The other day my daughter looked at me and worriedly said, “Mom. Why do my legs look like this?”
“Like what?” I asked, confused.
“This. Look at how big they are, and they do this (pointing to her legs as she sat on the chair).”
“I don’t see anything, honey. I just see your legs.”
“No. They are fat. The boys don’t have all this fat on their legs. Why do I? It’s ugly.”
Cue my tears (once I was in private). What I heard when she asked these questions was: “Mom. I hate my body like you do. I am going to spend the rest of my life resenting it and being obsessed with it just like you. Mom, you failed me.”
I have had issues with body image since middle school. I think many of us probably struggle with that. I have obsessed over my weight, my clothing size, my shoe size, my height, my body mass index, my hair, my teeth, my psoriasis … on and on. I have spent decades weighing myself multiple times a day. Circling my wrist with my fingers to see if they touched, and if they did, how far up my wrist could I go? Constantly checking my legs in the mirror to see if there was a gap, and if so, how big was it? And constantly asking my friends to point to someone in a crowd who they thought had the same body size as me, to see if maybe, just maybe, they thought I was thinner than what I thought I was.
The thing is, I never wanted this for my daughter. In fact, I thought I was successfully hiding it from her. I would sneakily look around to be sure she wasn’t there before giving my belly a squeeze to see how much fat I would hold. I would despair over the way my legs looked in jeans or shorts while my door was closed and she was playing with her brothers. I thought I was protecting her, but maybe I wasn’t doing as well as I thought.
I recently saw an Instagram post about “body checking,” and it was definitely a light-bulb moment for me. According to Gene Beresin, executive director of the Clay Center for Young Healthy Minds at Massachusetts General Hospital: "Body checking is an obsessive behavior in which an individual focuses on certain features of his or her body, often multiple times a day.” These behaviors include:
Checking the size of one's stomach, legs, or other parts of the body. This includes pinching "fat."
Weighing oneself multiple times a day.
Frequently looking in the mirror in different outfits.
Focusing on how clothes feel, such as pants being too tight.
Comparing one's perception of their body shape with others around them.
Obsessively taking measurements of one's waist, arms, legs, etc.
These were all things I did, and when I thought about it, I was doing it way more frequently than I realized. Now, some body checking is normal, but the compulsiveness of body checking is where it can be dangerous. Body checking is very common in people who have eating disorders, but others may struggle with it as well.
Some other causes for body checking can be anxiety and an excessive concern for one’s appearance. “One theory is that people who body-check do so to manage anxiety, says Emily K. White, Ph.D. “In other words, checking can be a result of — a coping mechanism for — anxiety about one's appearance.”
The rise in concern with appearance can be seen to reflect the rise in social media. "Body checking is of particular concern now in the pervasive digital age,” Beresin says, “because we know from many studies that media can significantly — and usually negatively — influence body image.”
If you are concerned that body checking may be an issue for you, there are a few things you can do. According to VeryWellMind.ORG, these steps can be useful in stopping or lessening your body checking behaviors:
Keep track of your body checking. Commit to noting every time you participate in body checking behaviors for a whole day. This allows you to become aware of the behavior and also see what level of impact it is having on your daily life.
Challenge your body checking. Ask yourself: What am I looking for? Is this helpful? Has anything changed since the last time I checked?
Beware of body avoidance. Do not swing to the opposite extreme of not looking at all at your body in an effort to thwart body checking. This can be just as harmful as body checking and is not the answer.
Talk to someone. If body checking is a compulsion and doing it causes you distress, find someone to talk to. Talking to a professional about these behaviors and the reasons behind it may be the only safe way to change them.
I know for myself, I am going to start the log. If just sitting here writing this blog I can list multiple, multiple times that I am engaging in these behaviors, I am sure there are more times I am doing it that I am not even aware of. I will also probably add it to my list of topics to talk about with my therapist.
The biggest sense of hope I get is that I am aware of it now and it is something I can work on. I hope that having my kids see me (whether it is consciously or unconsciously) confront and work on this issue will help them to have a healthier view of their own bodies. And, just as importantly, I am excited about loosening the control my body anxiety has on me.