Do you stop to examine your reflection regularly? Or turn your attention to one particular area of your body with laser focus?
These types of behaviors may fall under body checking. It’s a compulsive behavior of looking at yourself in the mirror, comparing how you look now to past photos, and even measuring body parts or holding onto clothes that no longer fit. The habit stems from a dissatisfaction with body image and serves as a control mechanism in response to heightened anxieties.
It’s common among those who struggle with body dysmorphia and disordered eating, and may be exacerbated by the coronavirus pandemic, which in general has posed challenges for people with eating disorders.
“A lot of my clients are noticing they’re inside more, engaging in less activity, and that kind of triggers some of those body image or eating disorder thoughts,” Sadi Fox, licensed psychologist and owner of Flourish Psychology Practice, told HuffPost. “There’s a lot more anxiety, and that increases fixation on body image for people with eating disorders.”
An uptick in the habit of body checking, whether driven by increased anxiety or body fixation, in turn reinforces this obsession with appearance. It creates a vicious cycle of identifying perceived flaws, then attempting to correct them with unhealthy behaviors. According to Fox, having an overly perfectionist personality may drive the compulsion to check the body as a way to gain control, and therefore the behavior might persist despite achieving desired outcomes.
Put another way, “body checking is something that happens completely independent of whether someone has actually gained weight or experienced any change in their body,” according to Jessica Sprengle, a licensed professional therapist who specializes in treating eating disorders.
Breaking the cycle requires behavioral and cognitive interventions, from hiding mirrors to interrogating whether the obsession with looking a certain way actually brings you the satisfaction you’re seeking. Here are a few ways to keep body checking in check, according to mental health experts:
Examine your environment to determine your biggest triggers.
As a first step to breaking the habit of body checking, Fox encourages her clients to cover their mirrors, get rid of their scales and tape measures, and give away old clothes.
The self-facing camera also doesn’t help. If Fox notices clients staring at themselves during telehealth calls, to the point that it’s debilitating, she’ll suggest that they drag the window so that they’re out of the picture. During Zoom meetings, you can always opt to hide your video from yourself, while still remaining visible to participants.
Because exercise can encourage body checking, Fox asks her clients to pay attention when fitness is a trigger as well. The key is to determine if the motivation for exercise is for positive mental health or self-care versus if it’s to specifically modify appearance. In the case of the latter, she encourages skipping the workout that day.
Keep a journal.
Sprengle asks clients to keep track of their body checking, writing down each time they do it during the day.
“This often leads people to realize they’re doing it a lot more than they thought they were, which brings awareness and mindfulness to it,” she said.
That awareness, accompanied with asking questions like, “What am I hoping to get out of this? Is this actually giving me an answer that I want?” can help address the underlying motivation behind the behavior.
Be mindful of social media.
According to Sprengle, another manifestation of body checking is comparing yourself to people on Instagram, like influencers or peers who are posting photos that might actually be heavily filtered or Photoshopped.
“I encourage that people diversify their feed and make sure they’re following folks that are in line with body acceptance ... of all shapes, sizes, backgrounds,” Sprengle said. “Instagram can become this weird echo chamber where you’re just staring at the same body type over and over, which can be pretty unhelpful.”
To help with perspective, Sprengle also suggests the subreddit “Instagram vs. reality,” because it shows how the images you see are often distorted. Deactivating social media for a brief period of time every so often can also help break the cycle of obsession and constant comparing.
Reflect on what is motivating the unhealthy habit.
Often, the fixation with body image isn’t driven so much by literally wanting to look a certain way, as it is a coping mechanism for anxiety, low self-confidence and a feeling of powerlessness. Fox encourages clients to ask themselves what’s really motivating their behavior — “Is it that I’m not feeling positive in my relationship? Is it a trauma I haven’t processed? Is it an overlying anxiety I haven’t taken care of?”— and using those inquiries as a starting point for healing.
Body checking can be particularly challenging in the trans community, where appearance is also tied to gender identity. For someone who’s transitioning, waiting on procedures, constantly working to modify self-presentation, it can feel like “there’s always something to change,” according to Fox.
“Sometimes it’s just coping with the impatience of the process, sitting with the discomfort and anxiety, and finding a way to be more empowered and self-confident in where you’re at right now,” Fox added.
Because body checking behaviors generally increase with stress, upping self-care can help to shift the focus away from a perceived bodily imperfection. And cognitively, accepting that changing the way you look isn’t going to fix all your problems can bring you closer to self-acceptance.
“If an eating disorder client loses five pounds, they aren’t going to magically feel better about themselves,” Fox said. “There’s always more to lose, more to lose.”
Building this awareness is the first step to quieting negative self-talk, and pursuing activities and relationships that make you feel supported. And if the habit is affecting your daily life, it might be worth reaching out to a mental health professional. Therapy not only helps you confront body checking, but it can help you figure out your motivating behaviors and address them as well.
If you’re struggling with an eating disorder, call the National Eating Disorder Association hotline at 1-800-931-2237.