The author of “Mirror Mirror off the Wall: How I Learned to Love My Body by Not Looking at It for a Year” recently gave a talk at the University of West Florida about body image and her book. Kjerstin Grys is a doctoral candidate at the department of sociology at University of California Los Angeles. In 2011, she decided to take a year without consciously looking at mirrors.
KI: Kjerstin, what inspired you to do that?
KG: I was inspired to go a year without mirrors because I was engaged to be married. Even though I was already an activist for body image and gave talks about eating disorder prevention, when I started trying on wedding dresses, I found myself feeling really self-conscious about my body, really critical. I found myself thinking, ‘Oh, I should lose five or ten pounds, this dress would look so much better on me if I weighed less.’ I really was troubled that I wasn’t having as much fun. I felt like a hypocrite, in a sense, because I felt like I wasn’t able to live out my values at that time.
The idea to go without mirrors came up as a response. I thought, the wedding culture is so oppressive. It tells women that your wedding day is the most important day of your life, and therefore, it’s the day you’re supposed to look your most beautiful. Of course it’s totally false, it’s not the most important day of your life. It’s just one of many important days. But with all that culture pressing on me to improve my appearance and obsess about it, I wanted something to press back. The idea of giving up mirrors seemed like one way to do that.
KI: There are a lot of reflective surfaces. How did you physically go about avoiding them?
KG: I did decide I wanted to avoid all reflective surfaces, because the goal wasn’t to see if I could avoid mirrors. It was to see if I could avoid looking at my reflection and how that would shape my life. I had to really memorize the reflective surfaces and mirrors in my everyday life, so I covered the ones in my home. I figured out how to navigate my work space at UCLA, down to which bathroom stall I could use where I would open the door and not be faced with a mirror.
The biggest challenge was actually training myself to automatically look away if I started to see my reflection, which happened all the time. I tell people that I saw myself almost every day of the year, but I didn’t look. There is a distinction between seeing and looking.
KI: Did you feel an urge to look at yourself when you knew you couldn’t?
KG: Oh, all the time. I would say it was the most difficult in the first two or three months. Near the end of three months, I was starting to have that automatic sense of looking away. I like to say that the way I approached it was the same as most people do when they’re walking down the street or down the hallway and they see somebody coming towards them that they know but don’t want to interact with. We’ve all done this. We’re walking down the hallway and we see someone out of the corner of our eye. We think, ‘As long as I don’t make eye contact, I can keep walking.’ I had to train myself to automatically do that with my reflection.
KI: Did you eventually get used to not seeing yourself? Did you feel anything positive?
KG: Absolutely. You know, my hope for this project was that by taking the emphasis away from my appearance and the time I spent thinking about my looks, checking myself out just to make sure my makeup was looking good or my hair was fine. By taking time and energy away from those things, I’d be able to put that time and energy back into the things that I value the most, which is my friends, my family and my work. That didn’t happen in the first few weeks, because I was over-thinking and worried about what I looked like. But after about a month and a half, it continued to get more and more automatic, that my life was more about those things and less about worrying about my appearance.
KI: It’s been almost two years since you began the project. How do you feel differently now?
KG: I tell myself the real way to judge how successful the project was on a personal level wasn’t necessarily how I felt in the month after I started looking in mirrors, but how my life changed over time. Although I do have mirrors in my life again—I get ready in front of a mirror most mornings—I found that I’m less judgmental when I do look in the mirror, and that’s been really great.
KI: What do you hope that people will get from reading your book?
KG: Well the book is both my own path, and I tried really hard to be brutally honest about both my goals, but also the constant contradictions that I and other women run into during our lives. We’re told, be beautiful but don’t be vain. Be fashionable, but don’t appear shallow and obsessed about clothes. Also these real things about wanting to have an appearance that’s acceptable, that’s cherished by our culture, and yet, the demands are so high. I hope that women and men who read it get a sense of validation for a lot of feelings that I think a lot of other women share along those lines. I’m also really pleased that, as a sociologist, I was able to include a lot of research that puts those feelings into perspective.
Kjerstin Grys is the author of “Mirror Mirror off the Wall: How I Learned to Love My Body by Not Looking at It for a Year”. Grys’s dissertation research at UCLA looks at how appearance standards shape gender inequality in the workplace.
Katya Ivanov, WUWF News