Mirror-Less Schooling: A Positive Initiative?

By Sharon Haywood, Co-Editor

Last month, a UK high school attracted media attention when its administration chose to remove all mirrors from its bathrooms. Shelley College in Huddersfield, West Yorkshire put the policy in place only a few weeks into the new school year to enforce the no-makeup rule for students between the ages of 14 and 16. The radical move also aims to minimize the social time students spend in the bathroom, an initiative that has been met with parental support. I know my parents would have stood behind mirror-less schooling.

When I was 16, I spent an awful lot of time looking at myself. My hair and makeup demanded time. (Think Madonna’s Big Teased hair, circa early 1980s coupled with an obsession with the color purple—painted heavy-handedly on my eyelids and lips.) I went to a Catholic high school so a uniform was a must, leaving hair and makeup as the primary vehicles to visually explore and express my sense of style, my sense of me. The importance of how I looked was magnified as I was also suffering from an eating disorder. When reading about Shelley College’s decision, I couldn’t help but wonder if I had lived without mirrors during school hours, would it have affected the way I viewed myself? Would it have created an alternative culture among my schoolmates where accomplishments overshadowed looks? Would I have valued my intelligence, my sensitivity, and my gifts over my appearance instead of the other way around? Potentially.

When this story broke last month, Margaret Hartmann of Jezebel straddled both sides of the argument:

“Teenagers have enough trouble accepting their looks and it seems a bit cruel to take away something that could make them feel a bit more comfortable…. On the other hand, maybe it’s a good time for girls to learn that they look fine even when their faces aren’t coated in makeup, or as 14-year-old student Rebecca Mannifield put it, ‘nobody is no prettier or uglier, we all just look normal.’”

Jessica Wakeman at The Frisky took a firm stand by stating she could support the makeup ban but she thought removing bathroom mirrors was “harsh.” Here at Adios Barbie we couldn’t think of a more appropriate person to weigh in on the issue than Kjerstin Gruys, the PhD student who has vowed to live mirror-free for a full year.

We featured her story and the first 100 days of her self-imposed experiment this past July. Since then she successfully navigated the adventure of getting married without peeking at her reflection (with the exception of one fantastic photo she has allowed herself to see and share with readers). Gruys supports mirror-less schooling and I agree with her. Like myself, she also suffered from an eating disorder while in high school. Neither one of us believe a mirror-free secondary education would cure an eating disorder but we both recognize the potential preventative and positive effects it could trigger.

Here is Gruys’ straight-shooting stance in her own words:

Day 181: Why Taking Mirrors Out of Schools is FABULOUS!

By Kjerstin Gruys

1) Removing mirrors sends a clear message to girls that their bodies should be used for doing things (hugs! sports! thinking!), not just for being looked at. When is the last time somebody told YOU this message so blatantly?  Did anybody tell you this as a young teen? Okay, how about this: when was the last time you saw any form of popular media share this message, in any way or form? Bottom line: this school is trying to fight the good fight. They (and we!) are up against a powerful toxic cultural environment. Yes, I realize that removing mirrors doesn’t get rid of this larger environment, but every little bit helps. Let’s be supportive of positive change.

2) Some people have suggested that this ban prevents creative expression. I call bullshit. I agree wholeheartedly that makeup and fashion can be a form of self-expression. I enjoy these things in my own life, though not without angst and expense. That said, let’s not forget that there’s a powerful beauty industry that wants us to believe that we’re “expressing ourselves” when we buy their products and then apply them exactly as directed by magazines. This industry benefits even more when we decide we can’t be “ourselves” without these products. Here’s a crazy idea: without makeup, without mirrors, and because of the strict dress code, these poor, poor girls will be forced to express themselves through things like: creative writing, drama class, music class, journaling, or by (gasp!) just being themselves.  

3) Finally: vanity makes us dumber. Don’t believe me? Check out the research for yourself. Numerous psychological studies find that worrying about appearance (called “self-objectifying” in the literature) leads to poorer performance on all sorts of mental tasks, from math tests to word recall, and even something wacky-cool called the Stroop Test. Given this, if removing mirrors helps reduce the mental energy that students had been putting toward their looks, that mental energy can now be put toward helping them be more successful learners. Since giving up mirrors, I can’t claim to have become any smarter, per say, but I’m definitely better able to focus.  

In closing, I admit that I am biased about this topic. But… I’m not biased because I’m avoiding mirrors; I’m biased because I had an eating disorder when I was in high school. I’d never suggest that getting rid of mirrors could ever cure a full-blown eating disorder. But, creating a daily environment in which young women are valued for their minds and spirits instead of their looks just might help prevent one.  

Every little bit helps.

Cross-posted with permission.

Related Content:

100 Days Without Mirrors

7 thoughts on “Mirror-Less Schooling: A Positive Initiative?

  1. Interesting idea, but I don’t think it will have the intended effect. Girls will still be able to bring compacts with mirrors into the bathroom, unless there is a bag check every morning. The no makeup rule applied to such a narrow age group also seems bizarre – if there are older or younger girls in the school who are using makeup then it will simply leave the ones not allowed to do so feeling persecuted and annoyed. While I suppose I support the idea behind the initiative, it could be implemented better.

    Interesting facts regarding the psych literature, though! I had no idea research had been done on the connection between self-objectifying and mental performance. That’s pretty fascinating.

  2. I could care less about mirrors in my school! There are plenty of girls in my grade that still obsess over so-called ‘flaws’. Honestly, I think that I obsessed more about how I looked in elementary school than I do in high school! I guess I’m just too busy to care anymore, and I’m perfectly fine like that.

  3. Thanks for your astute insights, Mariana. Yes, I agree that this initiative is a superficial measure that could never replace open communication, education about media messages, and necessary critical thinking skills. I would never want to encourage body shame or discourage getting in touch with one’s sexuality. But because I suffered from eating disorders throughout high school (and into my 20s), I am biased (as the guest contributor also admits). However, I do see potential for positive effects if this measure were used in conjunction with discussions about body image and media messaging. I fully own that this piece was inspired by imagining how my relationship with my body would have been different attending a mirror-less high school. A narrow focus I admit, but also a great way to open up a dialogue about how we can best support today’s young people in being comfortable in their own skin.

  4. I do not agree with this measure.

    Sometimes people get too carried away with this superficial measures and feel that they are doing something meaningful that will prevent or detain self confidence, self esteem problems that are very deep seated and related only on the surface with self image…

    ‎1) Maybe some girls will want to do it even more, as a the rebellious side of adolescence settles in.
    2) Recognition of your own body at that age is important and healthy. Understanding, exploring accepting your own image is part of growing too.
    3) The awareness of sexuality is a fundamental developmental stage…they need to be in touch with their bodies. We need to help them, guide them…this feels like denying to me….

    4) In a way the message that is being given is that there is something wrong with looking at yourself. I think that is also the wrong message.

  5. I think this is a great idea. I think that women are already obsessed with looking like a doll, that the expectations of them having a real brain is downsized by beauty. The fact that women depend on a man, has to do with the lack of self esteem that she doesn’t get from her brain being acknowledged, but her body being treasured for two seconds by a man, who doesn’t even look at her face.

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