With body image issues and eating disorders on the rise in teens in the last few years, it’s understandable if you’re concerned about the health and well-being of your own child. And while some behaviors (such as restrictive dieting, extreme exercising, and overt body commentary) are more obvious signs of body dysmorphia in teens and adults alike, sometimes it’s easy to miss signs of an internal struggle. One such sign that indicates something deeper might be going on with your kid: body checking, a common symptom of an eating disorder and/or body dysmorphia.
Unfortunately, this type of behavior is being glorified in subtle and not-so-subtle ways on social media — from users being encouraged to share their weight to challenges that promote unhealthy body image, like having a waist small enough for someone to wrap their arm around it. The hashtag #bodychecking became so trendy (5+ million views) that, if you try to search for it now, TikTok displays an automated response that includes resources for contacting the National Eating Disorder Association.
Scary Mommy spoke to two therapists who specialize in eating disorders, and they shared what to look out for, how to know when your child needs help, and available treatment options in case you notice your teen is going through something serious.
What is body checking, exactly?
Simply put, body checking is a “neutralizing behavior that attempts to ease the anxiety felt by body-focused obsessions,” says Brandi Stalzer, therapist and owner of Stalzer Counseling & Consulting. Some body-checking behaviors include looking in the mirror repeatedly, feeling or pinching parts of the body, or using one’s fingers to "measure" body parts such as the wrists, she adds.
Other body-checking behaviors include looking in a glass window at one’s reflection upon walking by a building or making special trips to the mirror, trying on certain clothes to see if they still fit, frequently stepping on the scale, and/or feeling one’s body for bones, adds Kerry Heath, a licensed, professional counselor.
You might be thinking, But aren’t some of those things just typical teen behavior? Yes and no. Explains Heath, “These behaviors are all normal and not necessarily indicative of an eating disorder. Most of us engage in some of these behaviors at least some of the time. What might be concerning is whether the behaviors are compulsive and interfere with daily functioning.”
How to Spot Signs Your Child Needs Support
Given how quote-unquote normal some of this behavior may seem, how do you know when it ventures into truly problematic territory?
“Unfortunately, what starts out as an automatic or typical behavior can easily become compulsive and lead to worsening body image and even disordered eating,” says Heath. “An individual may weigh themselves periodically out of curiosity and eventually find themselves weighing daily or multiple times a day as a form of body checking.” When those behaviors lead to changes in eating or exercise, that’s a red flag that something’s amiss, she says.
And while these behaviors (and body image issues in general) can impact people of all ages, genders, and races, tweens and teens are at a uniquely vulnerable time in their lives. “Because adolescents are going through critical physical development and the high value our culture places on appearance, it is common for teenagers to have increased worries about their appearance,” says Stalzer. “As a result, even adolescents without the underlying concerns of an eating disorder or body dysmorphia may engage in body-checking behaviors.”
The one-two punch of adolescence and current selfie and social media culture only adds new methods of body checking to keep an eye out for, note both pros. “Technology and social media are a significant part of teenagers' lives,” says Stalzer. “Therefore, many of their checking behaviors may include technology, such as using their phone camera to check their appearance or taking frequent selfies. Adolescents may also post pictures on social media seeking reassurance from others.”
Of course, there’s nothing inherently alarming about a teen posting selfies online — it’s when other disordered behaviors come into play, or the behaviors become compulsive and interfere with their daily life and activities, that might mean it’s time to check on your child. Stalzer notes if you see other signs of body dysmorphia and/or eating disorders, such as refusing meals or snacks, frequent talk about dieting, trips to the bathroom after meals, and evidence of hiding food such as leftover wrappers, that you should consider speaking with a specialist.
How You Can Help
“If a parent notices that their child is unable to manage their body checking and it has progressed beyond what is normal, consulting a therapist with a specialty in eating disorders and/or body dysmorphia is important,” says Heath. “A qualified therapist can help your teen develop coping skills to manage anxiety and distorted thoughts while replacing the ineffective behaviors.” Stalzer adds that there are several cognitive-behavioral approaches that work to help find alternative coping mechanisms.
Even if your child isn’t exhibiting these behaviors, Heath notes that it’s crucial to model body-positive behaviors around your kids, no matter their ages. “Children need to see parents who are comfortable with their own bodies regardless of their size and shape who do not alter their intake and exercise based on their emotions and body satisfaction,” she says. “Parents can role-model a healthy relationship with a scale or choose not to have them in the home.”
It’s also important to nix the body commentary (about your own, your kids, or others around you) and refrain from putting moral value on food or exercise — carrots and carrot cake alike can both be part of a balanced diet, and it’s important to approach movement from a place of joy, not punishment. “Monitoring or limiting social media is important for tweens and teens,” she adds. “Teens and tweens also need to be taught how to manage anxiety and stress.”
All of the above is certainly a tall order, but you don’t have to go it alone. In fact, you can and should reach out to an eating disorder specialist with any questions or concerns, as they can help reframe your relationship with your own body and ensure that you’re setting your children up in a healthy, loving, empowering way going forward.
If you or someone you know has an eating disorder and needs help, call the National Eating Disorders Association helpline at 1-800-931-2237, text 741741, or chat online with a helpline volunteer here.