Recently, the term “body checking” has been making its way into the mainstream, but often without a lot of context. So let’s break it down: what is body checking, and what does it mean if you (or someone you love) is doing it? Here’s what the experts and the research has to say.
What is body checking?
Body checking is a behavior that involves using external markers to get information about the size and shape of your own body. While just about everyone has had the experience of doing a double-take in the mirror before heading out the door, body checking is different: it’s compulsive, it negatively impacts mental health, and it’s often associated with disordered eating and eating disorders. Body checking often includes behaviors like flesh pinching, body part measuring, and compulsive weighing. In some cases, people who body check might feel for their bones or muscles to reassure themselves that their bodies are “acceptable” according to their standards.
“At its core, body checking is the critical overanalysis and surveillance of our bodies through compulsive behaviors,” explains Equip Peer Mentor Sean Stanisz. He explains that it can be a passive gesture, like looking at your body in the mirror, or more overt actions like asking others for reassurance about how you look or touching parts of your body to feel how big they are.
The act of body checking is all about a person’s physical appearance, but it’s a result of deep-seated thoughts, feelings, and beliefs, explains Equip therapist Carise Rotach. “Body checking is an anxious response to body image fears and narratives. It’s the body’s attempt at regulating and reassuring a person who has dysmorphia or negative body image that they’re ‘okay,’ though it often manifests as repetitive compulsions or ruminations,” she says.
While most people occasionally seek encouragement or support from others about physical appearance or insecurities, those who engage in body checking are looking to external sources of validation in an obsessive or compulsive way. “The data collected from body checking isn't enough to satisfy the disordered fears' demands, so the individual is stuck in a cycle of nonstop attempts for reassurance,” Rotach says.
The normalization of body checking—and how to know when it’s no longer normal
Considering the fact that so many of us have been conditioned to observe ourselves from an outsider’s POV (thanks in no small part to social media), what distinguishes “normal” behaviors like occasional waistband tugs or lipstick-on-the-teeth inspections from more harmful body checking behaviors? According to experts, it all comes down to the degree of concern and severity.
Understanding the potentially overwhelming urge to body check is an important first step in recognizing problematic behavior. But given the normalization of pinching, poking, weighing, and measuring in a multitude of arenas—from gyms and dance studios to middle school locker rooms—it can be tough to separate truly concerning behaviors from (unfortunately) increasingly “normal” ones.
“I always like to use the measuring stick of ‘how much is this interfering with my life?’” Rotach says. “Body checking can be problematic for anyone — many of us have had that experience where we’re late to something or canceled plans because we had anxiety about an outfit or how we looked that day. For folks in recovery from an eating disorder, this can be detrimental and can become subconscious and obsessive, taking hours of their day.”
But even for those who aren’t dealing with or in recovery from an eating disorder, it can be nearly impossible these days to avoid some form of body checking. This is especially true on social media, where body checking is often disguised as less nefarious behaviors, like “fitspo” (short for fitness inspiration). “I’ve seen the vast majority of instructional workout or fitness content—like Instagram reels, YouTube thumbnails, or TikTok videos—begin with a flex of one’s muscles, an intentionally posed mirror selfie, or taking off clothing to expose ‘leanness,’” says Equip Referral Coordinator Jillian Carter. Indeed, “fitspo” on social media often trades in textbook examples of body checking, like frequent weighing, body measurements, and posing your body in a certain way to see how it looks.
Stanisz agrees, adding that the proliferation of body checking behaviors has allowed some to capitalize on the insecurities of followers. “We’re in a time where with the constant feed of social media, body checking behaviors are forever being repackaged or ‘rebranded’ by creators under new trendy words and ‘challenges’ that entice people to participate,” Stanisz says.
Stanisz suspected their own body checking behaviors had veered into unhealthy territory when thoughts of shape, size, and weight took precedence over all other aspects of life. “Growing up queer and in a large body, I was already aware that my body shape and presentation differed from others, which brought on this need to prove my ‘health’ to others,” Stanisz says. “I drew the line when I realized I was more preoccupied by how my physical appearance was perceived than the loving people I was around. I was listening to advice from people who’ve never been in my body or experienced life how I have, yet they had so much power over how I lived mine.”
How body checking can be directly linked to eating disorders
“Eating disorders are egosyntonic—meaning they want to be in charge and don't want to be de-throned—and often want to find ways to stay activated within a person,” Rotach says. “Anxiety around body image leads to body checking, which is often a way in which the eating disorder can stay ‘relevant’ to the individual. Through the process of body checking, the eating disorder self-determines that the person must alter their appearance, and in that way, body checking is yet another tool that the eating disorder has at its disposal to keep the person in a disordered cycle.”
According to a 2018 meta-analysis examining the relationships between body checking, body avoidance, and disordered eating, researchers noted a significant correlation between the frequency of body checking behaviors and disordered eating, which Carter says makes perfect sense. “Body checking is often rooted in an obsession with physical appearance, weight, or shape,” she says. “So eating disorder behaviors like restricting, binging, or purging may be the ways these obsessions are actualized.”
Stanisz points to several additional studies that explicitly link body checking with disordered eating, including one paper associating the frequency of body checking with “overvaluation of shape and weight” and dietary restriction, and another indicating that body checking in males is “correlated with weight and shape concern, symptoms of muscle dysmorphia, depression, negative affect,” and the use of performance-enhancing drugs.
How to stop the body checking cycle
While most people may find it difficult—if not impossible—to quit body checking cold turkey, there are plenty of strategies to start becoming aware of problematic behaviors and slowly phase them out.
Learning to become aware of disordered behaviors like body checking is often the first, hugely important step in trading problematic actions for healthier ones. “Mindfulness is key here,” Rotach says. “If we can engage in mindful practices that help us create breathing moments between a thought and a behavior, we can often be in a better place to intervene. For instance, if someone decides to time how long it takes them to alter or check their appearance throughout the day, they may be surprised to see that it is more than they think. ”
One method that Stanisz and Carter both found particularly helpful in their own journeys was “opposite action,” or choosing to act opposite of an emotional urge. This skill, which comes from dialectical behavior therapy (DBT), may involve identifying the emotion (maybe anxiety or fear in the case of an eating disorder) and the urge (pinching one’s stomach, for example), and analyzing whether that behavior would be helpful. When the person can see that body checking won’t be a constructive way to handle the root emotion, they may be able to use words, thoughts, or behaviors that are oppositional to that initial urge (maybe gently and kindly rubbing one’s stomach instead). Over time, this can help people struggling with body checking to examine their emotions on a deeper level and start being intentional about how they respond to them.
Another strategy Stanisz recommends for curtailing body checking is to consciously curate your social media feed. “Fill it with creators who have aligned interests, especially ones that have similar lived experience,,” Stanisz says. “And when you see posts that make you feel uncomfortable, the unfollow or mute button is truly your friend!”
When it comes to how loved ones and support team members can help break the body checking cycle ,empathy and compassion are crucial. “Refraining from body checking is a gradual process that requires patience and a lot of grace,” Stanisz says. “Having expectations of how or when they need to recover is only going to add more pressure. Taking the time to understand, celebrating the small wins, and gently redirecting those behaviors in the moment are gonna make the biggest impact.”
Carter agrees, noting that “calling out” loved ones on their body checking may actually be more harmful than helpful because it tends to invoke shame or guilt, even if coming from a place of concern. “Meeting someone where they’re at in their healing is a critical step in helping stop body checking behaviors,” she says.
As Rotach puts it, “it's important to name but not shame” and prioritize support over critique. “Rather than focus on why they are doing it—because, truthfully, they may not be in the frame of mind to tell you—ask them to do something else with you,” she says. “Say, ‘I've noticed that you've been looking in the mirror for a while, I'm not sure that's so good for your brain right now, why don't we take the dog on a walk and get some fresh air?’ Trying to have a focused conversation about the why could actually compound the rumination. Distraction is your best friend when trying to break the habit.”
While breaking the body checking habit may be challenging, it’s absolutely possible with the right tools and support. “What really helped me silence my critical voice was actively forgiving myself and redirecting with positive affirmation. This helped me rebuild my relationship with my body on the foundation of honest, loving trust,” Stanisz says.
- Jiotsa, Barbara et al. “Social Media Use and Body Image Disorders: Association between Frequency of Comparing One's Own Physical Appearance to That of People Being Followed on Social Media and Body Dissatisfaction and Drive for Thinness.” International journal of environmental research and public health vol. 18,6 2880. 11 Mar. 2021, doi:10.3390/ijerph18062880
- Tanck, Julia A et al. “Gender Differences in Affective and Evaluative Responses to Experimentally Induced Body Checking of Positively and Negatively Valenced Body Parts.” Frontiers in psychology vol. 10 1058. 14 May. 2019, doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2019.01058
- Nikodijevic, Alexandra et al. “Body checking and body avoidance in eating disorders: Systematic review and meta-analysis.” European eating disorders review : the journal of the Eating Disorders Association vol. 26,3 (2018): 159-185. doi:10.1002/erv.2585
- Lavender, Jason M et al. “A naturalistic examination of body checking and dietary restriction in women with anorexia nervosa.” Behaviour research and therapy vol. 51,8 (2013): 507-11. doi:10.1016/j.brat.2013.05.004
- Walker, D Catherine et al. “Body checking behaviors in men.” Body image vol. 6,3 (2009): 164-70. doi:10.1016/j.bodyim.2009.05.001