Trigger warning: this is a stream-of-consciousness post about body checking: a very intimate, often overlooked symptom of America’s eating disorder. The post goes over negative self talk and certain ED behaviors that may bring up emotions for some. If you don’t feel strong enough in your recovery to read, please exercise self love and listen to that intuitive part of you. xo
Sneaky Little Mirror Stops
3 years ago, I moved into a brand new apartment. My first space that was all mine. No roommates, just me. A perfectly suited space that I could do whatever with. It felt like a clean slate. In a small apartment, you end up doing the same trail hundreds of times a day like a little ant building an empire. I spent my days walking around my little studio, to the kitchen and through my bedroom then to my little dining room nook and then to the bathroom, going about my day. The same foot steps over and over on the creaking wood. That little loop I did so often, hundreds of times a day. There were many mirrors around the apartment. At one point, I started lifting up my shirt to check my stomach during that little trail. I was doing this roughly 30 times a day. Anytime I caught my reflection in the hallway, bathroom, or closet mirror, I’d lift up my shirt and check my abdomen. What was I looking for?
I didn’t know it at the time, but I was body checking.
I was looking to see what my body looked like. But not in a normal way. I was looking to criticize it, to see if it had changed. I was so fearful of it changing, that I would obsessively check it to make sure that it stayed the same. Obviously, it didn’t. It never does. All things change: and bodies are no exception to that rule.
On particularly anxious days, I’d even take a photo of my belly with my phone. Then later on in the week or month, I’d analyze the photo and look at my present belly to see if it looked the same. I even had an iPhoto album named “Progress” to store my pictures to see how my body had morphed, grew, shrunk, etc.
I was so used to seeing “Progress Photos” on Instagram that it didn’t occur to me this behavior was dangerous and flirting with my ED. I thought it was perfectly normal, in fact, I thought it was responsible of me to make sure I was staying fit! I’d hold myself accountable this way. A few cleanse programs I know even encourage people to take before and after photos. Multiple large fitness accounts grew their crazy following from these before/afters. As humans, we love seeing progress. It’s motivating, it’s positive, it’s celebratory.
Body checking is so often portrayed in movies. I can’t tell you how many movies i’ve seen where a young woman stares at herself in the mirror, uses her hands to smooth out her clothes, touches her belly, turns to the side to see how she looks. Often, she looks disappointed, let down, and lets out a sigh.
Pretty soon, the body checking was becoming tortuous for me. I felt like a slave to the mirror. I’ve been in recovery from my eating disorder for 10 years. I consider myself a survivor, a recovered, thriving person. Though I was not “actively” anorexic or bulimic, I was exercising a major behavior that contributes and feeds an eating disorder: body checking.
What is Body Checking?
According to this article, there are many ways we body check: pinching your body’s abdomen,* weighing your body frequently, trying on a certain pair of jeans, looking at specific parts of your body in the mirror, or trying to feel your bones.
*note that I don’t use “your abdomen”, but “your body’s abdomen”: because your abdomen is not your self. You have an abdomen, you are not an abdomen. It’s great to know this important difference.
How nuts is that? I never realized that trying on “those jeans”, you know, the ones we use to measure how good we look, is a form of body checking. I sure am guilty of that…aren’t we all? After I threw out my scale, I no longer could track how much I was gaining/losing. Throwing out the scale was one of the most liberating decisions I’ve ever made, but I was still keeping tabs of my body’s shape in subtle, sneaky ways, completely oblivious that these behaviors were dangerous, causing me anxiety and depression, and feeding the phobia of weight gain/change.
Don’t We All Body Check Though?
Now that I’ve been reading so much about mindfulness and buddhism, I know that change is not only inevitable, it is the ONLY constant in life. This pertains to everything: relationships, work, moods, and of course…bodies. As hard as this can be to accept, it’s inevitable. Look at your parents. At one point, they were younger, just like you. Look at the old family albums. Then look at your parents again. They aged. Their hair might have turned colors. Their skin, saggier. Their bodies, different. Even think of how you have changed: you were once a baby, and now you’re obviously not a baby anymore because you’re reading this article (if there are any babies reading this, congratulations, I look forward to seeing what sort of amazing innovations you bring to our society when you grow older).
Every human body checks, but it is when it comes hand in hand with an eating disorder, a fear of gaining weight, or losing control of my shape, that it becomes an issue.
There are so many different levels of an eating disorder. I believe it’s a sliding scale. Many people express symptoms and behaviors of an ED without actively struggling or needing hospitalization. It just depends on how honest they want to be with themselves, or how aware they are of their own behavior.
I call body checking a common symptom of America’s eating disorder because America struggles deeply with contradicting messaging about bodies. We are obsessed with health and take diets and exercise regimes to the extreme, yet we have an obesity epidemic. Most of our A-List stars on television are on the thinner side yet the commercials in between their shows sell Special-K Thin Bars and Big Mac Burgers. Don’t get me wrong, we’ve come a looooong way. But we still have work to do. Despite the body positive movement, we still struggle.
And we will continue to struggle as long as we take the messaging from society at face value without challenging or questioning it.
Humans begin body checking from a very young age. Think of a baby wistfully looking at its toes, or a toddler lifting up its shirt and proudly exclaiming, “look at my belly!”. The human body is a fascinating thing, and when we make the link that our body is ours, it never really loses its appeal.
Why I Was Body Checking
I noticed this was a problem when I began body checking obsessively, and was getting more and more depressed. It was my first time living alone, and I was paying much more than I was used to. Needless to say, I was undergoing a big change, and it was making me anxious AF. This big change was playing into my fear of change, and I was resorting to my old, standard behavior of transferring that fear of change onto my body.
Classic eating disorder behaviors.
Most of the time, body checking felt like a habitual action that I had no control over. It’s not that intellectually I wanted to lift up my shirt and look at my belly fat…I didn’t want to do that at all. My highest self does not care what my belly looks like. But it was habitual and I couldn’t help it…or so I thought.
Body checking made me feel like I was in control, a knee-jerk compulsive action that I did to make myself feel better about my body. Body checking in the mirror was like a slot machine. I’d look at my body to see if it looked smaller, thinner, or unchanged. If so, my brain would reward itself with positive affirmations.
“Great job, you look great, now, DON’T GAIN A POUND! If you gain a pound, you’re a loser. Actually, you’re already a loser because you still don’t look good enough.”
When I’d body check and notice that my belly looked ‘different’ in not a good way, my brain would fire,
“You are a fat lazy slob. See? You have no discipline. You’re a pig. Lose the weight.”
Either way, it was a lose-lose situation.
A part of me may have thought body checking would make me feel safer, more in control. But in reality, body checking was just feeding this horribly mean and critical demon inside of me.
Body Checking No More
Once I accepted that no matter what my belly looked like, I’d hardly be satisfied, I made the decision to stop body checking. This decision changed my life. I was no longer preoccupied with my shape, weight, or the way my body looked. I felt free.
I stopped cold turkey, like I stop everything I want to quit. I decided I wasn’t allowed to do it anymore, so I wouldn’t be tempted. I took the option off the table.
I considered covering my mirrors up with sheets, or removing my mirrors completely like I did my sophomore year in college to rebel against the notion that we needed to look ‘perfect’ before leaving the house every day.
But I didn’t feel the need to go that extreme. I simply just.. stopped.
A big part of my ED journey is accepting the changes, the natural ebbs and flows, not only with my body, but with life. Staying present in the moment, and accepting whatever comes up without judgement.
If and when the urge to body check comes up again, I just remind myself of how it’s a trap for me: and how it’s anti-self love for me. Self love is taking responsibility for my current actions and how they will affect my future mindset.
Self love is accepting my belly, whatever its shape, size, firmness, roundness.
Self love is not looking in the mirror to scrutinize my body, it’s walking right past the mirror, smiling at myself, and moving onto the next activity.
Do you body check? If so, how has it affected your life?
Ditching The Scale
Last summer, I spoke here about how I had ditched the scale.