Invasion of the Body-Checking

From the Eating Disorders Glossary:

Body checking refers to an obsessive thought and behavior about appearance. For people with eating disorders or body dysmorphia this may present as frequent weighing, looking in the mirror, and pinching or wrapping hand around stomach, waist, thighs, arms. Or they may ask others for such assurance: “do I look fat?”, “do I look any bigger,” etc. This can be done even hundreds of times per day; the reassurance may only be momentary followed by heightened anxiety and fear. Checking is a common symptom of obsessive compulsive disorders 

After years of ballet, which (as I’ve said before) is essentially paid mimicry, noticing movement — in both myself and others — is a firm habit. And, ever since I noticed how many of my natural movements are body-checking. Nervous habit of loosely wrapping my right hand around my left wrist during small talk? Body checking. Sitting cross-legged or with crossed legs in a chair? Done to avoid body-checking that got so bad while sitting that I couldn’t take exams. Hands on hips? Body-checking; poking about for boniness.

I wrote about Not-Just-Right-Experiences, and I’d describe the body-checking as being in response to NJREs. Something feels off, “have I possibly changed size??” leads directly to body checking. I calm down after I body check….only until the next NJRE.

And all of this is to lead up to this fascinating case study:

Thomas et al. (2012) describe the case of ‘Ms A’, who described herself as having ‘3% of full vision’: she could detect only high contrast, some colour, and large shapes under optimal conditions, but otherwise nothing at all.
Talking about her disturbed body image, Ms A described typical features of anorexia in the sighted, including checking behaviours, body avoidance (e.g. avoiding tight clothing), and comparisons with others. As she put it, ‘I do all of the checking, but without the eyes’. She, like other blind sufferers from anorexia, used tactile body checking – feeling for bony protrusions in face, ribcage, spine, and hips, and assessing how tight her clothes felt.  She would also try to engage in the ‘mirror checking’ that’s so common in sighted anorexics: she described how she would stand very close to full-length mirrors to use the patterns of light and dark to try to assess her shape. ‘I like to pretend I can see a form’, she said. Usually, because she could only see ‘a blob’, this kind of checking would simply confirm to her that her body was too large. When comparing herself with others, Ms A used changes in air pressure to estimate people’s body size, and auditory cues like voice location and pitch to gauge height and weight respectively – a practice common among the blind.”

I’d been foolishly assuming that body image issues depended on sight. This, even though the more distressing component of distorted perception is when my proprioception (knowledge of where my body is in space) is wrong. Even though body checking is prompted by an internal sense of distress, rather than seeing myself. Even though few people with eating disorders are able to recover just by seeing the evidence in front of them.*

*Eating disorders are not just for the already-slim (EDs: they’re for everyone!) and society makes it particularly hard to recover as a fat person with an eating disorder. I wouldn’t be surprised if the pathology and course of those cases is far worse, but of course we rarely manage to study them. 


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