Trigger warning: This post touches on body checking behaviors, which can be triggering in itself, but are also often associated with eating disorders and other undetermined issues with disordered eating. Readers’ discretion advised.
I found out I was technically a body checker last week. Prior to that, I had no language for the thing I had grown so accustomed to: body checking.
I first came across the term in a blog post. This was new, I thought. Finally, there was a word for this thing that I had been doing since I was a teenager.
My eyes read it again: “body checking.” Now that it had a name, I felt a newfound validity in my experience. It had a name and so, it finally felt confrontable.
In the past, I thought maybe I had body dysmorphia because I had read once that people with dysmorphia obsessively looked at themselves. But the rest of the symptoms never felt right. I’ve been treated for an eating disorder and have gone to therapy for the past six years. My eating disorder and body image have always been a part of my therapy, but never once was “body checking” a phrase we had talked about.
It started back when I was in high school. I made varsity cheerleading at 14 years old and at first, I didn’t think about my body a lot. My body wasn’t the result of my eating habits; at least it didn’t seem like it. Maybe, I figured, I was lucky to be born petite. I ate whatever I wanted, which was mostly penne a la vodka, ice cream, and other empty carbs. I didn’t know what a vegetable was, nor did I care to.
I was the smallest one on the team, which sometimes felt like a reward — partially because the other girls seemed to think so (and told me so) but also because it meant I got to be a flyer, the one they chuck in the air. I liked being a flyer. It didn’t make me feel small and powerless; I felt strong. My body was strong, I worked hard, and had the abdomen and flipping abilities to prove it.
By 16, I had a growth spurt and one day at practice, my coach called me, “a big flyer,” then amended, “well, a tall one.” I was maybe 5’3″ then, which may not seem tall but you have to consider I went from forever being 4’9″ to suddenly 5’3″. In the cheerleading world, a 5’3″ flyer is relatively tall. Overnight, I wasn’t the smallest.
And then… I fell into body checking without even knowing I was doing it. I would walk past a mirror and think, oh wait, let me go back. Let me look. Let me make sure my body is this way, or that way, or the same. Sometimes I’d stand in the restroom of a public place, balking at my naked belly, shirt up, rubbing my belly or sucking it in. Is this what I looked like?
When I got to college, I shared a quad with three other girls. We had one cheap, floor-length mirror from Target. It hung on the back of our door. I would stand in front of it obsessively, smoothing the shirt over my stomach or peeling it up to peer hard at my belly. Was it fat? I’d sit down at my desk to do work, then rush over to the mirror again. Had it changed? Was it fat now?
This is textbook body checking. Unbeknownst to me, I’ve been doing it for a decade.
There are a lot of different eating disorder (ED) behaviors that fall into the category of body checking. First and foremost, body checking denotes a type of looking at your body that is not qualified as “normal.” It is qualified as “obsessive” or “unrealistic.” In the most heightened state of the behavior, I would check my appearance in the reflection of cars in the parking lot, try on my smallest pair of 24 jeans from high school, fall asleep with my hand over my naked hip bone to assure it was sticking out enough.
Obsessively weighing yourself can be a form of body checking, as is feeling your bones, walking past mirrors, pinching parts of your body, or trying on clothes.
Body checkers might also obsessively ask family members or friends: What do you think of my body? They might ask their family and friends to compare: Is my body skinnier or fatter than that girl’s? or Do you think I’m skinnier than her? While it is true that body checking behaviors do not necessarily warrant an eating disorder diagnosis, the two do often go hand in hand. In fact, body checking behaviors are often more frequent in people with eating disorders like anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, and binge eating disorder. In a way, body checking is a compulsion to ensure you have not gained weight.
It’s a way for the mind to feign control. A body checker may think: If I look at my body this often, then I can keep it from changing; then I can keep it under control.
I finally got to a point, post-grad, when the compulsion to body check was debilitating and I moved the mirror in my apartment to the common space. By removing it from my room, I took a little part of my autonomy back. I didn’t want to spend my time obsessing over the mirror anymore. That was my first step in both ED and body checking recovery.
Which brings me to about a week ago. I’ve been mostly free of my body checking behaviors for about two years. Then last week, when I heard it had a name, that it was real, that every therapist who couldn’t term my ailment failed me, things got a little hard again. I thought about it too much, worried my gaze in the mirror lingered…
But I know better and would rather relinquish that control. Because that kind of control is exhausting and I’d much rather be at peace with who I am and what I look like. Part of that means acknowledging and accepting that what I look like sometimes changes.
Now, I am at a point in my life where I have done a lot of emotional work. Body checking temptations are sometimes there, sometimes not. I’ve noticed that for me, body checking behavior relapses often coincide with the inflation of other mental health issues. When I experience bouts of anxiety, I may change my eating habits, and if I change my eating habits, I sometimes fall back into that well-known body checking.
The point is not that these behaviors stop altogether but that I recognize them. I don’t want to body check anymore; I want to move forward in my ED recovery and live my life without the need for control. Wouldn’t it be so much better to love this body and genuinely be grateful for it?
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Photo: Photo by Mikail Duran
Steph Osmanski is a freelance writer and social media consultant who specializes in health and wellness content. Her words have appeared in Seventeen, Life & Style, Darling Magazine, and more. She is currently pursuing an MFA in Creative Writing at Stony Brook Southampton and writing a memoir.