Reflections on a Mirror-less Life

Eva Gonzales's "Le Petit Lever," 1875.
If you could boost your self-esteem by thinking less about your body image, or beauty standards, simply by cutting down on time spent in front of the mirror, would you?

For UCLA sociology grad student Kjerstin Gruys, the answer is yes. For an entire year, Gruys is refraining from looking at herself in the mirror. She reflects upon her, er, reflection-less new lifestyle on the blog “Mirror, Mirror...OFF The Wall” in the hopes that, in the run up to her wedding day, she can boost her self-confidence rather than obsessing over what is traditionally the most beauty-centric day of a woman’s life.

But is there any validity to the theory that not looking in the mirror will help one’s self-esteem? Renee Engeln-Maddox, a psychology professor and body image expert at Northwestern University, told the website
“When you look in the mirror, you’re increasing your tendency to see yourself as an outsider would. A lot of research has shown that lowers your body satisfaction and depletes your cognitive resources, meaning that your brain — which has limited resources — is less able to think about other things.”
Kjerstin Gruys may not have been thinking about protecting her “cognitive resources,” exactly, when she began the project. She said she had her “lightening” moment while reading a story about a religious practice where nuns banned the use of mirrors for the rest of their lives in order to focus on worship. Gruys says on her blog:
"A lifetime without seeing oneself. It made me pause. What a different life those nuns had lived, compared my appearance-obsessed world of Los Angeles! Could I go even one day without looking at myself in a mirror? Maybe I should. Actually, how about a year??”
Women look at themselves an average of 70 times per day, according to Professor Engeln-Maddox. An online survey commissioned by the group Transformulas International, published in the UK last year, claimed women look at themselves 71 times per day. They also claimed that women reapplied their lipstick and make-up roughly 11 times per day.

To this blogger, the numbers are so high they seem unbelievable. Yet somehow, with beauty standards being what they are, and a billion-dollar beauty industry that will do anything to support those seemingly impossible standards, it appears entirely plausible that we women are spending an unnatural amount of time thinking about our looks in front of the mirror. In fact, there is a clinical diagnosis for it—it’s called dysmorphic disorder. Those with the disorder compulsively look at themselves throughout the day, sometimes for hours at a time.

I wonder, however, if the fact that women spend an inordinate amount of time before the mirror is purely a result of our beauty culture, or something more.

Reading all the hype surrounding one woman’s mirror-less new way of life made me think of the art critic John Berger and his historical analysis of women’s presence in the art world. In his classic BBC documentary, “Ways of Seeing,”Berger claims that the objectification of women is rooted in the oil paintings of the masters, and he explores the ways in which this tradition has both inspired and predicated the objectification of women today. I was particularly fascinated by the following passage, which considers the role that women play in their own objectification:
“To be born a woman has to be born, within an allotted and confined space, into the keeping of men. The social presence of women is developed as a result of their ingenuity in living under such tutelage within such a limited space. But this has been at the cost of a woman's self being split into two. A woman must continually watch herself…She has to survey everything she is and everything she does because how she appears to men, is of crucial importance for what is normally thought of as the success of her life. Her own sense of being in herself is supplanted by a sense of being appreciated as herself by another....One might simplify this by saying: men act and women appear. Men look at women. Women watch themselves being looked at. This determines not only most relations between men and women but also the relation of women to themselves. The surveyor of woman in herself is male: the surveyed female. Thus she turns herself into an object -- and most particularly an object of vision: a sight."
Is our own sense of self-worth really that different from the women of centuries past? Kjerstin Gruys’s mirror experiment may seem like a cheap publicity stunt, but if it’s made more women think about cutting down on beauty and body image-obsession, allowing them to turn inward rather than focusing on outward appearances, I'd say she’s succeeded well beyond her own personal goals.