Body Checking and Body Avoidance
Eating disorders are often tied to a preoccupation with shape and weight. This preoccupation commonly manifests itself in distorted thoughts and beliefs, as well as in unusual behaviors around food and eating. Rigid food rules, denying hunger, hiding or stockpiling food, and eating in secret are among the key behavioral signs that may indicate the presence of an eating disorder.
Less-discussed behavioral signs are body checking and body avoidance. While these behaviors are not unique to eating disorders—and not experienced by everyone with an eating disorder—they are common in people with these illnesses. Checking involves the repeated checking of one’s shape or weight, and the other involves the complete avoidance of that behavior.
For people with eating disorders, body checking and avoidance are often expressions of an over-evaluation of shape and weight common to these illnesses. They’re behavioral manifestations of body image concerns and body dissatisfaction. Both checking and avoidance behaviors exist on a continuum of severity, and neither is mutually exclusive. Frequent checking can alternate with avoidance and vice-versa, and both can occur at the same time.
What is body checking?
As its name implies, body checking is the repeated checking of one’s shape or weight. It’s not a casual, occasional look at one’s body, but instead compulsive monitoring of it. Examples include:
- Frequent weighing
- Fixating on body parts in the mirror
- Measuring body parts
- Feeling for fat, muscle, or bone
- Pinching or squeezing flesh
- Wrapping hands around stomach, waist, thighs, arms, etc.
- Repeatedly assessing the fit of clothing to judge shape or weight
- Comparing body to past pictures of self or to other bodies
- Seeking reassurance about weight or shape (e.g., “Do I look bigger to you?”)
What is body avoidance?
In contrast to compulsive body checking and scrutiny, body avoidance is a behavior where a person tries to avoid seeing their shape or weight. Intense concerns about weight and appearance still present, however; in fact, they often fuel the behavior. Examples include:
- Covering all mirrors in the house
- Averting eyes when passing reflective surfaces such as windows
- Avoiding form-fitting clothing or wearing baggy clothes to disguise shape or size
- Avoiding weather-appropriate clothing (e.g., short sleeves, shorts) or activities that may bring attention to weight or body (e.g., swimming, clothes shopping)
- Avoiding close physical contact with others
- Avoiding photographs of oneself
While some avoidance behaviors may be appropriate and indeed helpful at certain stages of recovery, the goal is to eventually work toward body acceptance or neutrality. For some people, avoiding one’s body altogether may actually reinforce a lasting preoccupation with it. The ultimate goal is that shape or weight do not hold such power over a person’s life.
How do body checking and avoidance relate to eating disorders?
Like other compulsive behaviors, body checking and avoidance may provide temporary relief or reassurance. Measuring the size of a certain body part after eating, for example, may temporarily quiet the disordered fear that a single meal significantly affects body shape or weight. Similarly, avoiding weather-appropriate clothes may align with the belief that one’s body should be hidden unless it looks a certain way.
Ultimately, however, both checking and avoidance often perpetuate the preoccupation with body weight and size. Not only can they magnify the importance of perceived body flaws; they may also fuel and maintain an eating disorder in those susceptible.
Research shows a strong association between body checking and avoidance and other eating disorder symptoms. In addition, people with eating disorders tend to check different parts of their body. Checking one’s stomach and thighs, for example, is more common in those with eating disorders, while checking one’s face is more common in those without (Shafran, Fairburn, Robinson, & Lask, 2004). People with both restrictive and non-restrictive eating disorders experience the behaviors at levels higher than those without eating disorders (Nikodijevic, Buck, Fuller‐Tyszkiewicz, de Paoli, & Krug, 2018).
How to Overcome Body Checking and Avoidance
Like any new practice, challenging the urge to engage in body checking and/or avoidance will likely be uncomfortable at first. Here are some tips to get started:
1. Bring awareness to your body checking or avoidance.
In what ways are you checking or avoiding your body and weight? Which body parts? How often per day? What are your feelings before and after doing so? How uncomfortable would you be if you could not check or avoid? Write these in a list. The first step is determining how you are currently experiencing these behaviors.
2. Identify which checking and avoidance behaviors you’d like to work on.
Choose a target behavior or two from your list to work on.
3. Set goals for challenging this behavior.
What’s a small way you might start to challenge the urge to engage in checking or avoidance? How can you try to limit or reduce it now and then gradually adjust your goals?
Some ideas include:
- Reduce the number of times you look in the mirror daily by 25%, then 50%, etc.
- Challenge the avoidant behavior of refusing to be photographed by allowing a picture x times per week, or every x weeks or months.
- Limit the number of outfit changes to a set number, or the time allotted for getting dressed to a set period.
- Limit wearing clothes intended to disguise your body to only a certain number of times per week.
- Postpone checking behaviors to a small window of the day.
- Allow your partner to hug you every x number of times they attempt.
Over time, the hope is that gradually reducing body checking behaviors and facing avoidance ones will help you to challenge your preoccupation with weight and shape.
If you’re struggling with body checking or avoidance behaviors related to your eating disorder, please reach out to The Emily Program. We’re available via our online form and at 1-888-364-5977 every day.