I glanced at my reflection in my full-length bathroom mirror and quickly looked away, repulsed by what I saw. My arms were fat, I thought. And I hated more than anything how stubbornly my stomach resisted the concave shape I was trying so hard to attain. I adjusted my stance so my thighs wouldn't touch and absent-mindedly caught a piece of stomach flesh between my thumb and middle finger. I was secretly grateful for the cold fall weather that made chunky sweaters and thick scarves reasonable wardrobe choices. I combed my hair and lightly painted my face with makeup: eye liner, mascara, blush, powder, lipstick. Before turning out the bathroom light, I gently lifted my sweater, checking to make sure my stomach hadn't shifted shape in the last ten minutes.
What anyone else would have seen was a young, thin woman. Short brown hair, blue eyes, a sharp face, jutting collarbones. Visible ribs. Bony arms. Many would label her "beautiful," "fit," or "healthy."
What I saw was something entirely different. Someone with weight to lose, someone with large arms and a fat face. Soft corners that required tightening and taming and constant measuring. What I saw needed fixing. Negative thoughts about my body, and myself, hung heavily around my neck, constantly. I found things wrong with my body and checked them incessantly, afraid that my body would grow, willing it to shrink, anxious either way.
Repeatedly measuring or touching parts of one's body is called "body checking." It's exceptionally common in people with eating disorders, but most people engage in some degree of body checking behaviors without realizing it. Pinching your abdomen, frequently weighing yourself, being hyper-focused on specific body parts, or trying to feel your bones are all examples of body checking. People with eating disorders might check their bodies hundreds of times each day, which has the ugly side effect of making the eating disorder louder, meaner, and impossible to ignore.
Signs of Body Checking
1. Checking the size of your stomach, thighs, arms, or other body parts. This usually includes pinching "fat."
2. Weighing yourself multiple times each day.
3. Frequently looking in the mirror.
4. Frequently changing outfits.
5. Angered or upset by clothes that you think are too tight, even if they aren't. 6. Comparing your body to the bodies of those around you, either in real life or images in the media. 7. Obsessively measuring parts of your body: waist, hips, legs, arms, etc.
I personally suffered from anorexia, bulimia, binge eating, and something called body dysmorphia. Body dysmorphia is a mental disorder in which an individual focuses on perceived flaws or sees their bodies differently than they really are. Examples: believing you are a size 8 when you're really a size 2. Focusing on your "flawed" arms, legs, stomach, face, when nothing is remotely wrong with your arms, legs, stomach, face. Undergoing extensive plastic surgery (or wanting too) to fix said flaws. Believing you are ugly. Believing that changing everything that is "wrong" with your appearance will fix all your problems.
Dr. Gene Beresin says that body checking has become more prevalent in recent years as social media usage has increased. And it's no secret that increased social media usage can negatively influence body image and increase anxiety. Body checking and body dysmorphia are both closely linked to anxiety, which often precedes an eating disorder. In fact, body checking can be an unhealthy coping mechanism for anxiety about one's appearance.
Often, body checking is a preventative measure for those who are afraid of gaining weight. I routinely body checked to either prove or disprove the beliefs I already held about myself: "My thighs are bigger today," would increase my anxiety whereas"My thighs are the same size as yesterday," would temporarily assuage anxiety, the key word being "temporarily." Someone who lives with an eating disorder or who has anxiety surrounding his or her appearance will continuously swing from feeling okay to terrible back to okay again.
The Price of Obsessing Over Our Bodies
Frequent body checkers report a high degree of personal, social, or mental problems because of their body checking. Specifically, they have difficulty concentrating; trouble at work or school; avoid meals or social situations; or feel constantly upset, worried, or guilty. There is a fine, grey area, that lives in the space between healthy eating and dieting. There is an even finer grey area that lives in the space between dieting and an eating disorder. Body checking can be an entry point to an eating disorder or it can worsen an eating disorder. At the very least, it erodes confidence and mental health, increases anxiety, and deteriorates minds from the outside in.
P.S. If you or someone you love is struggling with an eating disorder, contact the NEDA helpline at (800) 931-2237, find a treatment center or therapist near you HERE, or find an Eating Disorders Anonymous (EDA) meeting near you HERE.