Do you always like the way your body feels and looks in your clothes? Do you ever wish you could have different hair or just more of it? How about your health—has it ever changed in startling or even just annoying ways? Have you aged and can’t find your way through the changes to see yourself as you are now? You may have body grief.
I’ll use myself as an example here, and you can retell the story to suit your own experiences.
Since I was 16 years old, I have strived to take care of my body with regular exercise. Although I had challenging feet that needed operations at ages 14 and 15, until my early 20s, I was an avid jogger. I didn’t run far enough to brag about distance or fast enough to care about speed, but I ran regularly and with great pleasure in the sweat of exertion. I loved jogging. I also loved dancing, hiking, biking, stretching, and swimming. Even when my knee struggles required four operations and made it impossible to jog, I continued other exercise routines, including plain-old walking. In short, I love moving my body. I’m now 66, and those 50 years of exercise have meant that I’ve remained fairly trim and fit in clothes I’ve worn for many years.
But my body has betrayed me many times over those years, too. Each of those times has sat me down for periods of inactivity and some have threatened my life. I’ve had illnesses like mumps, measles, chicken pox, and German measles, appendicitis, tonsilitis (all when I was three years old), thyroiditis, mastitis, breast lumps and cysts, endometriosis, pancreatitis, and infections, among other insults. I’ve had 4 knee and 10 foot surgeries, a tonsillectomy, appendectomy, thyroidectomy, hysterectomy, cholecystectomy (gall bladder removal), and a facet cyst removal from my spine, among other physical affronts. One doctor told me I’d better not need any more surgeries because I’ve donated all the secondary organs that can be removed! I have autoimmune disorders like Hashimoto’s, Raynaud’s, Sjogren’s, and fibromyalgia. In an impossibly rare anomaly and for an unknown reason, I even need to have one of my jaw joints replaced! Who has that?
Over the years, I’ve lost the ability to run, long-distance hike, bike, carry a light backpack, scuba dive, climb hills (not mountains, mind you—hills), and jump up and down with my grandson. I can no longer participate in fun activities like IFly flying. Thank goodness I can still walk (when I don’t fall down), swim, and do light yoga!
When the body doesn’t cooperate with what the mind wants to do—be active, in my case—it can generate negative feelings. I’ve felt emotions ranging from irritation to depression, sadness to frustration, and mere annoyance to fear.
I’m not telling you all this to ask you to feel sorry for me. I don’t feel sorry for me (well, maybe a little bit about the jaw joint replacement 😊). I’m sharing all this with you because sometimes it’s the least of my physical concerns that causes me the most pain and, I’m thinking, maybe it’s the same for you, too.
With all the challenges of a challenging body, I don’t know if I’ve experienced as much difficulty with illness and chronic conditions as I have with the changes associated with getting older. Mind you, it’s a blessing to be getting older. I have a brother and a sister who didn’t live past their 40s, so I know I’m blessed. But, for example, because of degenerative disc disease and the shortening of spine that comes with osteoporosis, I’ve gotten a little bit thicker in the waist than I’m comfortable with. Maybe because of an always fraught relationship to body size from anorexia, this body change has really thrown me. A bit more of a waist seems like a small issue, doesn’t it? Nonetheless, even if others don’t notice, I do. And, because I haven’t really gained weight, I can’t do anything about that thickness. I’ve lost 1.5” in height, and when one’s spine compresses, the skin has to go somewhere. Gravity makes that settlement somewhere around the waist, creating a bit of a roll. Yech.
What I’m sharing here are feelings around body grief. I didn’t know body grief existed until I read “‘Body Grief’ Can Happen After a Weight Change. Here’s How to Cope With It”* in Time Health. Author Angela Haupt says that “Bodies will change, and throughout each season of life, how we care for ourselves and what our bodies need will be different. One of the hardest parts is learning to be OK with that” (23). Certainly, what I’m struggling to be OK with is different from what you’re struggling with. But just as certainly, everyone has the potential to experience body grief.
Whether the challenges of illness, surgery, weight gain or loss, or simple aging cause us body grief, we need to learn how to work with it.
To begin working with that grief, let’s establish that whether the grief is a big or small one in our lives, grief is grief. It’s an internalized emotional experience of loss, and it hurts. So, when I no longer experience myself as the girl I once was, or the whole person complete body parts and without scars, or the person whose weight feels comfortable, or the human who has (or thinks she has) control over her body image, I feel grief.
In her article, Haupt recommends such actions for body grief as leaning into the changes, doing a body scan, setting boundaries around body talk, and overhauling a wardrobe. Most interesting to me is her suggestion of not opting out of every photo. It’s so tempting to shrink away from photos when we don’t feel good about our appearance, but removing our imperfect selves from photos is a form of social isolation common to grief. It’s a way to pretend we’re not with other people who may want to photographically remember their connections with us. While Haupt doesn’t call photographic isolation grief, it is that. Mourning, as a way to work with grief, is the active process of externalizing grief and doing something with it, preferably in a way that honors the relationship that we once had with whoever or whatever has been lost. And, looking at those less-than-perfect photos is a way of mourning our former selves while beginning to accept who we are in this present time.
Body grief is a real thing. Maybe you have some body grief, too. Our reasons for and circumstances behind that grief are different, but the underlying emotions are likely similar. Actively mourning body grief can help us to ease into the body we now have, allowing us to enjoy our lives more as the people we are now while fondly remembering the people we once were.
Remember: Life is a journey, not a destination, and it’s meant to have both joys and sadnesses along the way.
Haupt, Angela. “Body grief” can happen after a weight change. Here’s how to cope with it. Time Health, Spring 2023: 23-24.