- Mirror checking is a coping mechanism to ease fears about body image and in some cases, weight.
- Frequent mirror-checking can affect people with body dysmorphic disorder, eating disorders, and disordered eating.
- Working with a dietitian can help you heal your relationship with eating and body image.
Body image dissatisfaction can affect all genders at any age. Changes in body shape, skin texture, and even hair texture can make a person feel anxious about their physical appearance. Checking their reflection in a mirror can be a way to ease anxious thoughts and fears.
In this article, you’ll learn why mirror-checking happens, how it can be linked to disordered eating, and some gentle tips on how to stop mirror-checking.
If you suspect you have disordered eating habits, and are ready to get help, consider booking a virtual nutrition appointment with a registered dietitian.
What Is Mirror Checking?
Mirror checking is a type of body checking that can increase anxiety. Any changes in physical appearance (which may be self-perceived as negative) can make people feel worse about themselves.
While in front of the mirror, all body parts can be scrutinized, but common areas of focus can include:
- Skin - scarring, acne, and changes in color.
- Hair - balding, excessive facial or body hair.
- Nose - shape, size.
- Body - changes in size, changes in proportions, stretch marks, or visible blemishes.
People who mirror check may also feel the urge to check their physical appearance while walking past reflective surfaces, including store windows or glass structures such as a bus terminal.
Working with a professional to decrease body-checking frequency can lead to greater feelings of self-esteem and increased body satisfaction.
Mirror Checking and Body Dysmorphic Disorder
Ritual mirror checking is a symptom seen in people with body dysmorphic disorder (BDD). The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders lists BDD as a recognized mental health disorder. BDD can start in adolescence and sometimes in late adulthood.
People with BDD can have a preoccupation with slight or imagined flaws in their appearance. They may look in the mirror to ease their fears about how they think they look or to confirm that a perceived flaw is still present and “as bad” as they feared.
BDD and eating disorders are comorbid conditions, meaning you can have both conditions at the same time. If you frequently analyze your appearance and have restrictive eating patterns, consider contacting a medical professional and speaking with them about getting a formal assessment.
Nourish can connect you with a registered dietitian who specializes in disordered eating. If you’re ready to take the next step in your health journey, consider booking a virtual appointment with a dietitian.
What Is Considered Compulsive?
BDD is on the obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) spectrum. Intrusive and unwanted thoughts can cause emotional discomfort and anxiety. Completing a ritualistic OCD behavior can reduce feelings of anxiety and distress.
OCD behaviors, such as mirror-checking for long hours, are fear-based, invasive, and non-pleasurable. The treatment for OCD involves regular therapy, ideally using a cognitive-based approach. Some people may also benefit from medications, but treatment plans will vary per person.
Mirror Checking and Eating Disorders
Body-checking behaviors have been linked to disordered eating and eating disorders. A 2013 study found that people who are diagnosed with anorexia are more likely to restrict calories on days when the body-checking frequency was higher. The calorie restriction continued on the following day, too.
As mentioned earlier, there is an overlap between BDD and eating disorders. An older 2006 study assessed 200 people who had received a diagnosis of BDD for eating disorders. Within this group, 32.5% of subjects had an eating disorder, 6.5% had bulimia nervosa, and the remaining 17.5% had an eating disorder otherwise not specified.
This data suggests that people who present with BDD symptoms, such as ritualistic mirror checking, should also be assessed for eating disorders so they can receive proper treatment.
Similarities between BDD and eating disorders include:
- A preoccupation with body weight, shape, and restrictive dieting.
Some examples that show the differences between BDD and eating disorders include:
- Mirror checking because a person worries about acne, not their weight.
- Concerned about a receding hairline, not body shape.
Other Body-Checking Mechanisms
Body-checking coping mechanisms are used to reduce feelings of anxiety and fears of any changes in physical appearance. They include:
- Taking pictures of oneself and comparing appearances against old pictures.
- Tracing bones and different body areas where there could be physical changes.
- Wrapping fingers around legs, arms, or wrists to measure size.
- Pinching abdominal tissues or other parts of the body.
- Comparing body parts to friends, coworkers, or people on social media.
These coping mechanisms are called maladaptive because they do not elicit positive changes; they reinforce fear-based thinking. Developing healthful coping skills, such as relaxation strategies, can help a person respond to anxiety safely.
Nourish offers nutrition counseling by arranging appointments with trained registered dietitians. If you suspect you have disordered eating patterns or an eating disorder, consider booking a virtual appointment and get support today.
How to Stop Mirror Checking
Mirror checking is considered a coping mechanism that helps reduce anxiety in people who fear physical appearance or weight changes. If you frequently check your reflection because you fear something you ate will change your body shape, you may have disordered eating and should be assessed.
Here is an example of an exercise you can do to stop mirror checking.
- Record the times in the day when you body check in a mirror. Approach this observational exercise nonjudgmentally and without trying to interrupt the act. You can track the information on your phone or in a journal; choose the easiest method for you.
- On the second day, track how often you mirror-check (without documenting the time) and actively try to interrupt the behavior to reduce the number of times you mirror-check.
You can compare how often you mirror-check without interfering against how many times you mirror-check while actively trying to stop the behavior. Most people will see a reduction in their behavior when they actively try to reduce it, which can be motivating.
Mirror-checking behaviors take time to change. Be gracious with yourself as you work through these mechanisms, and remember that small, consistent changes are still excellent.
Work with Trained Professionals
Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is recommended to address mirror-checking behaviors. CBT can be useful for anyone trying to manage an anxiety-related disorder. A trained therapist can share strategies to help reduce feelings of anxiety when confronted with triggering situations or thoughts.
CBT and SSRI medications can help with BDD and reduce obsessive behaviors, including mirror checking. SSRIs are selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors. This class of medication is most commonly used to treat depression. You and your healthcare team should decide if medications are appropriate for your treatment plan.
Seeking Help for Disordered Eating
Disordered eating refers to restrictive eating habits that are not severe enough to be considered a diagnosable eating disorder. Signs of disordered eating may include an intense focus on food, calories, and macronutrients. Mirror checking combined with restrictive dieting is also a sign of disordered eating, and these behaviors should be addressed by trained professionals.
Research has shown that working with a multidisciplinary care team to address disordered eating can be hugely beneficial. This includes a mental health therapist, a clinician, and a dietitian. Involving loved ones and caregivers in your treatment can also help with recovery and long-term success.
Taking The Next Step
Mirror checking is a coping mechanism that temporarily silences anxious thoughts and fears about physical appearance. You can learn how to spend less time analyzing your diet and physical appearance by working with a therapist and a registered dietitian.
Nourish offers individualized nutrition appointments that are covered by the most popular insurance carriers. If you want to take the next step of your health journey, consider booking a virtual appointment with a registered dietitian.
Frequently Asked Questions
See a Registered Dietitian with Nourish
- Covered by insurance
- Virtual sessions
- Personalized care