Skin Deep: Some people in search of serenity are trying to abstain from looking at their reflections for a day, a week, a month or even a year.
Narcissus had only a pool of water in which to gaze, but we see our reflections at almost every turn. In bathroom mirrors, shop windows, sliding subway doors, brass elevator banks and even in the screens of smartphones: No matter where you go, there you are. Mindful of what happened to Narcissus (it wasn’t good), some people are trying to abstain from looking at their reflections for a day, a week, a month or even a year.
These “mirror fasts” are becoming more popular, judging from the number of bloggers reflecting on not reflecting. Those who have engaged in the exercise report that not seeing themselves helped them see themselves more clearly.
“It gave me a lot of serenity,” said Autumn Whitefield-Madrano, 36, a freelance writer and copy editor in New York City, who has gone on two monthlong mirror fasts in the last two years, avoiding her reflection even in the pots and pans of her kitchen and chronicling how this changed her view of herself in her blog, The Beheld. (She allowed herself to use a 1 inch-by-1 inch mirror for applying makeup during her first fast because it limited her view to only one feature at a time. But on her second fast, she did it by feel.) “I was surprised at how quickly I stopped worrying about how I looked,” she said, “and if I wasn’t thinking about it, I assumed no one else was either, which is actually true.”
Freed of that concern, Whitefield-Madrano said that she began to focus on more important issues like her work and relationships. “I hadn’t realized how much I used the mirror as a life raft: to see that I at least looked ‘normal’ when things weren’t going well,” she said. “When I took it away, I had to be really honest with myself.”
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Kjerstin Gruys, a 29-year-old sociology graduate student in San Francisco, similarly found she had more brain space available when she abstained from looking in the mirror. Her yearlong mirror fast, which ended in March, was documented on her blog, Mirror, Mirror … Off the Wall. “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,” Gruys wrote in a recent post.
But the effect may not be enduring. Shortly after her return to mirrors, Gruys, who is writing a book about her experience and who declined to be interviewed, has taken to posting stylized photos of herself, in various outfits and poses (pouting, peeping through windows, splayed in doorways, etc.) where it appears that considerable time and attention were paid to her looks.
Marisa Gizzio, 45, a stay-at-home mom in Garnet Valley, Pa., went without mirrors for two days last October to help her overcome her tendency to ruthlessly criticize her figure. “Any reflection, even in the sliding glass doors at the grocery store, I would automatically check if my butt was sticking out or my legs were too big,” she said. “It was such a waste of time.”
Gizzio had started to regain some of the 60 pounds she lost the previous year because when she looked in the mirror, she said, “I still had that fat girl looking back at me, so I’d just throw up my hands and think, what’s the use?” The mirror fast helped arrest her self-destructive mindset. “It was like damage control,” she said. “I needed to wipe the slate clean and start thinking about what I liked about myself, which made me feel more confident so I wanted to eat better and I wanted to exercise.”
Kate Fox, a social anthropologist with the Social Issues Research Center in Oxford, England, said mirror fixation is not necessarily a sign of vanity or narcissism but rather a normal response to a society that emphasizes appearance. “The standards for beauty today are higher because you see images of outstandingly beautiful people in the media all the time,” she said (often touched up with Photoshop). And with beauty equated with health in fashion and fitness magazines, Fox said, people feel anxious and undone “when they look in the mirror and see normalcy.”
While women, like the evil queen in “Snow White,” are more often thought to be compulsive mirror gazers, men are just as likely to admire and appraise themselves, said Dr. Eric Hollander, a clinical professor of psychiatry at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York City. He gave the example of a twenty-something patient addicted to looking in the mirror the way others might be addicted to alcohol or drugs.
“He’d pick at his imperfections and get stuck in the mirror for hours, so he wasn’t able to go on dates or get to work,” said Hollander, who advised the patient to take down the mirrors in his house and stop wearing glasses while out so he couldn’t see fine details if he glimpsed his reflection.
Rather than recommend complete mirror abstinence, Adrienne Ressler, a social worker and therapist in Coconut Creek, Fla., advises patients to stop looking at their reflection with hard, critical eyes. “You look at yourself with a scrunched-up face of disapproval and of course you’re not going to look good,” she said. Replace it with a look of acceptance and maybe repeat a word or phrase that, she said, “captures how you would like to feel in your body,” like “elegant” or “serene” or “I’m OK.”
For those who regard vanity as a sin, mirror fasting can lead to spiritual growth. Felice Austin, 34, a hypnotherapist and Mormon in Los Angeles, chose to go without mirrors instead of food for her faith’s daylong fast last February. “I do like to look in the mirror,” said Austin, who describes herself as “exotic looking” with blond hair, golden eyes and “very nice lips.”
Though she’s used to getting compliments, she said, she received more the day she wasn’t always checking herself in the mirror. “Maybe I noticed or appreciated it more because I could not look in the mirror,” she said. Moreover, she became more aware of the aesthetic as well as the intrinsic beauty in those around her. “When I couldn’t look at myself, I think I noticed the beauty in others more,” she said.