Face It

The challenges of aging in today's culture

Some Women Try 'Mirror Fasting'

What we learn—or don't—about our body image by avoiding mirrors

Diet-conscious people—and there are many—are told that they should avoid looking at their scale to help become less obsessed with their weight. Now, mirror fasting is being suggested for those who struggle with body image issues.

Mirror fasting involves abstaining from looking at one's reflection for a set period of time. For some, that means a day-long "fast." For others, it can mean not looking in a mirror for an entire year. People engaging in the experiment are blogging about it to share their personal experiences of living in a world without mirrors.

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Is it a fad? A useful learning tool? Or does it actually impede working through body image issues?

The New York Times recently wrote, "Judging from the number of bloggers reflecting on not reflecting," it seems that mirror fasting is growing in popularity. Thirty-nine-year-old Autumn Whitefield-Madrano, a blogger who avoided her reflection for two months, wrote, "I was surprised at how quickly I stopped worrying about how I looked and if I wasn't thinking about it, I assumed no one else was either, which is actually true." Kjerstin Gruys, another woman who blogged about her yearlong mirror fast, said, "All the other interesting things in my life—my goals, passions, friends, family, favorite hobbies, etc—have attracted the energy and attention I used to give to my looks." The Times reports, "Those who have engaged in the exercise report that not seeing themselves helped them see themselves more clearly."

NBC's Today Show featured Whitefield-Madrano's story, showing video clips of her life without mirrors—while shopping, attending a wedding and a day at the beach. Dr. Nancy Snyderman, the show's medical correspondent, questioned the value of going to such extremes. She said, "How we present ourselves opens up the doors for job interviews and dating," which is a challenging task when there is no way to assess how we look.

Jezebel's Madeleine Davies wrote about the overreaction to the whole issue, wondering why everyone seemed "so threatened and immediately defensive around a woman who, at no risk to anyone else, has decided to stop looking at herself in the mirror? Surely, they must know that they don't have to participate. Is it that they are in such an image-driven industry that they cannot fathom not caring about your appearance?"

As a psychologist who studies body image, I view the recent fuss over mirror fasting as evidence of the ongoing complicated role that looks play in women's psyche. On one hand, we feel we should be beyond such superficial concerns, that women have come too far to be preoccupied by our looks. On the other hand, our appearance clearly matters—both in our personal and professional lives—and lest we forget, the media provides us constant reminders of its importance. It's what I have identified as "The Beauty Paradox."

Surely, mirror fasting is an interesting social experiment of sorts, a reaction against our culture's tiresome obsession with youth and beauty. It can remind us that we rely on mirrors all too often to "check ourselves" and that there are more important things to focus on than the affirmation (or criticism) they elicit. But fasting seems like an avoidance tactic rather than a learning one, distracting us from the psychological tools we need to feel good about ourselves. When it comes to improving body image, I suggest the opposite approach.

Reflections will always exist naturally (in pools of water and shadows) and mirrors are ever-present in today's culture. And while I don't think that more mirror use is better than less, I do believe dealing with what we see is the way to resolve our struggles with body image. Looking at yourself closely and clearly (sometimes even using a magnified mirror) is not about encouraging narcissistic vanity, but about facing how we actually feel about our bodies and faces. We have to learn to train our own eyes to view ourselves in a positive way, ultimately dealing internally with what we see externally.

This approach to body image issues parallels the different therapeutic models used to treat addictions—sometimes through abstinence, but other times through immersion. Treatment for drug or alcohol abuse, for example, is most often based on complete withdrawal to be successful. An "alcohol fast" in a 12-step program starts by counting the days a person abstains from a substance. The goal is to learn to cope with life without dependence on alcohol. But for people who suffer from eating disorders or sex addiction, complete withdrawal isn't recommended. It isn't about abstaining from eating or sex altogether. It's about learning to engage in these activities in a healthier way.

The same can be said for how we use mirrors. While it may be an interesting experiment and a popular fad to ignore them, it is more important that we learn to use our reflection in a healthy way to support, not undermine, our self-esteem.

Think of it this way: Our very first mirrors are the reflections we see in our parents' eyes when we are infants. The gleam—or lack of one—when our parents gaze down at us begins to shape how we view ourselves. As we develop, our self-image continues to be influenced by the way our significant others reflect back at us. It is one of the reasons that teens find their peer's opinions (and mirrors) so compelling. It is during adolescence that reflections serve to solidify an evolving self-image. As we enter adulthood, the accumulation of how others viewed us throughout our lives emerges into a more permanent sense of self. Over time, if all goes well, our own internal lens is the one that influences us most, as our self-image continues to be shaped by what we see with our own eyes. This is a developmental process best understood, rather than avoided.

So while we can take a break from actual mirrors that surround us as adults—to help think about why and how we rely on them—it's the adjustments we make to our own, internal view of ourselves that are necessary. Today's culture may perpetuate the yearning for a perfect self-image, but a mirror-less world is not the solution.

Do you think "mirror fasting" is a passing fad? Or a behavioral experiment worth trying?

 

Vivian Diller, Ph.D. is a psychologist in private practice in New York City. She serves as a media expert on various psychological topics and as a consultant to companies promoting health, beauty and cosmetic products. Her book, "Face It: What Women Really Feel As Their Looks Change" (2010), edited by Michele Willens, is a psychological guide to help women deal with the emotions brought on by their changing appearances. For more information, please visit my website at www.VivianDiller.com; and continue the conversation on Twitter at DrVDiller.

Follow Vivian Diller, Ph.D. on Twitter: www.twitter.com/DrVDiller

Vivian Diller, Ph.D., is a psychologist in private practice in New York City and co-author of Face It: What Women Really Feel As Their Looks Change.

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