When the main actress in My Big Fat Greek Wedding starts losing weight, there is commentary that her collar bones are more visible. When I started losing weight in my eating disorder, I wanted visible collar bones too, and my fingers would frequently dance around my neckline, checking for progress in the protrusion of my bones. I would also wrap my fingers around my upper arm and wrist, testing the distance between my thumb and middle finger. If the distance was too large, my appetite would instantly decrease.
Not only did I engage in physical body checking, I constantly looked at my reflection in mirrors and windows. I had heard that obsessively looking at yourself in the mirror is a sign of an eating disorder, and because I did not want to admit to having an eating disorder, I tried to limit my visual body checking to times when I was alone. I know that what I saw in the mirror was not an accurate picture of my size because when I saw pictures of myself, I was barely recognizable; I was always thinner in pictures than what I had seen in the mirror.
When I entered treatment, body checking was one of the most difficult eating disorder behaviors for me to kick. It’s easier to make a commitment to finish a meal because you either clear your plate or you leave something behind. It’s also easier to commit to not weighing yourself because stepping on a scale or staying away from the scale is all-or-nothing. You don’t just halfway step on a scale and halfway see your weight. On the other hand, I would find myself “accidentally” body checking when I brushed my teeth; my eyes would so easily default on straying to look at and evaluate my stomach or hips. Putting on a pair of pants that was a little tighter than I remembered would also trigger body checking; effortlessly, I could feel my stomach hanging over my waist band or my thighs being pinched a little extra by the pant legs.
To overcome my body checking defaults, I had to stop brushing my teeth in front of the bathroom mirror and buy new, looser clothing, including superhero t-shirts from the men’s department in Target. And, Ben and I took down the mirror in our bedroom. Also, instead of letting my eyes stray to the sides of buildings, where I would sometimes catch my reflection, I learned to look for shapes in the clouds, keeping my focus on the world around me instead of on my physical shape. When I found my fingers reaching for my collar bone, wrist, upper arm, thighs, etc, I scratched myself instead of feeling for bones.
The silly part about body checking is that my body was not fluctuating in size as frequently as I was checking for changes. My body does not shrink or grow every hour. Yes, there are water weight fluctuations, but they do not cycle through quickly enough for frequent body checking to be meaningful. As a scientist, I find it absurd that I was collecting data on my body as often as I used to. I would never waste as much time on a fruitless experiment in my research lab. On top of that, my meaningless body checking data only made me feel worse about myself because I was analyzing my findings through a disordered lens.
That said, body checking is not just limited to people with eating disorders. When I go to the gym, many people check themselves in the mirrors while they work out, as if each biceps curl or squat is going to instantly enhance their muscle definition. Women in bathrooms, even at my research lab, stand in front of the mirror, assessing and adjusting their bodies long after they have finished washing their hands. Whether or not you have an eating disorder, think about the ways that you check and evaluate your body and how much more freedom you would have if you just let your body be.