Content Warning: This article is about eating disorders, depression, and anxiety.
In the age of selfies, Instagram filters, and TikTok, it’s rare to go a day when you’re not looking at yourself. It’s one thing to glimpse your reflection before you leave the house and quite another to compulsively check your size and appearance. But at what point does the urge to control your reflection become problematic?
I have experienced instances where my urge to check my skin in the mirror completely overwhelms me. If I have a blemish on my face, I check repeatedly to see its development, hoping that one more look will show it’s healed and my anxiety can stop. This is of course never the case. Instead, I become hyper-fixed and increasingly frustrated with the mark daring to stain my face.
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People have repeatedly told me, “Don’t look at yourself!”. While logical, this kind of reasoning is equivalent to telling someone struggling with restrictive eating, “Just eat!” As with any compulsive behavior, its reasoning is deeply psychological. In recent years, I’ve found that my compulsive behavior falls under a category known as body-checking.
Body control is classified as an anxiety-related behavior that involves repeatedly checking your appearance, size, and shape. This can manifest itself from day to day by looking in the mirror repeatedly, weighing yourself several times a day, squeezing body parts, and constantly comparing your shape and appearance to others. Obviously, this obsessive behavior can be detrimental to your mental health.
To explore the nature of body control and ways to eliminate the habit, I spoke with clinical psychologists Amy Robins and Dr. Ben Buchanan. As a habit, Ben says that checking the body is an “ineffective attempt to reduce body image fear”. This begs the question: why are we doing it?
As with any psychological behavior, there is no easy answer, but often it is an attempt to disprove a concern we have with our appearance. Ben tells me that a common concern of his patients is the fear of being fat. One form of body-checking in this scenario is weighing yourself regularly, a habit that can lead to three outcomes.
“They will be happy with their bodies, they will not feel anything about their bodies or neutral, or control will backfire and they will be shocked by the results. But each of those three options is problematic because it’s just about reinforcing control behavior,” he says.
As Ben explains, people who are concerned about their body image rarely have a positive result from checking their appearance. Instead, it is often a “vain attempt to reassure themselves that their bodies are okay and” [it] instead, it exacerbates their pre-existing body image fear.” Another reason people body check is to look for information that confirms their beliefs. This form of confirmation bias can motivate negative behaviors, such as restrictive eating.
“Patients who weigh themselves constantly will often feel the need to limit their food intake if they are not happy with the number on the scale,” Amy explains to me. According to Amy, compulsive body control can lead to heightened feelings of anxiety and depression, and a person will often isolate themselves due to feelings of dissatisfaction.
“[Body checking] causes you to have tunnel vision about aspects you don’t like about yourself. It’s like a mosquito bite – the more you scratch it, the more infected it gets, so you’re a lot more involved with it. Whereas if you just leave it on, put some lotion on it and come back another day, you wouldn’t notice it as much.”
When it comes to stopping the destructive habit of controlling the body, Ben explains that this is not an easy fix and normally requires an individual treatment plan that examines the psychological motivations behind the habit. However, he recommends a number of skills that can help reduce check-up frequency.
“My advice would be to resist the urge to check and know that every time you check you are perpetuating the assumption that you can only feel good when your body is a certain way. What we want to do, is breaking that assumption that you can only feel good if your body looks a certain way and refocus attention on other non-body-related things,” he tells me.
Of course, it’s easier said than done to resist the urge. If you’re struggling, Ben recommends engaging in behaviors that use as many senses as possible. “Going for a walk is a great way to resist an urge because you need to use your eyesight, hear things, and so your body uses your sense of touch.”
Another suggestion Ben makes is a term he calls “mirror hygiene.” “When you put your hand against the mirror, don’t stand closer than… [an] arm’s length from the mirror. This prevents you from becoming hyper-focused on small imperfections that can perpetuate the check,” he tells me.
Throughout my body control journey, I can vouch for the effectiveness of working with a psychologist to reduce the behavior. While I still struggle daily with the tendency to compulsively control my body, using the techniques Ben suggests has been incredibly helpful. If you struggle with compulsions to control your body, using these techniques on a daily basis and seeing a professional can help you break free from the toxic cycle it can trap you in.
If you struggle with body image issues or eating disorders, you can call the Butterfly National Helpline at 1800 33 4673 for free and confidential support, or email or chat with them online here.