anastasia amour body image psychology photo-1432563491239-ba8bb919518e

Have you ever found yourself continually checking up on the parts of your body that you’re the least fond of?

Staring at your butt from all angles in shop windows, turning sideways and sucking in your stomach at every mirror you come across, making sure to analyse your thighs from all angles as you sit down… as if you’re making sure that that particular body part is still something that you’re unhappy with.

It’s a practice known as body checking, and it’s something that most of us have done.

Why body checking can be harmful

There’s nothing wrong with checking your reflection in general – however, body checking behaviour can become problematic when it turns from occasionally analysing your reflection to an obsessive thought or behaviour.

Body checking, at its most problematic,  is a compulsion; a ritualistic behaviour performed to relieve a specific anxiety. Unsurprisingly, body checking behaviours are directly correlated with eating disorders.

Dr. Christopher Fairburn, the author of CBT-E (an evidence-based treatment for adult eating disorders), notes that compulsive body checking behaviours are a primary contributor to “over-evaluation of shape and weight” which in turn, is a driving force behind the systems that maintain anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, binge eating disorder, orthorexia and other eating disorders for both men and women.

However, aside from being harmful to those of us who suffer from an eating disorder or carry a greater risk of suffering from an eating disorder than the general population, body checking also poses significant danger to those who don’t identify as having disordered body image based behaviours, but still remain trapped in a cycle of body loathing. Body checking feeds into the notions that your worth as a human being is based on your physical appearance – specifically, your ability to conform to a specific “ideal” determined at a cultural and individual level.

And, importantly, ritualistic body checking can often mask the underlying issues that may be driving a person’s dissatisfaction with their body; providing the cover that they are merely checking themselves so often out of “vanity”.

Again, this is problematic as not only does it reinforce faulty ideas about vanity being deeply ingrained into the female psyche, but it promotes the notion that an obsession with one’s appearance to be a normal part of keeping yourself happy and healthy – feeding into a level of body dissatisfaction that is referred to as “normative discontent”.

“The findings [on body checking] are consistent with clinical observation that body dissatisfaction, feelings of fatness and self-critical thoughts fluctuate in the day. It is possible that these fluctuations are secondary to body checking. If this is the case, treatment that reduces the frequency of body checking is likely to reduce fluctuations in body dissatisfaction, feelings of fatness and self-critical thoughts, leaving the clinician able to address the other factors that are contributing to the patients’ concerns such as low mood, avoidance and, of course, the over-evaluation of shape and weight.”

(Fairburn et al., 2003).

Body checking in disguise

Body checking comes in many forms apart from the obvious staring at your reflection in the mirror – and you may be engaging in many of these forms of body checking without realising it. Other forms of body checking include:

Again – in isolation, these behaviours aren’t inherently problematic but when they become obsessive or ritualistic, or so deeply ingrained in your routine that you feel that you can’t go without engaging in the body checking behaviours, you know there’s a problem.

The fallacies of body checking

We know that body checking can be harmful, but did you know that the “evidence” that you collect from body checking is sketchy at best? Let’s break this down:

  1. First up, your “body memory” a.k.a. your perception of your body’s appearance last hour, yesterday, last week and last year is unreliable. Perception is fluid and unpredictable.
  2. Secondly, your body doesn’t change all that much within a few minutes or hours that you’d be able to tell by contorting yourself in front of a mirror or pinching and pulling your flesh. It’s easier to convince yourself that you look bigger/smaller/worse when your frame of reference for how you previously looked a minute or an hour ago is unreliable.
  3. Finally, by engaging in body checking behaviours, you’re likely already approaching it from a place of negativity towards your body – as those who feel content in their own skin generally don’t “check” themselves. By body checking, you’re essentially scanning yourself for evidence that your flaws are still there, or even checking for new flaws to beat yourself up for. In a way, body checking helps you thrive on self-criticism and acts as a tool to help you “prove” that you’re not attractive/worthy/enough. When you body check, do you notice yourself searching for what’s “wrong” with you?

It’s important to understand the context behind body checking, as context can greatly influence the outcome of a behaviour.

Our brains can only interpret what we see in the mirror, and what we interpret isn’t always reality – your brain will interpret based on its bias. So, if you think you’re fat, you’ll likely see yourself as fat. If you think you’re tall, likewise you’ll perceive yourself as tall.

Ask yourself this, and you’ll understand how your mindset influences your behaviour:

How different would you feel about yourself if you “body checked” with the purpose of finding things that you love about yourself instead?

Stopping body checking behaviour

In order to interrupt body checking, you must first become aware of the behaviour. Often, our body checking behaviour will slip under the radar unless we make a conscious effort to notice it – for this reason, keeping a journal over the course of 24 hours can be a helpful exercise in determining the frequency and severity of any body checking that you may be participating in.

(If a 24-hour journal doesn’t give you sufficient information, you may wish to monitor yourself for up to 48 hours instead. It’s important, though, that monitoring your behaviours in the short term does not lead to any direct or indirect restriction or obsession, so try and keep it to 48  hours or less if possible.)

Secondly, once you’ve become aware of how often you’re body checking yourself and how this impacts your life, the next step is to start actively challenging these behaviours. When you notice yourself about to body check, stop and ask yourself:

  • What am I hoping to achieve here?
  • What am I looking for?
  • Does this help me?
  • Has anything changed since the last time I checked?

These questions can feel odd and difficult to answer at first, but the point of them is to help you help yourself realise that body checking behaviours are unnecessary, unhelpful and destructive to your self-esteem. If you can recognise it, you can change it!

If you follow this method in continuing to challenge your own behaviour as it occurs, you’ll notice the severity and quantity of your body checking behaviours reducing.

What if I’m not sure?

If you find yourself relating to some of the information here but aren’t sure if the themes really “fit” how you feel about yourself or, if after taking your 24-48 hour journal you’re not sure how to process the information, you may wish to speak with a therapist or counsellor about how your body checking may be impacting your life.

Remember, self-esteem is a complex topic and there’s no “one size fits all” diagnosis or solution. So, just as not everyone suffering from low self-esteem will engage in body checking, not everyone who engages in body checking will be at risk for low self-esteem related disorders. You are unique, and it’s important to delve into the roots of any issues that you might be experiencing.

A therapist’s office makes a great safe space to do this, or if this is not an option for you, you may also wish to explore these themes from the comfort of your home over the phone with a free & confidential 24-hour support line. You can find a global list of resources for this here.

The goal should not be to avoid looking at/examining your body entirely, but you do deserve to find a place of peace and contentment in your own body when you look in the mirror! Remember: although body checking is a compulsion that arises from a need to relieve body-based anxiety, ultimately the behaviour will only serve to reinforce those anxious cycles, thus making you more and more dependent on the behaviour and more likely to engage in other self-destructive behaviours, too.

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