Smart Technology and Body Checking
Eating disorders thrive on the never ending quest to categorize, measure, and analyze self-worth and self-efficacy through numbers. This often results in body checking, or the obsessive thoughts, behaviors, or actions one takes to assess body size or shape. In addition to commonly observed body checking behaviors seen in eating disorders like mirror gazing, measuring, squeezing, or pinching certain parts of the body, using scales, wearables, or apps in a similar fashion certainly falls within the category of body checking.
There is no denying that we live in a number-obsessed world. With the advent of smart technology and seemingly infinite data crunching and number tracking apps, we have the ability more than ever to analyze ourselves in concrete numbers.
For many people without eating, exercise, or body image struggles collecting this data may be entertaining and informative, interpreted and reviewed within a broad context of overall well-being and sense of self. The numbers take a backseat to more important or exciting life experiences.
However, for many individuals struggling with an eating disorder, exercise addiction or body image dissatisfaction, tracking this data becomes a narrowly focused and obsessive body checking behavior.
Numbers Can Exert A Powerful Influence On Your Freedom And Flexibility.
As a result weight, size, steps, and calories become a measurement of success or failure, self-value or self-hatred. The multitude of experiences, feelings, and events that occur in a day become packaged in graphs and numbers, rather than a connection to personal values, interests, and meaningful relationships. Over time as the reliance on numbers for confirmation of self-worth becomes more entrenched, mental activity and behavior begins to bend in the service of seeing a certain number.
Rather than go out with friends as planned, you tell them something urgent came up and head out for an obligatory walk to ensure you get your steps in. Rather than partake in a casual lunch out with coworkers you politely decline and stick to a meal precisely calibrated for calories. Rather than skip the scale, you hop on only to see numbers that unravel the happy feeling you have from a pleasant experience earlier in the day. Instead of enjoying how your body feels during exercise, you constantly check the time or deny your body the rest it needs. Rather than enjoying time with your family or friends, you find yourself glued to your phone carefully calculating calories and feeling uneasy if you can’t input what you ate or how much you exercised.
But you are not a number on a scale or a BMI chart. You are not the summation of how many steps you took today. You are not an arbitrary measurement of size. And most certainly you are not the culmination of how many calories you burned or consumed.
You may need to say these words aloud to yourself occasionally to remind yourself just how much more complex, unique, and empowered you are.
Seriously, try it now just for practice. It’s time to stand up to the stats. You don’t need to continue to allow the scale, your Fitbit, your heart rate monitor, an app, or the like to continue to take up so much valuable mental real estate!
Your eating disorder desperately wants you to believe that you can, in fact, be reduced to a number and will likely come up with a multitude of convincing arguments why not to ditch the data.
Anxiety about what terrible things will happen if you don’t know the numbers will likely be in the forefront. Remind yourself it’s ok to be anxious about letting go, your relationship to numbers likely has been a consistent part of your life so of course, you are hesitant. The thing with feelings, though, is that you can be anxious and still take action. Waiting to make a change until the anxiety goes away may end up just keeping you stuck.
We often stay in unhelpful situations longer than we should “waiting” for uncomfortable feelings to subside to take action. Instead of waiting, allow yourself to have those feelings and bring them with you as you make changes. Moving forward in this way may at times be unpleasant, but you may end up discovering you are more competent than you imagined.
If you find yourself using the scale or other wearables to measure your self-worth, to give yourself permission to eat, or to provide a concrete measure of success, it is time to smash the scale!
Ok, you don’t actually have to smash it. But why not? Or sell it on eBay, or put it in the trash, or give it away. The point is to get rid of it. You don’t need an object or app telling you who you are, what you should or shouldn’t eat, or otherwise pressuring you into making decisions in the service of numbers.
I’ve witnessed many client’s experience relief and empowerment in taking a sledgehammer to a scale or other device that held their mind and body hostage for many years. The physical act of destroying a seemingly harmless object that wielded so much authority over daily thoughts, behaviors, feelings and decisions is quite freeing.
(As a side note: when you do take the sledgehammer to the scale be sure to wear safety glasses, you may even want to put it in a sturdy garbage bag first then smash it inside to prevent small pieces from going everywhere. Also, if the scale or wearable isn’t yours, perhaps it belongs to your parents or roommate, be sure to talk to them about your plan before you destroy a potentially expensive object. Just a couple of notes having done this a quite a few times.)
If you find yourself regularly checking numbers-based apps enlist the help of a friend, parent, or therapist to help you delete it from your device. Data tracking apps can be pesky little time sucks that are just as detrimental as the scale or wearables. After you remove the app, set up a time to randomly check back in for accountability to make sure you haven’t reinstalled what you deleted.
Talk with your treatment team about using a non-numbers recovery focused app (meditation, self-monitoring, goal setting) as a replacement.
After you relinquish the scale, sell the Fitbit, and delete your apps you may notice yourself trying to find other ways to measure yourself and feel uncertain about your worth since your usual measures are no longer accessible.
Don’t be surprised if you to continue to think about the numbers and experience strong urges to go back to weighing, measuring, and tracking. You’ve trained your brain, albeit unintentionally, to use numbers as a dominant feedback mechanism to assess yourself. By focusing your attention and actions on numbers you’ve formed strong neural pathways which will take time to loosen.
Be prepared for some withdrawal anxieties and urges around the times and activities that you would typically check numbers like meals or exercise.
Practical Steps to Take After Ditching the Data
Urge surfing. The urge to weigh yourself, calculate calories, or replace the device you just destroyed will pass. When you feel strong urges to go back to the behavior that is familiar and comforting, but unhelpful in the long run, remind yourself that the feeling will eventually pass much like an ocean wave. It may help to visualize the rise, cresting, and fall of a wave or even listening to a recording of the sea. Practice “urge surfing” until it lessens.
Notice Thoughts vs Buying Into Thoughts As Facts. Your mind will make up lots of compelling stories and reasons why you need to go back to old behaviors and numbers. Acknowledge these thoughts as thoughts versus commands or facts.
Practice saying to yourself, or even aloud “I notice I’m having the thought that…I need to weigh myself…check my steps…etc.” Noticing thoughts from a more distanced perspective will help create space from engaging in the behavior. You can have a thought but not act on it.
You may also want to try imagining the thoughts as annoying pop-up ads or spam vying for your attention. Just as you would ignore or minimize the popup on your screen, try doing this in your mind.
If you are feeling a bit snarky try “thanking” your mind for “bringing that brilliant idea that you’ve never thought of before into the radar.”
Connect With Your Long Term Goal Of Being Free From The Eating Disorder, Compulsive Exercise, And Body Image Dissatisfaction. Humans are notorious for psychologists call “delayed discounting,” meaning we take the quick and easy option now, despite having adverse outcomes down the road. While it may be easier in the moment to get that sense of security from numbers NOW than it is to go through the discomfort of not knowing, engaging in the behavior is keeping you from your hard fought goal of recovery.
Ask yourself, if I do x, is this moving me toward or away from my recovery goal? Does checking the numbers align with who I am becoming and who I want to be without my eating disorder?
Remind Yourself You Are Not A Number, And Your Value and Worth Are Not Dependent On Numbers. Say aloud to yourself “I will not let numbers define me, tell me what to do, or who I am.” Explore new activities that are fun and pleasurable.
Using distraction at the right times in moderation can be a useful coping tool when trying to interrupt behaviors that keep you stuck. Make a distress tolerance box with a variety of simple go-to activities and encouraging reminders when you are struggling.
Allow Yourself to Experience Your Feelings. There is much psychological freedom and physiological release that comes when you give yourself permission and space to have your feelings, whatever they may be. Take a few minutes just to be with yourself without distractions to notice, honor, and acknowledge what feelings may be coming up.
Write A Goodbye Letter To The Object or Behavior. Letting go is hard. Spend a few minutes journaling or writing why you are giving up the data or scale, what is hard about stopping the behaviors, how the numbers have controlled you, and the benefits of not number checking,
Get Into The Present Moment. Obsessing over numbers robs you of your experience in the here and now, keeping you stuck in your mind with your attention focused on a narrow spectrum of feelings and sensations.
Bring yourself into the moment by practicing connecting with your five senses. Notice what you hear, bring your attention to all the sounds you notice. Notice the smells, what scents are you aware of? Notice your surroundings, what do you see? Name five objects or use 5 descriptors to capture something you see. What do you feel? Notice the texture of clothing against your skin, the feeling of the earth pressing against your shoes, or your body sitting on a chair. Lastly, notice what you taste. If you aren’t eating perhaps, check in with your hunger/fullness or sensation in your mouth.
The ultimate goal of all of this is not just to get rid of a scale or the like. Rather, ditching the data is a part of the larger process of broadening your experience of yourself, attending to all parts of yourself to know that you are a complex individual who cannot be defined by a number and who can flexibly shift attention and connection throughout the day toward what is most important to you.