We all have an ideal version of ourselves in our minds. This ideal-self relates to desires and wishes we have for our bodies, relationships, lifestyle, career, health, money – any aspect of experience as a human. Having an ideal isn’t necessarily bad, we can use the vision of the ideal self to inform some of our ambitions, aims and goals to bring it closer to our reality. What happens though is that not all areas of life are in our immediate control or that adaptable to change, so bringing the ideal-self closer to the real-self is more difficult and possibly not an option.
On an emotional level, the greater the space you perceive to be between your real and your ideal self, the more you’ll likely feel a sense of suffering, especially if you’ve placed your expectation for happiness in the ideal. If you identify as a woman and you’re connected to feminine expectations relating to beauty and appearance, there’s a decent chance that your ideal-self is made up of many of those expectations. Also, this can be compounded by how women are more likely to hold their appearance as a core part of their identity. If your sense of who you are is invested mostly in your appearance, or you value others based on their appearance – the harder it is to de-identify from the ideal because it’s connected to so many other structures in your life.
Grieving the ideal body goes beyond the body itself. Letting go of the ideal body forces you to look at other areas of your life you thought you could control if you could ‘just’ work hard enough, care enough, be motivated enough to get this ideal body. Diet culture reassures you that you can get this body with a big IF you can do ‘xyz’. What it doesn’t tell you is that you’ll be going against your biology, genetics and mental health just to get there. Remember the disclaimer under diet/exercise related ads ‘results aren’t typical’ – they’re not typical because you didn’t try hard enough, they’re not typical because diets fail 95% of people, it’s not that 95% of people fail to succeed on their diet.
Grieving the ideal body is grieving what you believed the ideal body could give you, the feelings related to self-worth you thought were going to be adequately met by the ideal body. It’s not grieving that you’ll never feel a sense of self-worth or self-acceptance, it’s grieving the attachment to the body you thought would bring it. Read that again. It can be completely disorienting especially if you have a fundamental sense that appearing as the ideal is everything. That’s why many people don’t want to do this work, continue buying into diet culture and justifying that it’s purely for health* (find at very end). That’s their process and they’re entitled to it. Chances are though, if you’re reading this, you may be a little ready to stop, look around, reconsider your direction and take another approach. It’s exhausting to be in a constant battle with your body and even though I don’t know you – I just know you deserve a heck of a lot more from life.
What does this grieving look like in daily life?
Grieving your body is like any other form of grief and it's different for everyone - we all respond in a unique way to grief – it’s confusing, heart breaking, comes in waves, fought off, denied, rejected and bargained with.
It may feel like that overwhelming desire to try another diet, detox or planned lifestyle change hoping that this will be the one that changes your body for good. Instead of acting upon the desire, you notice the thought stream without judgement and you respond with compassion. Responding with compassion to grief is one of the most nurturing acts toward the self. You soothe the part of you that really relied on the ideal coming true, the part of you that was told you needed to earn approval and love through appearance. Some of us are just waiting to hear ‘you’re good and worthy and wanted’ and we think it comes in the shape of a ‘good’, small, thin, toned, body. Yes, some people in our lives may reinforce this dynamic and at the same time, it's not a universal truth - it's a culturally constructed concept. It can be hard to realise that there are some very intelligent people in this world, and people who we love and respect, who still uphold very archaic ideas about body ideals and health.
Processing the past
Grieving the ideal body, can actually be more about processing and grieving the experiences that lead you to want to change your body so much in the first place. It's not uncommon after a trauma/s to start focusing on the body, especially if the body was harmed, or there was a sense that the body was to blame. Dieting can be a way of coping for some, fantasising about the ideal body can be a form of escapism from a reality that is hard and unfair. Throwing exponential amounts of energy into how this body will be ‘achieved’ can be a distraction from what’s really happening emotionally and in life overall. Some notice if their body is always to blame, they never need to be reminded of how powerless and out of control they felt during the trauma/s. This isn't a bad thing, at all, - we all do what we do to survive. It's noticing it may be a form of avoidance that ultimately inhibits living your life in the way you want.
Am I already grieving my ideal body?
As you read this article you may notice that you’re already grieving your ideal body. The moment you heard that there was another way to exist in your body and take care of your well being, the process began. Use these questions below in your journal to process your body ideal grief experience more. Take your time and go gently.
What has holding onto the ideal body meant to me in my life?
For some, holding onto the ideal can be way to escape the daily realities of life. There’s always an ‘out there in the future’ ideal reality, something to look forward to. It can also be a way to keep grief at bay. This can be existential grief e.g fear of death, the grief that comes with processing a trauma/s etc. It can be a way of avoiding ‘what is’ right now, the emotional experience of living in a body that may be subject to many types of discrimination and oppression. Remember, turning to be with ‘what is’ right now will not entirely consume you, it will likely be painful and uncomfortable – but you will only release what you are ready to. It doesn’t all come out in one big go, even if it feels like it in the moment. If you’re concerned it will consume you, see a therapist or talk to someone you trust. Meet yourself where you're at, there's no rush.
If I could have my ideal body right now – what about my life do I perceive would be different?
Placing our dreams, goals, aims and desires for life for when that ideal body arrives, keeps us from actually considering that those things can occur and be worked on without needing the ideal body. When we think something can only be done one way, we limit our problem-solving abilities, the creativity and bravery it takes to be in life. Of course, most of the architecture in our society only provides for specific human proportions, it’s quite fat phobic and ableist - the point of this question though, is to explore the possibilities and assumptions you may have made about your body and see if there's another way before closing the door on something you really want to experience.
What would I need to meet in myself (feelings, sensations, thoughts) if I went ahead and lived my life fully anyway, without needing the ideal?
In our minds, we don’t just create defences against perceived ‘bad’ parts of ourselves. Minds can work just as hard to keep our positive ‘good’ sense of self away especially if it conflicts with a core sense of self that's ‘bad’ or ‘not enough’. If you’ve relied on having a negative view of yourself and it gives you a sense of ‘this is who I am’ (even though it feels terrible) – considering yourself to be anything other than that creates a conflict in your identity. This information about the self can be disregard as ‘not true’ as it doesn't match your core sense of self - when really that core sense is subjective anyway. Sometimes I'll ask those I work with 'what might it be like to really stand in your power and light, if you could try it on for a moment? How would that feel?'. Shifting from needing the ideal brings closer a recognition of the power and light you have right now, as uncomfortable as it may be to feel it. You have very likely projected your 'goodness' onto the ideal, when it was always yours. You can start reclaiming it now. Yay.
Your emotions want to be nurtured
Grieving is a really special time. It's time we give to our feelings to express exactly how they need to. We don't judge them or try to analyse our way out of them (yes I know that's so freakin' hard). It can be a time where we get to know ourselves more deeply and create a richer connection with ourselves. Usually, it's about trusting that you body knows how it needs to grieve. Listen for when your feelings are present and need space to come out. If you're at work, school, at a meeting, or somewhere you're like 'Ashlee I can't just start balling in the middle of the street' - I understand that. In these moments you can send some warmth to your heart, and say that you will find a safe space when it's appropriate.
Remember, you will feel better again, grieving takes time. I still feel it pop up every now and again too. As you learn to feel more comfortable with your emotions and giving yourself permission to grieve, you may even come to appreciate when your feelings visit.
You may find the workbook I developed called Body Beliefs: The Past helpful in your grief process and redefining who you are. It also gives you access to the peer support group on Facebook.
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*I do not want to dismiss those who are working on health behaviour changes – this is completely okay! What the research indicates is that health behaviours are beneficial even if weight changes don’t happen. It’s important that you seek out advice from a weight inclusive practioner/s regarding the complexities of your health. Diet culture has shifted its public messaging from just trying to smaller for aesthetics and beauty, to improving health. Whilst there’s nothing wrong with wanting to improve your health, the assumption that health improvements come from the weight loss itself is too simplistic of a notion and it’s harmful to promote it that way.