Everything Parents Need to Know About Body Checking

Body-checking behaviors have surged in recent years thanks—in part—to social media. Here's what parents need to know.

teenager looking in mirror
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Most people know what "body checking" is. The act, which involves habitually examining certain aspects of your appearance, is nothing new. It has been around for a long time. However, body checking behaviors have surged in recent years thanks to the advent of social media. TikTok, in particular, is home to countless viral videos of people engaging in body checking activities. There are also dozens of hashtag trends.

This is worrisome, of course, not only for parents but for adolescents, tweens, and teens—who are vulnerable to developing body image issues, body dysmorphia, and disordered eating. According to a 2019 survey by the Mental Health Foundation, almost one-third of teenagers felt shame about and/or toward their body, and four in 10 said images on social media caused them to worry about their appearance. So what does this mean for parents of adolescents, tweens, teens? What should you do if your child is engaging in body checking behavior?

We reached out to two eating disorder and body image experts to help us understand body checking in tweens and teens, as well as how to navigate these challenges as parents.

What Is Body Checking?

"Body checking is looking in the mirror or using other measures to gain information about your body's weight, shape, and size," says Rebecca Jaspan MPH, RD, CDN, CDCES, a registered dietitian with expertise in eating disorders. Body checking can take several different forms. "It may look like pinching your hips or stomach, fitting your fingers around your wrist, or trying on clothes to make sure they fit," Jaspan adds. And while this can happen at specific times, i.e. it can become ritualized, it can also occur throughout the day.

What Is The Correlation Between Social Media And Body Checking?

While the correlation between social media and body checking behaviors has not been explicitly studied, Jaspen believes there is a link. "Frequently, social media gives us an unrealistic depiction of bodies," she describes. Filtering and different cropping and angling tools may make people look thinner or more muscular than they are, Jaspen adds. "And when we are constantly fed these images, it may lead to more body checking behaviors." The two are associated, at least in some form.

Rebecca Jaspan, MPH, RD, CDN, CDCES

"Social media gives us an unrealistic depiction of bodies, and when we are constantly fed these images, it may lead to more body checking behaviors." 

— Rebecca Jaspan, MPH, RD, CDN, CDCES

Of course, this is not surprising. Many studies have been done to analyze the affects of social media on one's body image. A 2018 study found that female college students who shared selfies on social media ended up feeling more anxiety surrounding their appearance, had decreased feelings of self-worth, and felt less attractive than their peers who did not post selfies. A 2019 study yielded similar, but different, results, i.e. teens who spent time on social media were more likely to develop eating disorders. Additionally, the more time teens spend on social media, the more likely they are to develop unhealthy behaviors and/or relationships with food.

What Are the Signs of Body Checking, Particularly In Teens and Tweens?

Jennifer Rollin, MSW, LCSW-C, clinical psychotherapist, eating disorder specialist and the founder of The Eating Disorder Center, says that body checking usually involves three components: checking on weight, body size, and body shape. "Common behaviors may include lifting your shirt up to see your stomach, putting your hands around your wrists, and feeling for bones," she describes.

Body checking behaviors look similar in tweens and teens as they do in adults. "Signs of body checking in teens and tweens may include spending excessive time in front of the mirror, weighing every day or multiple times a day, and pinching skin," says Jaspan. Usually these obsessions become so intense that they affect your tween or teen's mood, she adds. Mood changes might include increased feelings of anxiety and depression. Agitation and withdrawal are also common.

How Does Body Checking Impact Mental Health?

We usually think of how body checking can affect one's self image and self esteem, but body checking, in and of itself, can have profound effects on mental health. "Many individuals use body checking as a way to reduce anxiety, but it can become compulsive," Rollin says, leading to increased anxiety and a negative body image. There are also correlations between body checking and depression. Body checking can interfere with your ability to think clearly, for example, and this can worsen your mood, and, in many cases, body checking is linked to obsessive compulsive disorder, or OCD.

Is Body Checking Linked to Eating Disorders?

Body checking is often linked to eating disorders, says Jaspan, because it can intensify the feeling of the body not being perfect. "After analyzing one's body, an individual may engage in behaviors to further perfect it," she says. This can include food monitoring, restriction, and/or not eating. Some turn to exercise as a means of altering their appearance, and others purge or rid the body of calories manually. "Because body checking helps individuals feel in control, many start using other methods and measures, such as restricting their food intake or overexercising," Jaspan adds.

Rollin agrees. "Some individuals struggling with eating disorders engage in body checking behaviors that become compulsive and feel almost automatic," she says. This behavior then feeds the "eating disorder voice," Rollin explains, along with incessant thoughts about weight and shape.

Teens in particular are vulnerable to eating disorders, and the risk has increased these past few years. Since the pandemic, the rates of teens with eating disorders has skyrocketed, likely due to feelings of isolation, anxiety about the pandemic, and being cut off from social ties. Spending increased amounts of time on social media during the pandemic didn't help matters either, according to experts.

Signs of Eating Disorders

  • Obsessive behaviors concerning body image, including body checking
  • Not wanting to eat in front of others
  • Secretive eating
  • Exercising excessively
  • Constantly counting calories
  • Significant loss or gain of weight
  • Thinning hair, dry skin, feeling cold
  • Menstrual period changes, or having no periods at all
  • Isolation from friends
  • Specific rituals around eating

If you believe your teen may have developed an eating disorder, you should contact your pediatrician, a registered nutrient, or a child therapist.

How to Stop Body Checking

It's clear that body checking is not a healthy behavior and can have negative impacts on one's self-esteem and mental health, but how do you stop?

The first step is to become more aware of what you're doing, says Rollin. "Decreasing body checking behaviors starts by developing a mindful awareness of how frequently the body checking is occurring, then gradually challenging yourself to interrupt the behavior once you notice it," she says. You can also try a positive coping statement to interrupt the behavior, such as "this only feeds my negative body image," Rollin suggests.

Once you are aware of the habit, you'll want to come up with some alternative activities to do instead of body checking. Jaspan recommends going for a walk, reading, or listening to music or a podcast. "Learn to be in your body without trying to change it," she adds. But, and this is worth noting, changing said behaviors will take time. Overcoming body checking or managing body image issues is not something you should have to do alone. Consider connecting with a therapist who specializes in these issues if you or your child continue to struggle.

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