, which involves yearning for the body we used to have.
  • A therapist shares tips to identify body grief and how we can work through it while being kind to ourselves.

Do you often spend time looking in the mirror or browsing through old photos of yourself and end up longing for the body you once had? 

Or there could be a handful of your clothes that don’t fit you anymore, but you have a hard time giving them away and want to hold onto them, just in case. 

As a mother, you might look back at your pre-baby body and begin to set standards for yourself to get that body back.

Or as an amputee, you may struggle with the loss of a body part.

The concept of “body grief” is very real, Nsamu Moonga, a registered counsellor and psychotherapist, tells News24. After all, bodies form a critical part of our identity, so it’s unsurprising that accepting body changes over the years is an emotional process. 

But to understand body grief, we need to take a look at what grief itself entails, he says.

Grief: the basics

Grief is extremely personal and complex. It is generally a response to a particular kind of loss, says Moonga. “We all experience some sort of grief on a regular basis.” 

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Grief shows itself in hundreds of ways when someone loses a job, the loss of a friendship or a relationship. It can to parents experiencing 'empty nest syndrome' when their child moves out because, at an emotional level, it changes the parents' identity. However, the most common form of grief we experience as human beings is the loss of a loved one to death.

“The body and mind experiences the distress that comes with the loss,” says Moonga.

Then there is the grief we experience when there is a change to whatever forms our identity. And part of what forms our identity is our body, and the sense we have about our body image and how that body image feeds into the bigger sense of ideals in society. 

“And so, it’s not just the loss of the body I wanted to have - it is also the loss of a particular identity, because you identified 'myself' with a particular body. So, within the frame of grief comes body grief,” explains Moonga.

Not limited to weight-loss or -gain

Moonga believes it’s a bit simplistic and problematic to talk about body grief in the context of the “thin ideal” - a western concept of an ideally slim or underweight body. This is because body grief encompasses a range of experiences.

“If we don’t expand our understanding of body grief, we end up reducing it to 'fatphobia' - an extreme part of diet culture which glorifies thin bodies,” he says.

Instead, he wants to broaden the idea of body grief to include “just the body you have.” In other words, coping with the loss of your ideal body, which is the body that any person considers ideal for themselves as part of their identity. And this could be due to so many things, he says.

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Experiencing body grief isn’t simply weight-related and can occur when:

  • Someone has been involved in an accident and a part of their body is lost: One study notes "the loss of body parts can give rise to grief for loss of body image or function, or both".
  • Someone loses a body part due to amputation from a medical condition, such as diabetes.
  • A person has unwanted weight loss or weight gain due to medical treatment, such as cancer treatment.
  • A woman is pregnant and experiences prenatal or postnatal body grief, as her body changes, often permanently.

“All those people experience body grief, and we don’t speak about it enough,” says Moonga.

Anyone can experience body grief

Moonga reiterates that anyone can experience body grief. He cites the example of a person who’s training for the Comrades Marathon, and whose ideal body is strong and muscular. 

“This person has got a body ideal for optimum performance - they need to have a particular body and peak physically and psychologically at the right time.” And because that forms part of their identity, once the marathon is over, they may experience ‘post-Comrades blues’, he says.  

Thousands of runners feel this post-race depression each year, explains Runner's World. This is because intensive training for the event itself has become part of their identity and when it’s all over, they question, “now what?” and may start to gradually lose the fit body they had worked so hard to have.

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Identifying body grief

There are certain tell-tale signs you may be experiencing body grief. This could include constantly comparing your old and current photos, or frequently referring to your body in conversations, says Moonga. 

“The worst part of the signs is when grief turns inwards and leads to self-mutilation. So, at the extreme end of it, it begins to affect the behaviour of people who hate their bodies,” says Moonga. 

In this instance, the person’s relationship with food, activities, and people will change and they will go into episodes of excessive exercise, excessive eating, or excessive restraint from eating by going on diets, he explains.

Coping with body grief: becoming aware

If you’re going through a frequent cycle of negativity when it comes to your body ideal, you can deal with it in a way where you are kind to yourself, says Moonga.

The first step is to become aware of it. 

“[Acknowledge] that this is an experience and try to be aware of it when you see it show up in [your] behaviour, like excessive exercise as an example, or if you start to have defined relationships with food or make excessive references to your body shape and size. That’s very important,” he says.

Seeking help

The second part is to seek help. “Because this particular kind of grief is deeply embedded in your self-identity and your self-ideal, it’s important to be able to explore it,” with a health psychologist or a compassionate loved one, says Moonga, adding:

“You want to end up with a healthy relationship with your body and your self-ideal. You don't want to punish yourself through different ways like binge-eating or not eating at all, which can lead to an eating disorder.”

Helping a loved one going through body grief

Because our relationship to our bodies is attached to our identity and how we see and participate in the world around us, we may become very sensitive to any references to our bodies. And rightly so, says Moonga. 

“That’s why there’s a lot of need for sensitivity around that. I always tell people to refrain from making comments about another person’s body. Whatever the temptation might be, refrain. You could be curious, but don’t pass comments.”

If your intention is to help a loved one experiencing body grief, Moonga suggests simply, but sensitively, bringing awareness to ways in which the person is speaking about their body. 

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“You want to bring awareness to the behaviour, as opposed to the body, especially if it is within the context of ordinary body issues,” he says.

Importantly, this is different to a situation where someone has had an accident or surgery - these are specific experiences you can address directly, says Moonga, because it’s very different from lifestyle-based body issues. 

“So, if someone has undergone surgery, that’s a good opportunity for you to engage that person and let them know you’ve noticed their leg has been amputated because of diabetes, for example. And you can say: ‘I’m actually just curious what this means to you’, because you are giving the person the space to explore and express their own grief.”

Be kind to yourself

“One of the things I like to share with people is that it is important to be gracious towards oneself,” says Moonga. 

Human beings are prone to distress, and so we all experience some sort of distress in our lives. “And whatever the cause might be, it’s important for us to be gracious towards ourselves and to seek wisdom. 

Wisdom can come in different forms; this could be through conversations with people wiser than ourselves or reading: “Find your wisdom source, and whatever it is, lean into it when times are hard,” says Moonga.

Moonga is a PhD candidate at the University of Pretoria (under the supervision of Dr Andeline Dos Santos and Dr Carol Lotter).

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