There’s no denying that we live in a world where pressure to uphold beauty ideals is pervasive, cosmetic surgery is commonplace, and heavily edited images take over our social media feeds. In a world that seems to have conspired to amplify our insecurities, it’s not hard to believe that more and more people are starting to see flaws in their appearance and attempting to “correct” them.
It’s no wonder that “body checking” is a phenomenon that’s occurring more lately. And when it becomes excessive, there could be consequences for your mental health. Let’s explore what body checking is, and how to get it under control if it’s messing with your well-being and daily life.
What is compulsive body checking?
Compulsive body checking is a behavior that involves repeatedly checking your body size, shape, appearance, or weight. People who engage in excessive body checking may spend hours obsessing about their body in front of the mirror, pinching their skin, taking their measurements, or weighing themselves.
Here’s a list of some common body checking behaviors:
- Obsessing over your appearance in the mirror or in photographs
- Pinching your stomach, or any other body part
- Weighing yourself every time before leaving the house
- Avoiding mirrors altogether
- Preoccupation with how your clothes feel
- Comparing your body to others excessively
- Repeatedly asking others for reassurance about your body
How do you know when you need help for your body checking?
While it’s easy to shrug off body checking as “no big deal,” any repetitive behavior aimed at reducing distress and worry about your appearance—such as checking your appearance in the mirror—can have a big impact on your well-being.
When repetitive body checking behaviors cause significant emotional distress and/or negatively impact your ability to function, it is possible that these symptoms meet criteria for a mental health condition known as body dysmorphic disorder (BDD).
When body checking is accompanied by unhealthy habits aimed at modifying your physique and/or losing weight, including restricting food intake, exercising excessively, and inducing vomiting, it is likely that criteria are met for an eating disorder (ED).
Finally, body checking may also be present in obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). Specifically, some people experience intrusive thoughts about potential changes or “flaws” that they have or that may develop in their physical appearance. For example, a person may fear that their hair will start to turn gray or they will develop “bags” under their eyes, even if these changes have not yet occurred. Nonetheless, the person may respond to these recurring fears by repeatedly checking their appearance to detect signs of these “flaws” or by engaging in other behaviors to try to prevent them from developing.
How to get help for body checking that’s related to BDD or OCD
When treating a mental health condition, one treatment doesn’t fit all. In fact, the wrong type of treatment can be harmful for conditions like OCD. While talk therapy may be tremendously helpful for some issues, it’s not likely to be the best course of action for body checking symptoms resulting from BDD or OCD.
The form of therapy most commonly used to treat BDD is known as cognitive behavioral therapy, or CBT. Essentially, CBT draws attention to and interrupts negative thought patterns, replacing them with more neutral or positive ones to support long-term behavioral changes. However, in more severe cases, CBT alone may be insufficient, and other forms of therapy might be used, including Family Systems Therapy, Interpersonal Therapy, and some trauma-based forms of therapy. Antidepressant medications known as selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) may also be used to supplement therapy.
Body checking that’s present in obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) is also treated with ERP. The idea is that, over time, you’ll be able to resist giving into your body checking compulsions, as giving in would only reinforce your intrusive thoughts and fears. It’s important to note that ERP is most effective when the therapist conducting the treatment has experience with OCD and has received specialized training in ERP. At NOCD, all therapists specialize in OCD and receive ERP-specific training.
How to treat body checking that’s related to an eating disorder
OCD and eating disorders are often treated differently, and it is important to know what types of therapy are best for each. Active behavioral therapy modalities like Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) may be helpful in shifting a person’s behaviors, beliefs, and distress associated with eating disorders. There is also evidence supporting the use of Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (DBT), Family-Based Therapy (FBT), and Interpersonal Psychotherapy for eating disorders.
Bottom line: if body checking is causing significant distress, or keeping you from functioning normally, speaking with a qualified mental health professional for advice is a critical first step.