Content Warning: This article is about eating disorders, depression, and anxiety.
In the age of selfies, Instagram filters and TikTok, rarely does a day go by without looking at each other. It’s one thing to catch a glimpse of your reflection before you leave the house and quite another to compulsively check your height and appearance. But when does the urge to check your reflection become problematic?
I have had instances where my urge to look at my skin in the mirror has completely overwhelmed me. When I have a blemish on my face, I keep checking back to see how it’s developing, hoping that just one more look will show it’s healed and my anxiety can go away. Of course that is never the case. Instead, I become hyper-fixated and increasingly frustrated with Mark daring to stain my face.
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People kept telling me “Don’t look at yourself!”. While logical, this type of justification fits with saying, “Just eat!” to someone struggling with restrictive eating. As with any compulsive behavior, its rationale is deeply psychological. Over the past few years, I’ve discovered that my compulsive behavior falls under a category called body checking.
Body checking is classified as an anxiety-related behavior that involves repeatedly checking your appearance, size, and shape. This can manifest itself in everyday life by repeatedly looking in the mirror, weighing yourself several times a day, pinching parts of your body and constantly comparing your shape and appearance to others. Of course, these obsessive behaviors can be detrimental to your mental health.
To explore the nature of body checking and ways to break the habit, I spoke to clinical psychologists Amy Robins and Dr. Ben Buchanan. Out of habit, Ben says body checking is an “ineffective attempt to reduce anxiety about body image.” This begs the question, why are we doing this?
As with any psychological behavior, there is no easy answer, but often it is an attempt to refute a concern we have about our appearance. Ben tells me that a common concern of his patients is the fear of being fat. One form of body control in this scenario would be regular weighing, a habit that can produce three outcomes.
“They will be happy with their body, they will not feel for their body or be neutral or the checking will backfire and they will be appalled at the results. But each of these three options is problematic because it’s all about reinforcing verification behavior,” he says.
As Ben explains, people with body image concerns rarely have a positive outcome when reviewing their appearance. Instead, it’s often a “futile attempt to make sure her body is okay and [it] instead exacerbates her pre-existing body image anxiety.” Another reason people exercise body control is to seek information that validates their beliefs. This form of confirmation bias can motivate negative behaviors such as restrictive eating.
“Patients who constantly weigh themselves often feel the need to limit their food intake if they are not happy with the number on the scale,” Amy tells me. According to Amy, compulsive body checking can lead to increased feelings of anxiety and depression, and often causes a person to isolate themselves due to dissatisfaction.
“[Body checking] Causes you to get tunnel vision on things you don’t like about yourself. It’s like a mosquito bite – the more you scratch it, the more infected it becomes, so you deal with it a lot more. On the other hand, if you just leave it, put some lotion on it, and come back another day, you wouldn’t notice it so much.”
When it comes to stopping the destructive habit of body checking, Ben explains that it’s not an easy fix and usually requires an individualized treatment plan that examines the psychological motivations behind the habit. However, he recommends some skills that can help reduce the frequency of checking.
“My advice would be to resist the urge to be in control and know that every time you check, you’re maintaining the assumption that you can only feel good when your body is functioning a certain way. We want to break this assumption that you can only feel good if you have a certain body and focus on other things that have nothing to do with the body,” he tells me.
Of course, resisting the urge is easier said than done. When you’re struggling, Ben recommends engaging in behavior that uses as many of your senses as possible. “Walking is a great way to resist an urge because you need to use your sight, you need to hear things, and you need to use your body, which is your sense of touch.”
Another suggestion Ben makes is a term he refers to as “mirror hygiene.” “When you put your hand against the mirror, you shouldn’t stand any closer than [an] Arm’s length away from the mirror. This keeps you from focusing too much on minor imperfections that can make the review take time,” he tells me.
Throughout my body check journey, I can vouch for the effectiveness of working with a psychologist to reduce the behavior. While I still struggle with the urge to do compulsive body checks on a daily basis, using the techniques Ben suggests has been incredibly helpful. If you’re struggling with body-checking compulsions, using these techniques daily and seeing a professional can help you break free of the toxic cycle that it can trap you in.
If you are struggling with body image issues or an eating disorder, you can call the Butterfly National Helpline on 1800 33 4673 for free and confidential support, email them here, or chat with them online.