There's a fine line between recording fitness progress and obsessing over it.

By Julia Malacoff
October 23, 2018
Photo: Sally Anscombe/Getty Images

Taking progress photos, body circumference measurements, body fat tests, and more are all common practices in the fitness and weight-loss industries. In fact, snapping mirror selfies has been touted by countless fitness experts and influencers as a way to keep track of progress while still employing a "don't know, don't care" approach to the scale. (Related: Real Women Share Their Favorite Non-Scale Victories)

But just as the scale can encourage an obsession with numbers, constantly looking at your body for changes-also known as body checking-can also become an unhealthy practice. How do we find the line between tracking progress and becoming obsessed? Mental health and fitness experts weigh in.

What is body checking?

"Body checking is an obsessive behavior in which an individual focuses on certain features of his or her body, often multiple times a day," explains Gene Beresin, M.D., executive director of The Clay Center for Young Healthy Minds at Massachusetts General Hospital. Body checking behaviors include:

  • Checking the size of one's stomach, legs, or other parts of the body. This includes pinching "fat."

  • Weighing oneself multiple times a day.

  • Frequently looking in the mirror in different outfits.

  • Focusing on how clothes feel, such as pants being too tight.

  • Comparing one's perception of their body shape with others around them.

  • Obsessively taking measurements of one's waist, arms, legs, etc.

And while body checking is common in those with diagnosed eating disorders, like anorexia and bulimia, it also can occur on its own, especially in people who are very concerned about their appearance, says Dr. Beresin. And it's known the more people use social media, the more concerned they are about their appearance.

That's why this issue is gaining traction right now. "Body checking is of particular concern now in the pervasive digital age, because we know from many studies that media can significantly-and usually negatively-influence body image," says Dr. Beresin.

What are the catalysts for obsessing over appearance?

While it's not always a precursor, most experts in the field point to the influence of social media as one of the biggest factors attributed to this increase in body checking. "We live in an era of image-dominant forms of expression and communication," points out Lisa Diers, R.D.N., a registered dietitian and yoga therapist who specializes in eating disorder treatment.

"In recent years, I've begun asking my new nutrition or yoga therapy clients about their social media consumption and any known negative side effects," says Diers. "A response I commonly hear is a feeling of poorer body image, increased comparison to those they follow, and feeling like they don't 'measure up' after scrolling on social-even when following body positive influencers."

And while many in the online fitness community encourage self-love and the concept of loving your body and wanting to change it at the same time, it's hard not to wonder if this approach might be encouraging people to cross over into body checking territory. "Following groups or people who place an extreme value on the body and how it looks is fertile ground for body checking," says Diers. If the focus is on appearance, then how can you "know" if things are on the right track without looking or checking, she says.

Wanting to make a change to your body isn't the problem, though. Instead, it comes down to the individual and how they handle different methods of tracking progress. "I accept that many people have a body shape in mind they are the most comfortable with and feel the most confident being," says Claire Fountain, a yoga instructor, certified personal trainer, and wellness influencer. "Can someone engage in body checking or these measurements and not be consumed? Absolutely. Can someone else be triggered and get on a downward spiral? Also yes. The latter is who should avoid these tracking measures, no matter how appealing or normalized they might be."

When body checking becomes a problem.

So how can you tell if your progress photos and mirror double-takes are actually a problem? Well, the biggest clue that you need to do something about body checking is when it's taking time away from other parts of your life. "The amount of time spent engaging in body checking, especially time that interferes with activities related to normal functioning, is an indication of when it's a problem," says Ash Nadkarni, M.D., a psychiatrist and instructor at Harvard Medical School.

"For instance, if someone is engaging in body checking compulsively and frequently, and they ignore their other self-care needs or they begin to isolate from others and lose relationships or they can't function at work, this is suggestive of the behavior being a problem."

If that's not making sense, consider your relationship with progress photos and other methods of tracking by asking yourself some simple questions. "A good question to ask oneself is: 'Could I quit these habits and feel totally okay with myself?'" says Fountain. "'Could I go without taking images of my body? Could I be okay if these images or measurements showed something I didn't like consistently? Do I attach morality (I'm good or I'm bad) to these measurements?'" Any concerns? You may want to think about taking some of the following steps:

Consult a professional. If you notice any of these red flags, Dr. Beresin recommends visiting a clinician who specializes in eating disorders. They can either provide or point you in the direction of therapy that will help.

Remove mirrors, scales, or whatever else you are using to body check for a while. "Of course, the ultimate goal is to be able to see yourself in a mirror without criticism or to know your weight without fear and judgment," says Diers. "In order to achieve that goal, sometimes it helps to remove the triggers initially in order to have a break from the behavior and find some peace."

Take a break from social media if you find it triggering. "Remove apps from your phone, require a manual login, or plan other things to do besides social," says Diers. "Notice how it makes you feel after a few days or a week. Next, decide if or how you will go back to social in a more balanced and nourishing way." (Related: The Best Goal Has Nothing to Do with Your Weight and Everything to Do with Your Phone)

Challenge and change your habits. "Changing or stopping body checking is about creating new patterns of behavior," says Diers. When you notice yourself body checking, take note of what you're doing when it happens. Try to stop it by doing something else or breathing through the urge to check. "Notice what triggers body checking and see if some of those triggers can be removed or managed in other ways. Try to be curious, not furious with yourself. You are gathering information to try to make a positive change. It takes practice and patience."

Above all, remember you're more than how you look. "It's only ONE portion of who you are," says Diers. "Beauty really is on the inside, and when that beauty is nurtured, it shines through."


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