After body image activist and UCLA Sociology PhD candidate Kjerstin Gruys got engaged, she searched frantically for the perfect wedding dress – only to end up with not one, two, or three white dresses, but four. This was a wake-up call not only financially (given her graduate student income), but also at a deeply personal level. After recovering from anorexia and working in the fashion industry, Gruys changed directions to pursue a graduate program in Sociology, wanting to shed light on the complex issues of beauty, gender, and body image. But as she began trying to navigate being a bride-to-be in our appearance-obsessed culture, Gruys was confronted with the difficult truth: she was a “body-image expert with a body-image problem.” Knowing the dark and dangerous paths that negative body image had led her down in the past, Gruys decided something had to be done. The self-proclaimed feminist was no longer okay with treating herself as an exception to her belief that a person’s worth does not depend on his/her ability to meet narrow and unrealistic beauty standards.
And then a question came to her: What would it be like to live in a world with no mirrors? To not constantly be surrounded with one’s own reflection? (Not even an exaggeration in her home of Los Angeles!) Gruys wrote,
“My values and behaviors had clearly been at odds. Shunning mirrors would force me to do something about it. It might be the step back from vanity that I needed, a way to refocus my energy toward worthier things, like my relationships, my research, my students, and ultimately my health and happiness.”
Once the initial seed was planted, Gruys excitedly consulted with her fiancé Michael and close friends and family to discuss the idea. All agreed that the most important factor of the project was continuous awareness of whether it was helping or actually hurting her: if the experiment led to more obsession and anxiety about appearance or any disordered eating behaviors resurfaced, she’d end it immediately. With a lot of support (including her therapist to help monitor the concern above), Gruys worked out the logistical details – such as covering up mirrors in her apartment and planning for how to avoid looking in mirrors and reflective surfaces in public places – and officially began her Year Without Mirrors project on March 25, 2011. Oh, and an important detail: her wedding date was October 1, 2011, so this would mean that she’d have the extra challenge of planning a wedding with no mirrors!
Gruys chronicled the project on her blog, Mirror, Mirror Off the Wall and then in her just-released book, Mirror, Mirror Off the Wall: How I Learned to Love My Body by Not Looking at It for a Year (Avery, May 2013.) I received a copy for review, and I highly recommend the book to anyone looking for an entertaining and informative read that offers a fresh approach on many of the complex questions surrounding beauty, consumerism, and body image in our society. I have to admit I was skeptical at first – “Why do I care about some radical experiment this chick did that doesn’t have any real-world application for me?” But as I began reading, Gruys quickly won me over with her genuine, personal voice and peppering of interesting facts from research on body image, appearance, and bridal culture. I also enjoyed learning how much I had in common with her, from eating disorder recovery and feminist values to appreciation of beauty and annoying insecurities. At times it felt like reading the diary of a close friend (who happens to also be an academic)! Another reason Gruys and her book are pretty awesome in my book? She’s a longtime volunteer with About-Face (a San Francisco non-profit helping and young women resist harmful media messages that threaten their self-esteem and body image) and is donating 5 percent of the book royalties to them.
After reading Mirror, Mirror Off the Wall, I had the pleasure of talking with Gruys to get more insight into the project and what it meant for her – check out our conversation below.
Valerie Kusler: When you first came up with the idea of your No Mirrors project, it seemed like the main goal was to reduce the importance of appearance in your life. What were your expectations about what would change after the project? And did the results differ from your expectations?
Kjerstin Gruys: Well, I knew if I was really honest with myself up front about what I wanted, I had a greater likelihood of having that happen – so giving up mirrors was really just a specific technique for changing my thinking and behaviors regarding appearance. I was sensitive throughout the project as to whether that was happening or not, and I was careful to figure out why and if I could address any issues that came up. For example, at one point my thoughts started to run wild about whether I was gaining weight without knowing it; my therapist suggested I buy a scale, so I did and that really helped to separate the reality from my fears.
Also, I definitely ran into some surprises. For one, I really didn’t think I had a problem with trusting people. I thought I had really close relationships, but I learned that they weren’t as strong on my side as I wanted them to be. I had to trust people in a new way to tell me what I looked like in a new outfit, whether I had something in my teeth, etc. So when I learned that maybe I didn’t trust as much as I thought I did, it was an opportunity to really challenge that and try to be more open to trusting.
VK: As a therapist specializing in working with women with eating disorders, a refrain I hear a lot is, “Self-love and acceptance sound great, but the fact remains that beauty and thinness are the most valued traits of women in our culture… so of course I feel the need to be thin and beautiful!” I certainly have my own soapbox about this, but I’m curious about how you address this kind of response to girls and women you work with at UCLA and About-Face.
KG: On the one hand, I’m a sociologist and a feminist, and I feel very passionate that there’s something wrong in our culture in terms of how we value women. On the other hand, for most women– if they really think about it – they’ll see that in their daily lives and meaningful personal relationships, this is bullshit. Yes, we need to look at how our culture treats women, but it’s much more productive for individuals to look at how the people in their personal lives treat them. Chances are, you’re surrounded by people who adore you for exactly who you are. And if that’s not the case, then you probably need to consider who you’re spending your time around!
VK: Short of going without mirrors for a year, are there any other types of experiments or activities you’d recommend for women in a body image slump?
KG: First of all, I’ll say that I wouldn’t recommend this project to someone with an active eating disorder or severe body image issues that haven’t been treated. (If that’s the case, please seek help for treatment – therapy was a very important part of my eating disorder recovery.) But for others, going without mirrors for a day or without makeup for a day or week (or anything similar) can really help ground you in the reality of what you might have been making assumptions about. I loved going camping since that’s an environment where you you can do it without much effort since mirrors aren’t really available – and then it’s more of a vacation than a challenge. We all deserve that kind of vacation, especially with the pressure our culture puts on us with appearance.
[Also a tip: Gruys has posted a few Body Image Activities on her blog and plans to continue adding to it regularly.]
VK: I read your recent blog post about Gwenyth Paltrow (warning, could be triggering) and couldn’t agree more with what you wrote. I also loved your statement, “Hate the pedestal, not the woman you put on it.” I think this is so important to keep in mind, and it also reminded me of your discussion in the book about your mother-in-law Sherry and how you came to view her choices about her appearance in a different light. Could you say a little about how that journey has impacted the way you view women who do put a lot of time/effort/money into their appearance or opt for cosmetic surgery? Is it just shaming of a different variety if we judge women who do this?
KG: The project definitely changed my instinct to be “judgey” about these women. When you know too much about feminism and body image, there’s an unconscious belief that other people know just as much and are making choices despite that knowledge. Women who invest a lot in their appearance aren’t stupid – they’re actually pretty strategic usually. They may not have a generalized feminist commitment to changing the beauty world, but instead are operating within it with their own unique knowledge and interpretations of their own life experiences. It doesn’t have to be all-or-nothing. I personally get a lot of joy and pleasure out of certain beauty practices, and the project helped me recognize how doing a lot of them every single day isn’t really in line with my values – but if I save them for special occasions, it feels more like a practice that helps me stay in touch with my own culture and my sense of femininity. Every culture throughout the world has different rituals related to appearance and beauty, and participating in those in a healthy way can be a point of connection to the culture.
VK: Along those lines, your discussion on feminism and beauty was thought provoking, and I think it’s one of the toughest things that women have to navigate: i.e., “If I care about my appearance, am I invalidating my more substantial attributes and talents? How much is okay to care?” How did this project help you find some answers to your own questions about this issue?
KG: A big change for me was identifying that there’s a pretty specific mindset that I enter into when I feel pressured to be stylish/beautiful compared to the mindset I have about beauty now. Previously, I would compare myself to other women, buying clothes and makeup and getting my hair done with the attitude of, “I have to be one of the most strikingly attractive women in the room.” The unconscious belief operating was that the only way to be safe in a relationship was to be the best. Now when I notice those thoughts coming in, I can more easily recognize them as destructive for both me and for other women, and instead I adopt the mindset, “What can I do today to feel like my best self?” I don’t have to be in competition with anyone else, so if I want to experiment with makeup or dress up, it’s about me, not trying to be better than other people. Someone might say, “That’s great, but you’re just changing your thinking about it, but not your behaviors” – and I would argue that’s not true, because when I’m thinking about being my best self instead trying to be the prettiest girl in the room, I do different things. Instead of trying to look stereotypically feminine, I’m more interested in expressing my personality. Both lead to some investment in appearance, but this new mindset gives me a direction in which I can truly accept myself for who I am, not compared to a certain standard.
For more, check out: Mirror, Mirror Off the Wall: How I Learned to Love My Body by Not Looking at It for a Year (Amazon) and Kjerstin Gruys’ blog.
Content on Adios Barbie related to Gruys’ year-long experiment: