Most of us will sneak a peek at ourselves whenever we pass by a mirror or see our reflection in a window. This act of assessing our appearance is called body checking.
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While the practice doesn't always prove problematic, it can cross the line into an unhealthy habit for some people (especially for those struggling with disordered eating) when it becomes an obsessive behavior.
Here, Chelsea Kronengold, associate director of communications at the National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA), explains what body checking is, including why we do it, the negative effects it has on mental health and how we can combat it.
What Is Body Checking?
"Body checking is observing and taking mental note of what your body shape, weight, appearance or size looks like," Kronengold says.
It can grow to be harmful when these thoughts and behaviors become obsessive and intrusive, she explains.
Body checking can take a variety of forms. Here are a few examples:
- Repeatedly checking your appearance in the mirror
- Analyzing the size and appearance of certain body parts (like poking, pinching or wrapping a hand around your stomach, waist, thighs, arms or wrists)
- Asking others to validate your appearance (for example, "Does this dress make me look fat?")
- Weighing or measuring yourself frequently
- Comparing your size and shape to others
Why Do We Body Check?
People with eating disorders engage in body checking to gain control and reduce anxiety about their body, according to the authors of a September 2015 study in the European Eating Disorders Review. In other words, body checking is performed to feel better about your body, especially the parts you wish you could change, or to reassure yourself that you haven't gained weight.
But in reality, body checking just amplifies bad feelings about your body. Indeed, the same researchers found that people assigned female at birth (AFAB) with eating disorders experienced an increase in negative emotions from pre- to post-body checking.
How Body Checking Can Be Harmful to Your Mental Health
"For people struggling with body image, body checking can be all-consuming and involve obsessive, intrusive thoughts and behaviors about one's body shape and size," Kronengold says.
And this can have a massive effect on your mental health and overall wellbeing. Not only can body checking lead to low self-esteem and negative body image, but it can also contribute to increased rates of depression, anxiety and eating disorders, she says.
How to Reduce Body-Checking Behaviors
If body checking has become an unhealthy habit for you, changing your behavior will require time and patience. Here are a few things you can do to keep your body checking, well, in check.
1. Practice Self-Compassion
"When you have a negative thought about yourself or your body, counter that by giving yourself a compliment," Kronengold says.
And if you're finding it hard to flatter yourself on a particular day, show some self-compassion. Think of what you would say to comfort a close friend and extend yourself the same kindness.
2. Know That Every Person’s Body Is Different
"We all have different genetic and cultural traits that can influence one's body shape, weight and size," Kronengold says.
Always keep this in mind, especially when you find yourself getting lured into the comparison trap.
3. Remember: Your Worth Is More Than How You Look
"Remind yourself that you are more than your appearance, the number on the scale or your clothing size," Kronengold says.
Celebrate your other positive qualities and core values, like kindness and compassion. The more you focus on the importance of what's inside, the less you equate your value to your body size, shape or weight.
"Unfollow any accounts that make you feel badly," Kronengold says. "Instead, follow accounts that make you feel empowered and log off if you notice your social media activity is impacting your body image or mental health."
5. Buy Clothes That Complement Your Body
"Wear clothes that are comfortable and that make you feel good about your body, rather than trying to make your body fit into a certain clothing size or style," Kronengold says.
6. Talk to a Therapist
Sometimes we need support on the path to achieve self-love and acceptance. "If body checking is impacting your mental health, body image or relationship with food, it is time to seek professional help," Kronengold says.
If you or someone you know is struggling with body image or eating concerns, the National Eating Disorders Association's toll-free and confidential helpline is available by phone, text or click-to-chat message at NationalEatingDisorders.org/helpline. For 24/7 crisis situations, text "NEDA" to 741-741.