Why you’re so obsessed with appearance, and how to stop it

Are you obsessed with appearance? Are you continually scrutinising specific parts of your body that you’re not happy with? I’m not talking about checking your hair in the mirror before you leave the house. Or making sure you don’t have corn stuck in your teeth before a meeting. I’m talking about compulsive body checking that’s so habitual, it dominates your life.

In today’s post Dr Natalie Chua talks to us about the topic of body checking. We’ll look at:

  • What body checking is, and why we do it.
  • The impact it has on our day-to-day lives.
  • Five practical tips to help reduce it. 

What is body checking?

Body checking refers to any behaviour that involves closely observing or examining your body or specific body parts to ensure your body looks ok. 

We all look in the mirror to check our appearance: while brushing our teeth, putting on an outfit for the day or to ensure we’re smart for an event. It’s something that everyone does, especially in an age where we’re conditioned to look ‘socially acceptable’. 

However, in the context of eating disorders, the ritual of body checking takes on more intensity, and can be incredibly debilitating.

For those who suffer with eating disorders, body checking can become compulsive. It feels like a habitual ‘pull’ that makes you focus intently on specific parts of your body that you have an aversion to. You scan your body for what’s ‘wrong’, rather than what’s ‘right’, and any changes to those body parts are deemed ‘unacceptable’ and highly threatening to your sense of self. 

We all have normal fluctuations in our body that may not bother us very much in our day-to-day life, for example, feeling bloated after a meal. But, for those struggling with an eating disorder, they may feel an urgency – a compulsion – to check their stomach after or between meals to assess whether it has changed in size. If their stomach isn’t completely flat, it’s often interpreted as a sign of weight gain or ‘fatness’, which may then lead to harmful behaviours like restrictive eating, purging or extreme exercise.

Some typical body checking behaviours to look out for:

  • Pinching loose skin.
  • Checking the mirror to see if your ribs or abs are visible.
  • Touching your collar bones to ensure they’re protruding.
  • Obsessively taking measurements of specific body parts, e.g. your arms or waist.
  • Wobbling the flesh under your thighs.

Why do people become obsessed with appearance?

Before we dive into some of the ways you can reduce body checking tendencies, we need to understand what keeps body checking in place. In other words, why do you engage in body checking, and what function does it serve?

As we touched on earlier, we all check ourselves in the mirror to ensure we look ok or are socially acceptable to ourselves and others in social situations. However, for those suffering with eating disorders, body checking becomes more than this. It becomes a way of ensuring that you – as a whole person – are acceptable. 

Instead of having a quick check in the mirror before moving on with the day, people in the grip of body checking are very sensitive and hyper-vigilant about any ‘flaws’ they detect from a reflective surface, or from comments they’ve received from others about their appearance. They often believe that others are zooming into their body in minute detail; scrutinising and judging them in the very same way that they are doing themselves. They believe that how they look is who they are. 

Dr Courtney recorded a helpful video about overuse of mirrors, you can find it here.

Those suffering with eating disorders or poor body image  might feel that body checking is their best option for managing their anxiety around how they are perceived by others. And when a behaviour is done repetitively, it quickly turns into a habit.

Is body checking harmful? 

In short, yes. Although body checking may provide temporary reassurance, research tells us that it ultimately maintains poor body image and keeps you stuck using disordered eating behaviours to feel better about yourself. 

Body checking becomes harmful when you:

  • Struggle to make decisions around what to eat or not eat. 
  • Have trouble concentrating on the task in hand.
  • Spend vast amounts of your time thinking about or checking your body.
  • Make excuses not to attend social situations.
  • Avoid wearing certain clothes that expose perceived ‘flaws’. 
  • Restrict your diet, which can then facilitate bingeing and purging.

Body checking causes your life to narrow: it stops you from being free and uninhibited, it gets in the way of your ability to make meaningful relationships, and perpetuates your belief that your perceived ‘flaws’ define who you are as a person. It doesn’t allow you to appreciate all the things that make you the beautiful, unique and lovable person that you are.

5 ways to reduce your body checking behaviour  

  1. Get curious

The next time you feel the urge to body check, pause and get curious about what’s happening in the moment, instead of diving straight in and following the behaviour through.

Here are four questions you can ask yourself when the urge to check arises. Remember to be as honest as possible with your answers:

  • Did anything provoke the urge to body check? For example, did someone say something, or are you going into a situation that is causing you to feel anxious or uneasy in some way?
  • What are you checking or looking for, and did you find it? For example, if you are looking for fatness, did you find it? More often than not, my clients tell me that they do find evidence for what they are searching for. This is because ‘confirmation bias’ is at play. That means you’ll often be looking for, and will interpret what you find, to suit your existing beliefs about your body.
  • Do you feel better or worse about yourself after checking? This may take some time, and you’ll need to be really honest with yourself. 
  • Will this behaviour enhance your life in any way, or will it continue to steal precious time and energy from you?

The saying goes that the truth will set you free, so ask yourself these questions as much as you need to be reminded of the truth, and allow the truth to support you in choosing a more life-giving behaviour.

2. Change the way you label your body

How you label things is how they’ll appear to you. 

For example, if your inner dialogue sounds like this, “Oh my god, my thighs are disgusting!”, imagine how you’re going to perceive your thighs? That’s right, you’ll consider them to be ‘disgusting’.

The good news is, you have the power to release this view by consciously choosing to label and perceive your thighs in a different way. For example, instead of identifying with the thought or belief that your thighs are ‘disgusting’, can you try to describe your thighs in a different way? Can you perhaps focus on appreciating how your legs support you in your day-to-day life, carrying you from one place to another?

This may feel unfamiliar, but by tuning in to your self-talk, reflecting on how you’re labelling your body, and softening your fixed view on things, you’ll begin to develop a healthier or more balanced perspective on how things really are.

3. Find neutral areas

Body checking draws you into the parts of your body you feel most insecure about or have a strong aversion to, to the extent that you can lose sight of the life that’s happening around you and the other parts of your body.

Next time you find yourself checking your body for what’s ‘wrong’, take a pause. Train yourself to find and focus on the ‘neutral’ parts of your body. That means a part of your body that you don’t feel strongly about; a part of your body that you neither like or dislike. 

This might take a while for you to find, but it’s not impossible, and will allow you to gently reconnect with your body in a new way. 

As an example, a neutral part of your body might be a particular finger or toe, your ear lobes, ankles, or even your eyelashes or eyebrows. Perhaps even your internal body parts such as your heart, lungs, or kidneys.

Whenever your attention starts to drift to the area of your body that’s charged, gently bring your attention to the neutral. This will help you to remember that your body is not just about the areas you don’t like – there are other parts of it that are not ‘problematic’. It can also liberate your attention from fixating on what appears to be negative or ‘bad, and regulate some of your anxiety.

4. Zoom out

During body checking, it’s typical for your focus to be zoomed in on the part of your body that you have a strong aversion to. And the more you focus on what you dislike, the greater the aversion becomes. Therefore, it’s important to train your mind to ‘zoom out’ and take your focus away from the ‘problem area’.

Here’s how. Next time you realise you’re in body checking mode, focus on the sights and sounds around you. If you’re having a conversation, throw yourself fully into that conversation. If you’re watching tv, focus intently on it.

When you do this, you’ll begin to realise that life goes on – the birds continue to sing, the conversation goes on – even if your collar bones aren’t as visible. Think about it…if you knew that today was your last day on earth, would you want to be remembered as the girl or guy who was focused on having a flat stomach, or would you want to be known for more than just that? 

5. Practice self-compassion

Perhaps one of the most important skills that will sustain your ability to reduce body checking, and even kick the habit altogether, is to learn how to calm your nervous system by practicing self-compassion.

Many of my clients tell me they hear an ‘eating disorder voice’ in their mind that comments harshly on their shape, weight, and food choices. This means that negative self-criticism and body checking go hand-in-hand. 

Under the attack of self-criticism, your nervous system becomes revved up, and your body will react as though it’s in danger. For example, you might experience a faster heart rate and racing thoughts. You might even believe that something truly horrible is about to happen.

Learning to self-soothe and bring compassion to yourself is an incredibly important skill for reducing the fear and anxiety that drives body checking. 

Self-compassion is a skill many of my clients struggle with because they’ve become so familiar with blaming and shaming themselves when they feel bad about themselves, or are struggling in some way. The truth is self-criticism only leaves you feeling worse about yourself, and I know you know this. So the next time you’re in the throes of body checking and self-criticism, I’d like to invite you to try this practice. Stay curious, and see if it provides you with an alternative way of feeling more at ease in your own skin. 

  • Take a few deep breaths in through your nose and out through your mouth.
  • Place a hand over your heart centre or another part of your body that’s soothing to you. Feel the sensation of your hand on your own body as you continue to breathe in and out. Then, gently begin to bring the image of a dear friend to mind. Imagine him or her as vividly as possible in your mind’s eye. Now, imagine this friend is having a poor body image day and is unable to stop body checking. Notice how you’re feeling in your body as you’re relating to his or her struggles. Allow yourself to feel and empathise with their pain.
  • Now think about what you would like to say to this friend after learning about their struggles. Are there any words of comfort and care that you would like to extend to him or her? Perhaps you’d let them know they’ve not done anything wrong. That they’re safe. That you’re here for them. That they can sit and breathe and allow this feeling of discomfort for a moment. 

Notice the tone of voice you’re using and the posture of your body as you relate to your friend. Try your best to avoid providing an intellectual or rational response. Instead, allow the words to come from your heart. It’s okay if you don’t know exactly what to say; allow yourself to be curious and discover them. Be patient. You may choose to write this down as a letter to a friend, say them out loud, or internally to yourself. 

  • Now, can you imagine what it would be like if you could offer these very same words to yourself, in the same tone of voice that you’ve offered to your friend?

Don’t be put off if you don’t feel much after this practice, or if you’re not fully convinced by the words you’re saying. The most important thing is that you’re trying an alternative way of relating to your body and yourself in a difficult moment. Over time, this will start to soothe your nervous system and establish new pathways in your brain.

Obsessive body checking causes you to fixate on your perceived ‘flaws’, and it denies you the opportunity to fully participate in your life, and to appreciate just how capable and amazing your body is. We hope this post will support you in making these changes.

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