Updated: Mar 20
Here’s why that might feel REALLY FREAKIN UPSETTING.
Please enjoy this month’s guest article by Stefanie Bonastia, on the emotional relationship many of us have with our clothing, and how that can impact body image, below!
Sending you all a huge hug,
Of all the things that trigger us when it comes to body image, clothing ranks among the top.
Alongside mirrors and photographs, trying on a piece of clothing that no longer fits can incite big body image reactions for many of us, leading to extreme upset, discomfort, grief, anger, shame, and even panic.
Of course, many body positive messages on social media would have you believe that gaining weight and growing out of clothes shouldn’t bother you because you can just refuse to wallow in it, and instead focus on “buying what fits,” because “you deserve it!” And while this advice has merit, it both completely ignores the massive amount of privilege in the idea that everyone can afford to just go buy a whole new wardrobe (hint: most people can’t), and it ignores the emotional relationships many of us have formed with our clothing.
That’s why I want to talk today about the role of grief in these moments– specifically, the five layers of grief I see my clients move through most often when they gain weight.
5 Common Layers of Weight Gain Grief
1. Grief of History.
Some pieces of our clothing are attached to moments in time, and therefore attached to our emotional history.
As someone who has always felt a particular nostalgia for things passed, I remember a particular dress that I held onto even when the zipper wouldn’t move halfway up my back any longer. I knew I’d never wear it again, but I couldn’t bring myself to take it off of the hanger. It was like the memories were weaved into the fabric, threads of a time known only now alive in photographs.
To me, getting rid of the dress was like saying goodbye to the people who had known me in it, to the innocence of the era, to the bypassing of time itself. Growing out of clothes can bring on good-byes that aren’t as acute when the body can potentially still fit inside of them – as if the ability to zip something up can suspend the reality of loss.
→ What about this time period do you value? → Are there any unresolved or unprocessed experiences that stem from this time period? → What or who might you need to say good-bye to, or carry with you differently? → In what other ways have you grown since then?
2. Grief of Identity. Clothing is a way of self-expression; a way we make a statement about who we are, and ask others to recognize that.
We are bred to believe that we can “only wear that when I lose weight,” as if personal expression of style is relegated to those whose body sizes earn the right to express it. If your “thin clothes” were an expression of who you are or who you felt empowered to be in the world, not being able to wear those clothes may feel like a sacrifice of self. This may be due to the collective opinion of who can wear what (without apology), or the actual availability of specific styles by straight size versus plus size brands. One client I worked with said she felt that the same outfit on her thin body spoke entirely differently to her on her larger body, impacting her sense of self. This is, in part, due to the media’s differentiation of who is allowed to wear what, and what bodies we normalize in clothing versus those we don’t.
→ How has my clothing been speaking for me, and what do I want it to say now? → What parts of my identity transcend my clothing, and how else do I express it in the world? → What self template can I create in the clothes available to me right now?
3. Grief of Autonomy. A commonly used phrase I hear from people who have gained weight through intuitive eating work or healing their relationship with food is: But I worked so hard for my old body!
The shift from a smaller wardrobe into a larger one can almost feel like something being taken away without your permission. This taps into feelings of decreased autonomy, as if the smaller wardrobe was “earned” through hard work and determination, while the current (more authentic) body is a form of punishment to a passive, helpless recipient.
A way of reframing this is to consider that weight gain from recovery is an active, hard-working process of dismantling layers of diet culture oppression that actually kept your autonomy locked in a patriarchal box. Freedom is walking away from that level of micro-self-management… and actually, the agency and self-determination available to you in your bigger body are often much more powerful and impactful than the agency you’re leaving behind.
→ In what ways did I truly feel in control when I was in a smaller body? How much did that control depend upon being compliant? → What freedoms do I have in my current body that I wasn’t allowed in my smaller body? → Where else do I have agency, power, and the ability to make an impact in my life? → How can I take my power back through the clothes I choose to wear now?
4. Grief of Privilege. Fashion psychology researchers Mary-Ellen Roach Higgens and Joanne B. Eicher point out that our clothing can be seen as nonverbal communication that tells people “how much power you wield, how much influence you have, how smart you are, [and] how much you earn.”
Because we are a culture also obsessed with thinness as a status symbol, fashion caters to thin bodies, offering those bodies with greater access to the very styles and fits that ultimately project that status back onto them. The farther away we move from our smallest body, the farther away we move from that effortless ease of access, inclusion, privilege, and social power. It becomes harder to find certain styles, or to “throw something on” without second guessing if it looks too “messy” or “unkempt.” More labor goes into shopping, into trying things on, into wondering if others will judge, and sometimes the clothing options themselves dwindle down to very little, because so many clothing brands refuse to make extensive plus size ranges.
The realities of our culture are such that living in a bigger body means having less social privileges, inclusion, power, and clothing options– and while clearly this is a failing on the part of our society and not your body, there is also a lot of grief in this experience for many people.
→ What privileges do you feel are most impacted (or do you fear would be most impacted) as you move into new sizes of clothing? → What are your intersections of privilege, and how do they impact your clothing experience? → How might advocacy in this area be available to or helpful for you?
5. Grief of Fantasy. Clothes can feel aspirational.
There is this idea of finally “making it” in a thin body– a story taught to us by diet and beauty culture, that our “best self” is always our thinnest, fittest self, and that once we arrive there we will feel all the things we most want to feel.
As a result, we tend to create a whole fantasy of the person we want to be, and will be/can be, onto our clothing. We project a whole persona– the embodiment of confidence, inner peace, worthiness– onto a particular jeans size, or item of clothing that only people of a certain size/shape “can wear.” Many people even deliberately shop in smaller sizes in the hopes of “motivating” themselves to become the person they imagine they’d be if it fit!
Getting rid of aspirational clothes is sometimes the heartbreaking realization that this perfect life and identity we’ve been dreaming of may not, in fact, be real. That our body doesn’t have the same dreams. That we don’t get to escape being ourselves.
→ What life have you imagined waiting for you in a smaller body? → How might you have been waiting/hoping to feel, in those clothes? → How might that life be more available to you in the clothes that fit you now? → How might you go about feeling those ways more directly, at your current size?
Like all body image work, these concepts can run deep, and it may take much more than buying new jeans or getting underwear that fits to process the layers of grief present in growing out of our clothes.
Give yourself the time and space to recognize what might be going on behind the surface for you, why it might be so upsetting to you that your clothes don’t fit anymore, and what you might really be grieving. Be sure to approach this exploration with an open mind, curiosity, and compassion, and as always hit reply or find me on instagram to share your thoughts!
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