“And when we come back, the story of a woman who went a month without looking in a single mirror.” That statement was enough to shake me from my exercise stupor as I took a few more punishing laps with the elliptical. It sounded gimmicky and more than a little extreme, the two elements driving most popular trends. I was admittedly intrigued. The piece on Good Morning America featured the story of blogger Autumn Whitefield-Madrano who went on what she termed a “mirror fast,” a reflection cleanse as it were, where she engaged in some pretty impressive machinations to avoid using mirrors or mirror-like surfaces. In an article for U.K’s The Guardian, Whitefield-Madrano claims she undertook the social experiment because she began to notice a growing preoccupation with her own image: “Whenever I saw my reflection I’d open my eyes a little wider, suck in my cheeks a little and tip my chin down in an effort to make myself look more like I wanted to. It made me feel really vain.” After a month essentially playing vampire (they can’t see their reflections either, right?), Whitefield-Madrano described feeling less self-conscious about her looks and “calmer and more serene.” Her experience sparked other women to try the mirror fast for varying lengths of time including one blogger, 29-year old San Francisco native Kjerstin Gruys who performed the fast for a year, the same year she was in the middle of planning her wedding. This surely earned her some type of extra martyr points on some level. The mirror fast has touched a chord. Pundits like Tyra Banks have weighed in (Tyra gives it a firm UNfabulous rating) and stories about women undertaking the fast have appeared in the New York Times. Will covering up your toaster in an effort to avoid catching a glimpse of your funhouse reflection in its chrome make you a less image-obsessed person? The jury remains decidedly out.
As someone who writes about issues related to women’s self-worth, I am interested in this trend, not so much for its social experiment mechanics (go without make-up for a month, stop looking in mirrors, gain fifty pounds for a movie role and notice how “society treats you,” this is not unique territory folks), but for the opportunities it presents to better understand the way we construct our self-image and derive our personal value. The intense focus on why and how women use the mirror suggests that this is a “woman’s problem.” It has somehow fallen on women to haul around the mantle of narcissism, self-obsession, and self-absorption, which accounts for our inability to tear ourselves away from the image we see reflected back at us in our iPads or ATM screens. Can I get a dramatic puhhh-leassee accompanied by an eye-roll of fierce proportions? Men and women express their preoccupation with appearance in different ways, but it exists for both genders. Women may struggle with negative self-perception and lack of self-worth more frequently, but by shunning the mirror, we give credence to the notion that it is a woman’s shame to take healthy pride in her image and we give power to the stereotype of a culture of looks-obsessed, shallow females.
While much of the discussion about mirror fasting has revolved around whether it curbs or fails to curb tendencies that women, in particular, label as negative and potentially harmful, (i.e. caring too much about looks, body image, general appearance at every given moment of the day), this focus misses the larger point: That taking a break from using mirrors has little to do with the act of gazing, looking, or even staring at ourselves in any given reflective surface, but instead has everything to do with the meanings extrapolated from what we perceive to see. We all have those friends we size up as: thin, corn-silk shiny hair, flawless skin, red carpet ready smile. And then we all experience the same kind of shock when said friend tells you, “I hate my teeth, I wish my hair were curly and thick, I have no hips and my clothes just hang on me.” And then you both laugh and go shoe shopping as the theme from Sex and the City plays in your head. The stories we tell ourselves about what we see in the mirror or through another’s eyes become more powerful, more impactful, and more influential in determining our self-worth than the flesh and blood reality that stares back at us. When Whitefield-Madrano completed her second mirror fast, she admitted it failed to offer the soothing balm of her first one. Instead she felt more anxious around people. She found herself wondering if her appearance were suitable, which is another way of saying, she wondered what narrative was being constructed about her in that moment having no concrete narrative of her own to compare it with.
Women do not need another form of dieting. We do not need to cast shame and blame upon ourselves when we spend an inordinate amount of time in the mirror fretting over that stubborn chin hair that appeared seemingly over night. Healthy self-worth arises from more than the way we look in a dress or how expertly we apply our make-up. To pretend that this is otherwise is to miss the opportunity to perform some real and lasting, positive change and to send a message to others that it is time to redefine our relationship to all types of beauty and body standards. Instead, women need to tune into what we’re telling ourselves when we compare our bodies to others, when we take stock of ourselves in a dressing room, or flip through a magazine. We need a new way of seeing, not a lack of ways to see.