How to identify and overcome harmful body checking behaviors

In the fitness and weight loss communities, progress photos, body fat measurements and other “non-scale victories” are touted as healthy alternatives to obsessively checking the scale. For some people, though, these practices are just as harmful as stepping on the scale, and they can lead to a destructive fixation known as body checking.

“Body checking can absolutely be a normal part of a weight loss diet experience. For people who are on weight loss diet, they’re going to be looking at their body in the mirror [and] naturally saying, ‘Do I look different?’” clinical psychologist and wellness expert Dr. Carla Marie Manly explained to In The Know.

“What we’re looking for when we’re looking at body checking as a problematic issue is when it becomes chronic. [It’s] when you feel compelled to do it and it is something that begins to take over your life.”

So how do you differentiate normal mirror check-ins from obsessive body checking, and what do you do when you think your fixation is becoming a problem? Keep reading to learn more about body checking and what you can do to stop any negative thoughts about your body before they take over.

What is body checking?

According to Dr. Manly, compulsive body checking is defined by “a tendency to compulsively and obsessively check your body visually or by touch in order to determine whether you’re too fit, not good enough, too thin [or] too heavy.”

“It might be touching your ribs to see if you can feel your ribs. It might be touching your thighs. It might be checking yourself in the mirror to see if your butt’s too big, your waist is too big, to feel different parts of your body or to check on them visually in order to check on yourself compared to some other standard,” she explained. “It becomes a compulsion, something you become compelled to do.”

Body checking has been around ever since magazines and fashion houses started lining their pages and runways with stick-thin models. However, social media has made us much of cognizant of society’s beauty standards — and platforms like Instagram and TikTok have made it much easier to compare ourselves to others deemed prettier, skinner or just all-around better than us.

“We are far more externally oriented in today’s world than we were 10, 20, 30 [or] 40 years ago. That’s one thing that technology has done,” Dr. Manly noted. “We are looking for external validation, external approval, and the target is always moving.”

Who is most affected by body checking?

Body checking plagues the majority of the population: According to the Ideal to Real Body Image Survey conducted by The Today Show and AOL, 67 percent of adult women worry at least once a week about their appearance — more often than they do about finances, relationships or professional success. More than 50 percent of men also said that they worry about their appearance on a regular basis.

And, though it’s not always the case, body checking is also largely associated with eating disorders. In one 2004 study of 64 females with clinical eating disorders published in the International Journal of Eating Disorders, 92 percent of patients partook in body checking, and the habit was found to be “associated significantly with eating disorder symptoms.”

“Body checking doesn’t cause eating disorders but it is correlated with eating disorders,” Dr. Manly explained. “People who suffer from these disorders generally do a great deal of body checking. It’s part and parcel of the disorder.”

How can you tell when your mirror gazing has become a problem?

Even Dr. Manly recognizes that “there is a certain type of body checking that is part of being human [and] part of being a person who has a mirror.” However, that begs the question: How can you determine when your self-criticism and mirror-checking has crossed over into harmful territory?

Well, one easy way to determine whether you need to seek help for your mirror musing is by asking yourself: Can I stop looking in the mirror and still feel OK, or is this something I feel like I have to do no matter what?

“When it becomes problematic is … when it becomes so chronic that you feel like your life is ruled to some degree by that body checking behavior,” Dr. Manly explained. In other words, if you are ignoring your day-to-day responsibilities or feel like your life is becoming disrupted by your constant need to take photos of yourself, stare at yourself in the mirror or make sure that your pants still fit a certain way, this may be indicative of a problematic behavior.

What can you do if you (or someone you know) is engaging in harmful body checking behaviors?

If you recognize harmful body checking behaviors either in yourself or in someone close to you, there are many things you can do:

Set boundaries: Though it’s hard to be stern with someone who’s suffering, Dr. Manly notes that it’s important to put your foot down when someone struggling with body checking asks you to reassure them about their body.

“If you notice a friend who’s engaging in body checking behavior asking you ‘Am I too fat?’ … It’s okay to have boundaries around that, to say, ‘You can check in with me once a day or once a week … I’m here for you. I love you. I support you. But I don’t want to be engaged in something that’s not going to serve you in the long run,'” she explained. “It can actually help the person.”

Find a therapist: If you think one of your friends or loved ones is engaging in body checking behaviors, Dr. Manly suggests giving them the name of a therapist who specializes in eating disorders. A professional will help them identify the root cause of their behavior and tackle the issue head-on.

Find helpful online resources: Dr. Manly notes that there are many videos and articles online (like this one!) that you can read or send to someone who might be engaging in body checking behaviors.

Be mindful of your thoughts: The next time you have a negative thought about your body or feel compelled to stare at yourself in the mirror, try challenge those thoughts simply by asking yourself: Are these thoughts helping me or benefitting me in any way?

“If I find that I’m doing a behavior that doesn’t feel good, then I can ask myself, ‘Why am I doing that? Is it helping me?’ And if the answer is ‘No it’s not helping me,’ then I get to say, ‘I don’t want to do this anymore,'” Dr. Manly explained. “If we can learn to change our cognitions and our thoughts, we can change our behavior.”

For more on body image, read up on how body image issues are often ignored in men — and why this is a huge problem.

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