A 22-year-old influencer hits record for a TikTok video. She starts off her "Day in the Life" vlog with a clip of her flat stomach and protruding hip bone. Scroll down a bit more, and you'll see a teenager posting a video for thousands of followers with her weight and height captioned in the video. She is met with a comments section full of people comparing their own metrics to hers, wondering why their waist isn't as small if they weigh the same.
Digital body checking is the latest trend to be called out for sneaking its way onto "For you pages" everywhere. Those who have brought light to its rise describe it as unnecessary clips of one's body, typically a shot of a flat tummy in a video for no distinct reason. This has been called out for having ties to Tumblr-era diet culture, which was wrought with unhealthy, sometimes subliminal body messaging and seems to be making a return to the mainstream by way of trends such as heroin chic, low-rise jeans and micro miniskirts. But body checking did not originate on the internet, and its manifestation on social media is just a digital iteration of a years-old phenomenon.
What is body checking?
According to experts, body checking can be described as an insistent obsession with the appearance and size of one's body.
"Compulsive monitoring of your body shape, size, appearance, [such as] checking your weight, or pulling and feeling different parts of your body," says Brenna O'Malley, a registered "anti-diet" dietitian, who specializes in nutrition therapy and body-image support.
"It could be something as simple as [checking] your weight on the scale or getting into this habit around pinching like the extra skin or fat on our midsection or on our thighs, and just sort of constantly taking these pieces of feedback around how our body is looking more than [how it's] feeling," says Sonia Jhas, a mindset and wellness coach who specializes in body-image awareness.
What does body checking look like online?
Thanks to the rise of social media, many trends have taken on new, hard-to-ignore cyber-configurations. Now instead of being something done alone in a bathroom or bedroom, the entire internet can bear witness to personal body checking — without even knowing.
"We're sort of seeing this trend that has always in a way been there, now morphed into something that can be even more subtle and covert than it was before," says Jhas.
Since social media content varies widely across apps, digital body checking can look different from post to post and can be difficult to identify. But experts say there are a few consistencies.
"Oftentimes it is like, a shot of a flat stomach or what would be considered sort of like a lean, fit abdominal region in a video for literally no reason," says Jillian Lampert, the chief strategy officer of the Emily Program, an eating-disorder awareness and treatment center.
She also notes that this iteration of body checking varies slightly from the IRL version.
"[It has] sort of morphed into this sporadic, body-oriented visual that we're not expecting that feels like it's totally tangential and not at all related to the content. Yet you're sort of caught off guard and yet not actually caught off guard as it's woven in," says Lampert.
While body checking can happen in any number of video categories, "What I eat in a day" videos have become notorious for featuring body checking on TikTok.
"There was a huge surge of people all starting off with a body check, posting like a photo or a video of their body, sometimes with their stomach exposed, or kind of just showing their body size and then showing like what they ate in a day," says O'Malley. "This normally kind of conflates that, like by eating in a certain way someone might look like they do, or if someone follows this eating plan, they could also look like this person, which is a flawed message."
Who is doing it and why?
Similar to other social media manifestations of toxic body image rhetoric, those perpetuating body checking are typically thin or embody some other sort of favorable body ideal.
"People who are doing these sort of like body checks are basically pushing this 'thin ideal' in a lot of ways," says O'Malley.
Whether or not the body checking content is being done intentionally varies depending on the post, says O'Malley, explaining that sometimes users may unknowingly contribute to the trend.
"They might just be posting a video of themselves, and like, they're not intentionally, you know, trying to, display their body in a certain way, or, like, encourage these body checks. But I think that with image-based apps, like video or photos, a lot of the times, it's hard to decipher exactly what's happening," she says.
How to identify body checking
Unlike certain "thin is in" content on social media that has to be searched for through specific hashtags and keywords, body checking often hides in plain sight. But there are some visual cues that can indicate body checking is present.
"It's hard to tell at first glance, I think you'd see it more in a couple of ways. One, somebody who's like really clear about it, like 'I'm gonna see if my hand fits around my wrist.' Or 'I'm gonna see how far my hands fit on my waist.' That's going to be a much clearer indication that it's body checking. But I also think if you look at the body checking literature, people tend to be checking the same part of their body all the time. So let's say like every time I see that picture of that person, they always have their hand right on their hip bone and they always have their hand on their collarbone or they always have their hand on their wrist. Those are some of the most common places that we see it. So if you're scrolling through, and you're like, 'Wow, this person's pictures are always the same way, they're always in that same spot.' That could be a red flag that is slightly subtle," says Lampert.
But how do you distinguish between body checking and fitness content?
Fitness is a widely popular topic on TikTok, with personal trainers and amateurs alike sharing their tips and tricks for the gym. These videos commonly include focused shots of the poster's physique as well. But these videos typically don't get accused of promoting body checking, likely because that form of posing is expected from fitness content, say experts.
"There's a level of preparedness mentally when you're going into fitness content that makes it feel justifiable and warranted," Jhas says. "Whereas when we go into content that is not specifically fitness, I think we feel like dots are being connected, that are not justifiable," says Jhas.
But this doesn't mean that fitness posts are without flaws.
"Do we really need to see somebody's abs? Is that really the success metric that we need to confirm through their video footage that they're really the real deal?" says Jhas.
How to avoid body checking online
Body checking on social media can be especially nefarious since it can trickle onto the feeds of unsuspecting TikTok users, potentially triggering those dealing with body image issues.
Since body checking doesn't need to be hashtagged and can be incorporated across many genres of lifestyle content on TikTok, it can be hard to avoid. But there are a few safeguards in place to mitigate the rise of body checking on the app.
Currently no videos pop up when you search "body checking" on TikTok. In its place is a cartoon stomach with a heart and contact information for the National Eating Disorder Association. In a statement obtained by Yahoo Life, TikTok says the decision was an effort to put the welfare of users first.
"We strive to take a thoughtful approach to supporting the well-being of our community by developing policies in consultation with experts providing access to resources throughout our app," the statement said.
The same screen pops up when users search similar topics such as #proana, a pro anorexia hashtag.
In addition to the safeguards in place, experts recommend filtering the content you consume.
"Ask yourself, 'How do I want to feel while I am online?' 'Is my purpose to be entertained?' 'Is my purpose to learn something or is my purpose just to distract myself from the current life that I'm living?'" Jhas suggests. "Like, really just giving yourself a moment to acknowledge why you're getting online and what you're hoping to experience when you're there because otherwise we just sit there hoping that the adventure is going to take us where we want to go and 99% of the time it doesn't," says Jhas.
Being intentional about what you are searching can also help the algorithm work in your favor when using TikTok or other apps.
"The more you search for body inclusivity, the more you search for other things that are not related to body, the more of those you'll get to sort of make the algorithms your friend, instead of letting them feed you things that will be more harmful," says Lampert.
If you or someone you know is struggling with an eating disorder, call the National Eating Disorders Association hotline at 1-800-931-2237.
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