You may not have heard of body checking, but it's a common symptom of a few different mental health conditions, including eating disorders, Body Dysmorphic Disorder (BDD) and health anxiety. Body checking can also be a difficult habit to break out of.
In layman's terms, it's an act of obsessive behaviour which sees people focussing on frequently checking body parts, or comparing their body to others'. Body checking can also see an individual over-focussing on how their clothes feel, or regularly checking themselves in the mirror.
The symptom has recently been widely discussed after an Instagram post was shared by @Feminist, detailing how body checking can manifest as an obsessive thought. The post also offered advice on how to stop the cycle of studying certain body parts, over and over again. Since being shared, it has amassed over 180,000 likes, showing it clearly resonated with a lot of people (or that there's an appetite to learn more about it).
With that in mind, we asked Dr Helen McCarthy, a clinical psychologist who specialises in eating disorders (and author of How To Retrain Your Appetite) to give an expert's explanation on what 'body checking' is and how you can seek help, if it's something you've noticed yourself doing too.
What is body checking?
"Body checking ranges in severity and in the degree to which it interferes with your life," says Dr McCarthy. "If it’s something that has simply become a habit that you want to change, then using any anxiety-reducing technique will help you tolerate the discomfort of not-checking.
"It will have developed because checking in some way proved helpful to you at the time, even if it has since become a problem. When something has helped us before, we are more likely to do it again, hence its persistence." This 'help' could be anything from providing temporary relief or a feeling of being in control.
What kind of behaviours constitute body checking?
As detailed in the Instagram post (which Dr McCarthy agreed with), examples include:
- Pinching or rubbing your stomach, or any other body part
- Frequently weighing yourself
- Frequently checking body parts in the mirror
- Over-focussing on how clothes feel
- Comparing your body shape, or size, to others
How can you stop body checking?
"If you repeatedly do the deliberate ‘not-checking’ whilst calming any anxiety, the checking will reduce," she continues. "However, if the body checking develops in the context of a range of other factors, including high anxiety levels and perfectionism, it may be part of a developing eating disorder or Body Dysmorphic Disorder."
Dr McCarthy continues, "The checking behaviour may still look like a habit, but it may be maintained by particular patterns of thinking and feeling about yourself, and may need professional input."
Body Dysmorphic Disorder, she explains, is a psychiatric condition which is categorised as a type of obsessive compulsive disorder.
The criteria for diagnosing BDD are:
- A preoccupation with perceived flaws in physical appearance that appear slight or invisible to others
- Repetitive checking about the appearance concerns
- The preoccupation has to cause clinically significant distress or impairment in social, occupational or other important areas of functioning.
She recommends, "Any readers who find that body checking is causing significant distress, or stopping them from functioning normally, should speak to their doctor or a mental health professional for advice."
Other advice includes repeating calming mantras to yourself, such as 'I am worthy and more than any number on the scale' or 'I feel safe in my body'.
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