Hello and happy July everyone!
Please enjoy this month’s guest post by Stefanie Bonastia below, and have a great week. 🙂
Recently, a client who had “graduated” from coaching with me — who had worked to heal her relationship with food and body image — returned, after almost a year.
She was still living binge and restriction free, and she still outwardly rejected the fatphobic belief systems that she had worked hard to disentangle from her value system a year before. However, after feeling stable enough to return to exercise and reintegrate gentle nutrition principles back into her repertoire, she experienced some unintentional weight loss.
With that weight loss came an unsettling awareness of old body image thoughts coming back to the surface, and she reached out for help.
“Everything was fine — it was great, actually. I wasn’t bingeing, I was enjoying food, I got back to working out. I felt good and in balance. But then my clothes got looser, and I noticed myself feeling the way I used to feel. I started body checking again. I’m probably exercising more than I want to be. I sometimes choose foods because I’m thinking about how they could impact my clothes fitting. I wasn’t trying to lose weight, but once it started happening, the thoughts came back.”
This experience is common after a period of stabilized body image and disordered eating recovery. When weight loss occurs after a significant amount of time making peace with your body, it can trigger a resurgence of disordered thoughts and behaviors that were long considered “fixed.”
I believe this happens because body image healing work often happens within the context of gaining weight, and learning to make sense of the emotions that accompany this culturally-defined catastrophic event. (For example, gaining weight as a result of recovery from disordered eating, intentionally giving up diets, hormonal changes, aging, mental and/or chronic illness).
The work it takes to find peace in a recently larger body tends to be very hard. It can feel all at once terrifying, all-consuming, liberating, and impossible. It takes time, patience, and conscious intention. (And it’s also something I would recommend to everyone.)
But after all that work, it can be really freakin confusing when you finally reach a point of being able to say — Whew. I’m through the darkest parts of this journey. I have the tools to handle bad body image days and there is more ease in my life — and then, in the absence of disorder, you find yourself losing weight.
In that confusion, a cascade of old (disordered, unhealthy) thoughts and feelings about your body might show up.
Why, though? In my experience working with clients, this tends to happen because of three main reasons:
You stopped flexing the muscle.
The initial phases of body acceptance work are the hardest, and the most labor-intensive. When we first start to gain weight (or first allow ourselves to witness our larger reflection in the mirror, buy clothing in larger sizes, and identify with our new body shape), we are constantly doing The Work.
We are challenging old belief systems, creating new thought processes, grieving idealized versions of ourselves, and surrendering to the process. We get used to falling down and picking ourselves back up again. It is a time of great vulnerability, but also of great resilience. Eventually, we land in a place that feels more like cruise-control, especially when our weight stabilizes. There is less active rejection of diet culture narratives and less conscious arguing with internalized fatphobia. Like any muscle in our body, our mental muscles need to be exercised to work.
When weight loss presents us with old programmed thoughts of: this is good, keep it up, just a little more… it can feel harder to reject the narrative because you’re simply out of practice rejecting it.
You’re lured back by your reward system.
Historically, weight loss meant one thing: success.
The feeling of pants getting looser was translated by your brain into feelings of power, reward, belonging, achievement. These emotions are no small part of the human experience, and we are designed to want to hold onto them. It makes sense! However, left unchecked, overidentification with those feelings can lead back down old paths that reinforced weight loss as a means to external validation. And it’s easier to “check” ourselves when the emotion feels oppressive, but less so when the emotion feels good.
Buying back into diet culture’s default value system is easy because it feels good when we’re getting it “right.” Your brain is set up to follow what is familiar and rewarding. It’s human to feel pulled back.
We get back on the self-expectation hamster wheel.
There is no arguing that it is easier to exist in our culture when you live in a smaller body. The more weight we lose, the more we feel like we belong, and the more we feel seen and valued.
Body acceptance work teaches us to stand in our own power and reject external value systems of our worth — but it’s harder. When we lose weight, we remember what it’s like to have easier access to those things, and fear losing it.
The fear of that loss convinces us to set up our self-expectations all over again — we return to the belief that we must be X size to stay safe. So we resume body checking (etc) to secure that sense of safety.
Whew! So, are we destined to repeat our old patterns every time our weight changes because it’s the easy, human thing to do? Not quite. While it requires self-awareness and some measure of conscious effort, it is possible to course-correct when your old diet culture thoughts and feelings, and disordered behaviors, get flared back up.
Having awareness (and self-compassion) that this is happening is an important component of rewriting your script. That way you can know when to jump in, and not judge yourself for “falling off the wagon.”
Bring attention to the thoughts that rerouted you back to diet culture’s automatic messaging, and talk back to them with more empowered thoughts like: my body is not my worth; my body size is not a reflection of my value in either direction; I am more than my body.
Secondly, just as we’ve learned (in our anti-diet-culture work) to not congratulate others for weight loss, we also have to learn not to congratulate ourselves. Keeping our minds in neutral territory is just as important during periods of weight gain as it is during periods of weight loss.
It may take some stops-and-starts, but just as you were able to work through it before, you will be able to work through it again. Our bodies will change throughout our lives, and may always ask us to clarify and re-clarify our values and self-care tools, so we can stay grounded and in allyship with ourselves.
Having body image setbacks is normal — having security that we can see ourselves through it can be, too.
— Stefanie Bonastia