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Body Checking: Obsessing Over Appearance May Be a Problem

While it’s not uncommon for teens and young adults to notice how they look, body checking is another issue — one that parents should be aware of given how it can negatively affect physical and mental health.  

In this article, Amanda Demetriou, field therapist at Deschutes Wilderness Therapy in Bend, Oregon, gives insight into what body checking behavior is, what causes it, body checking and eating disorders, and how you can help your son or daughter overcome this challenge.  

What Is Body Checking

Body checking is the repeated checking of one’s shape, size, appearance, and weight, and this behavior can become compulsive.  

It also includes body avoidance, where a person will begin to disengage with their body. Teens or young adults may start to wear oversized clothes, cover all mirrors, avoid pictures, or not participate in sports with a form-fitting uniform so they don’t have to see or interact with their bodies. 

Examples of Body Checking

Below are a few examples of body-checking behavior. 

  • Mirror checking: What is mirror checking? It’s more than casually checking one’s appearance in the mirror. “Mirror checking is the compulsive need to look at one’s reflection or to monitor certain parts of their body,” Demetriou said. Teens and young adults can use any reflective surface for this purpose, including car and store windows.  
  • Frequently pinching body fat: Frequently checking body fat is a common example of body checking and can include pinching belly fat.  
  • Frequently checking muscle and skin: Teens and young adults may also check their body shape by feeling how much muscle or loose skin they have. 
  • Obsessively weighing themselves: A young person with body-checking behaviors will obsessively weigh themselves to maintain a certain shape and weight. They may do this before and after meals to keep tabs on their weight or before and after workouts to monitor how much muscle they gained or lost.  
  • Measuring body parts: Teens and young adults measure body parts to check areas of their body, like arm size, biceps, thighs, or waistline. They can also estimate measurements by physical touch, such as noticing if a person’s arm fits around them differently than it used to during a hug.

What Causes Body Checking?

When it comes to what causes body checking, a lot of it stems from anxiety and low self-esteem, according to Demetriou. In addition, she said, comparisons to others and social media use can contribute to an increase in the behavior, with teens and young adults focusing on their appearance and wondering if they must change it and how.  

Body checking can be related to other factors as well, including eating disorders. Identifying them is the first step toward addressing them and helping your son or daughter. 

Eating disorders

Body checking and eating disorders are often associated with one another. This is why you should know the warning signs and different types of eating disorders in adolescents. However, Demetriou said if a teen or young adult is struggling with a disorder, they may not have body-image distress, and if they have body-checking behaviors or symptoms, it may not mean they have an eating disorder.   

Anorexia and bulimia nervosa are two disorders commonly associated with body checking. 

Anorexia

With anorexia, also known as anorexia nervosa, people fear gaining weight, which results in a negative view of their body or body image. Anorexia and body checking can therefore go together, with teens and young adults overly aware of how they look. In fact, repeatedly checking their weight and shape can lead to purging or throwing up meals to combat weight gain, resulting in weight loss. 

Bulimia nervosa

A person who has bulimia nervosa often struggles with binging behaviors or overeating. Regarding bulimia nervosa and body checking, teens and young adults who are overly focused on how they look and don’t like what they see could engage in “corrective” compensatory behavior, such as purging, using laxatives or diuretics, fasting, or overexercising.  

Body dysmorphic disorder

Body dysmorphic disorder is characterized by a person’s insistent belief of a defect in their appearance. People with this disorder think about their real or perceived flaws for hours each day, according to the Anxiety & Depression Association of America. Because of that preoccupation, body dysmorphia and mirror checking, a form of body checking, can go together.  

Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD)

A teen or young adult with OCD who has ruminating thoughts about their appearance may engage in frequent or compulsive body checking. This is because ruminating thoughts are a symptom of OCD that can cause compulsive behaviors, such as monitoring the body for weight or muscle gain or loss. 

Panic disorders

According to the Anxiety & Depression Association of America, panic disorders are characterized by experiencing spontaneous panic attacks and a preoccupation with the fear of a recurring attack. A teen or young adult who has body-checking behaviors may experience panic attacks if they become anxious about their body shape or weight.  

Health/illness anxiety

Health anxiety, also known as illness anxiety disorder or hypochondria, is when a person is constantly worried or thinking about getting sick or having a serious medical condition. A person with health anxiety may think weight fluctuations are signs of illness and obsessively weigh themselves.     

Normal Body Checking vs. Problematic Behavior

You may wonder, “Why is body checking bad?” It doesn’t have to be negative. For example, a casual look at one’s appearance, such as a teen or young adult checking their face, hair, or clothes before leaving the house, is normal. 

Problematic body-checking behavior is an anxiety- and guilt-driven, almost obsessive checking of the body, according to Demetriou. When there’s a compulsive need to look a certain way, and it begins to interfere with a teen or young adult’s daily functioning, it’s cause for concern. For example, young people may be so upset with how they look after getting ready in the mornings that they change their clothes multiple times before leaving for school, causing them to be late to class on a regular basis. 

Other reasons why body checking is bad include the way the behavior can affect mental health. Young people may find it leads to or worsens issues such as anxiety or depression. It can also damage self-esteem.  

How To Stop Body Checking

When it comes to how to stop obsessive body checking, the first step you should take is to spend quality time exploring and empathizing with your teen or young adult’s emotional state.  

“By doing this, you not only connect with your child but also build upon the relationship you have with them,” Demetriou said. “This relational piece is foundational in any healing process. Teens and young adults will often feel safer opening up to parents when empathy is at the forefront of the conversation.” 

You should also encourage your son or daughter to:  

  1. Set time limits on using social media, especially TikTok. “Social media, especially TikTok, can lead to a decreased sense of possible self-esteem and comparison because it introduces kids to a lot of cultural trends and pressures,” Demetriou said. It can also subtly introduce body checking and eating disorders to teens and young adults. It’s important to set limits on social media use and keep having conversations with your son or daughter so you know what’s going on in their daily lives, what they’re posting online, and whose accounts they’re following. 
  1. Identify body-checking triggers. By identifying body-checking triggers, your teen can become more aware of and alert about the events that cause their triggers. Demetriou said, “Body-checking behaviors flourish when someone is alone and when people don’t understand what’s going on.” Encourage your teen to share their triggers with a trusted group of people so they can build a support system that can help them manage those triggers when they arise.  
  1. Track body-checking behaviors. Keeping track of body-checking behaviors can be eye opening and possibly essential to stopping those behaviors. “Until parents and teens are able to identify the extent to which behaviors are affecting their teen, they won’t know how to treat them,” Demetriou said. Because a teenager or young adult may think their behaviors are normal, it’s vital to monitor the extent that they’re happening so your son or daughter can best understand how what they’re doing affects their daily life. 
  1. Use coping skills when the urge to body check strikes. Coping skills can help your teen or young adult stop body checking in a slow and gradual manner. Demetriou suggested using body-neutral statements and affirmations and focusing on what the body is capable of rather than its appearance. She also suggested using distractions when the urge to body check comes up, such as talking to a friend, drawing, or listening to music. Helping your son or daughter find distractions that they enjoy can help detour them from giving in to urges — and, in time, decrease the urges themselves. 
  1. Talk to a therapist. Talking to a therapist can bring more awareness to body-checking behaviors and help identify their root cause. “A therapist may be able to come alongside a teen or young adult and talk through what’s happening with them and work through it, hopefully bringing in the family as support,” Demetriou said. She advised you encourage your teenager or young adult to talk to a therapist as soon as possible given body-checking behaviors can become problematic and seriously affect your son or daughter’s physical and mental health. 

Body Checking Wrapup

While it’s not uncommon for teens and young adults to notice their appearance, if they’re obsessively monitoring their body to maintain certain standards, it can lead to other issues down the road — or worsen existing ones. The relationship between body checking and eating disorders, for example, can be concerning. 

Demetriou said it’s important to remember there’s a root cause behind the behavior, so you should come alongside your son or daughter with compassion and understanding. Find a therapist, and encourage your teen or young adult to talk openly with that person. By taking these steps, you can help them stop body checking and heal emotionally so they can be more confident in themselves. 

Embark is the most trusted name in teen and young adult mental health treatment. We’re driven to find the help your family needs. If you’re looking for support, contact us today!

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