Are you familiar with something called "Body Checking"?
I had heard this term before, but usually in a crowd control sort of context. For example: "I was body checked by Madonna's entourage on a NYC street!". But I'd never heard it in an eating disorder context until a few weeks ago, at the NEDA (National Eating Disorders Association) conference.
What is body checking?
When a clinician mentioned the term in an eating disorder recovery context, I gave it a google. According to a website called Eating Disorders Glossary (who knew?) here's what body checking is:
Body checking refers to an obsessive thought and behavior about appearance. For people with eating disorders or body dysmorphia this may present as frequent weighing, looking in the mirror, and pinching or wrapping hand around stomach, waist, thighs, arms. Or they may ask others for such assurance: "do I look fat?", "do I look any bigger," etc. This can be done even hundreds of times per day; the reassurance may only be momentary followed by heightened anxiety and fear. Checking is a common symptom of obsessive compulsive disorders.
It was immediately clear to me: I do this.
So...oh my god, I have this. I do this. I identify as "mostly recovered", or as a friend of mine calls it, "swiss cheese recovery"--there are still holes. It immediately became clear to me that this was one such hole. I don't weigh myself, but I still do body checking in a big way.
Every day when I wake up, I wrap my hand around my stomach. I do it without thinking. I find it comforting to feel the slight softness of my belly against the hard line of my hip bone. But I don't just do this when I wake up. I do it a lot during the day. Once I started thinking about it, I began to keep count. I counted about 30 times per day I do this, unconsciously. It's possible I do it even more but didn't pause to count.
I do it a lot after I eat. Or during and after yoga classes. Without thinking about it. But what exactly am I doing? Checking to see if I've become obese after a single meal, or become skeletal after a single exercise session? Both are ridiculous. There is no benefit to doing this body checking thing. Even if it's just for a split second that it gives me euphoria ("I'm thin!") or frustration ("I'm fat!"), it's not doing me any favors.
In addition, I also look at myself in the mirror. A lot. When I'm alone near a mirror, I lift up my shirt to make sure that the slight (slight!) definition I have from doing yoga every day is still on my belly. I look at my face, at my shoulders. I try to compare them to how they looked the last time I took a glance. While I don't think that looking at oneself in the mirror, even a lot, is totally uncommon, it's what I am looking for that is the problem.
In terms of my current weight, I feel like I'm totally OK as I am. I have accepted the way my body is now as opposed to what I know was an unhealthily low weight. But being happy with how I am now doesn't mean I have totally accepted myself. I still have a deathly fear of changing the way my body is right now. What would happen if I didn't keep it under control?
This is my work.
This sounds remarkably dumb to say, but here goes: I have been doing this body checking thing for years, throughout my eating disorder and into recovery, and I really had no idea.
A few posts ago, I addressed the subject of identifying what your "work" is in eating disorder recovery. Because in my hard-learned opinion, there is not necessarily a hard line as to what defines recovery in an eating disorder. It's more about continuing to evolve and improve as a person, and taking your recovery with you on that journey.
It also means recognizing what you still need to work on. And friends, I need to work on this body checking thing. It's not doing me any good, and it's hindering moving forward in recovery.
Does it matter?
I'm at a normal weight. I take care of myself. I can function in society. So is it really all that bad that I indulge in some body checking if I'm doing so well otherwise?
Yes. It is important to work on body checking. This article, which is awesome and insanely informative without being dry, shed some light on the subject. I especially loved how they broke down the four key reasons why body checking has a negative effect. I'm paraphrasing here:
Reasons why body checking is very unhelpful
1. Our bodies don't change as rapidly as in minutes or in hours. So is there a point to touching the same body parts over and over? Not really.
2. Our memory for how our body looked / felt even just minutes or hours ago is not reliable, so it's easy to psych ourselves into thinking we are different, and the body checking just acts as evidence of this ridiculous fear.
3. In my mind this is like the dental floss point. Have you ever felt like you have a massive morsel of food lodged between your teeth, but then when you floss, you're like "that little thing?". Body checking is like this. The minute amount of "fat" or "jiggle" becomes magnified because you lack perspective on it, you're too close to the situation. It becomes magnified and monstrous in your mind, but you don't have the ability to floss it out and say "that little thing?". If you are looking for "Fatness", you will find it.
4. People with eating disorders are already typically operating with a distorted body image, so enforcing this by checking constantly is really not going to help with the distorted image. If anything, it keeps it going.
But I don't weigh myself!
Part of me felt like since I didn't weigh myself, I was immune from the triggers of "feeling fat" or OCD related to my body. But turns out, I have gone a little too far--into the arena of avoidance. I will start feeling panicky when I go to the doctor's office and they weigh me as part of the checkup. I ask to turn the other way. I used to love being weighed when I would guess how low my weight was. Not anymore. I don't want to know. According to the same article,
Avoiding weighing can be just as problematic. While the aim of this avoidance may be to avoid distress or discomfort, the preoccupation with your weight is still there. The discomfort may even become worse over time because you are not giving yourself the chance to find out that perhaps your fears are not true – that you are not putting on weight. Very often, your fears are worse than reality, so weighing weekly and knowing your weight is a step in overcoming your preoccupation with weight and shape.
So, body checking is still an issue.
I don't weigh myself, but that's because I am scared that I won't be OK with what the scale says. And even though I don't weigh myself, I have a weird, ritualistic set of things I do to keep myself in "check": the touching of body parts. The judging how my pants feel today versus the other day. The monitoring what loop my belt is on. Looking in the mirror. Judging myself against others who I think have similar body types, even if they don't.
So how do I stop?
Well, I am trying to figure that out now, my friends. But in my advanced stage of recovery, I think I have a good idea of where to start.
1. Take it slow. Rather than make an ultimatum that the body checking must stop, it may be easier to take the same approach as with quitting counting calories. Do it gradually: make an extremely conscious effort not to do it in the morning hours, or during one yoga class, etc. From there, it may be easier to reduce the behavior further and for longer periods of time.
2. Be here now. Gosh, how annoying and cliche does "be here now" sound? But it works. Because if I am doing something like a breathing exercise in a yoga class, I am not idly bringing my hand to my belly to feel for fat. Being conscious and present really does help reduce this type of unconscious behavior.
3. Talk / write it out with myself. What am I hoping for with this body checking? What is the worst that could possibly happen? By admitting the fears to myself, even if they sound totally silly, at least it brings these fears out of the shadows.
4. Identify triggers. When am I body checking the most? Keep a log of when, where, and possibly why I am engaging in this behavior. It's possible that I can avoid some triggers, or change my relationship with them so that they don't have to be triggers.
But those are just a few ideas. The aforementioned document had more, and I think that simply identifying that I do this thing is the first step.