Thanks to stories such as the myth of Narcissus, the man who fell in love with his own reflection, we’ve learned to associate frequently looking in the mirror and “checking ourselves out” with egotism. For a lot of people, however, it’s actually an effect of self-consciousness.
Body checking is defined as “an obsessive behavior in which an individual focuses on certain features of his or her body, often multiple times a day,” by Gene Beresin, M.D.. It can look different from person to person, but is usually categorized by one or more of the following behaviors:
- Frequently pinching the legs, arms, stomach, or other body parts
- Weighing oneself frequently (daily or more than daily)
- Taking frequent measurements of body parts (i.e. waist circumference)
- Comparing one’s body with the bodies of people around them
Although many of these behaviors can be used as a means of recording fitness milestones and can be incorporated in a healthy way (especially body measurements!), body checking occurs when these behaviors are performed obsessively and include an element of stress or self-shaming. This behavior is often associated with eating disorders, but often exists outside of it as a result of social media, comparison, and generalized body image issues. It can often be worsened by the presence of body dysmorphia, which is an obsession over a particular flaw in the body that may or may not even exist.
So, why does this happen? For many people, body checking is a coping mechanism for body anxiety. For example, when a person is anxious about their weight, they may feel inclined to check their weight frequently to ensure that it hasn’t increased. They may feel anxious if they haven’t weighed themselves in a while because of the possibility that the weight may have gone up, so weighing in regularly helps to relieve that anxiety. Unfortunately, however, this well-intended coping mechanism can often create more issues. It’s a self-reinforcing behavior that can become addictive quickly and make the person pre-occupied by thoughts about their appearance.
When Is Body Checking A Problem?
As I mentioned, occasional body measurements can be extremely helpful in a fitness routine. By keeping track of how our bodies look, we can determine what workouts are giving us the results we’re looking for. However, these checks only need to be done about once a month, and can even be less frequent than that. If you’re weighing yourself every single day, it may be time to re-evaluate why you’re doing it and what your motivations are.
“The biggest clue that you need to do something about body checking is when it’s taking time away from other parts of your life… For instance, if someone is engaging in body checking compulsively and frequently, and they ignore their other self-care needs or they begin to isolate from others and lose relationships or they can’t function at work, this is suggestive of the behavior being a problem.”Ash Nadkarmi, M.D.
A study of college women showed that those who frequently body checked were more likely to experience social, personal, or thinking impairments. Specifically, their minds were preoccupied on thoughts of shame, guilt, and worry, and weren’t focused on other issues such as their schoolwork, home life, or various social standings. If you find that you’re obsessing over your measurements and it’s distracting you from the better things in life, you may want to look into ways to decrease the habit.
Killing The Habit
Stopping your body checking habits can be extremely difficult, but will result in decreased anxiety overall. The key is to gain a healthy relationship with our bodies without body checking or doing the complete reverse: body avoidance. It’s good to check in with your body every once in a while, but it shouldn’t occupy your mind too frequently.
For starters, try keeping track of your body checks. You may not even realize how often you do it! Some people will keep a log of all the times they complete a body check, but others may find that they do it so frequently that they can’t log it properly. If you can’t keep an exact count, don’t stress. Just pay attention to the overall frequency. This activity will make you more aware of how disruptive body checking is and will help you realize what it’s distracting you from.
Next, challenge your checks. Ask yourself a series of questions about how useful the checks really are for you. Try questions like these:
- What am I really looking for?
- Is this helpful for my fitness goals?
- Has anything changed since my last check?
- Does checking make me feel safe in my body, or not?
- How do I feel when I notice something about my body?
It may be hard to answer these questions, especially if body checking is a deeply ingrained habit, but the act of asking these questions will help you to eventually find the answer. Just keep asking!
If you’re really struggling, try removing your scale, mirror, tape measure, or whatever else you use to body check. This is a temporary arrangement, since we don’t want to risk body avoidance, but it may be beneficial to take a break from those activities to help you realize that you can afford to use them less frequently. Eventually, the aim is to use those instruments without feeling bad about ourselves. Similarly, you can try taking a break from social media if that’s a major trigger for you.
And, of course, you can always consider talking to a professional if you think the extra help would be beneficial for you. There are professionals who specialize in eating disorders and body image, so consider looking for one in your area.