Monday, September 03, 2012

A Life Without Mirrors?

(I just submitted this for the Society for Christian Psychology newsletter; it may be edited a bit before being published)

Could you go a year without looking at yourself in a mirror? Kjerstin Gruys wanted to try an experiment - swear off looking at herself in a mirror for an entire year to see if it helped her have “greater self-acceptance and appreciation for her body.” The first half of this year would involve getting ready for a married life, a time typically saturated (obsessed?) with focus on one’s body. She has chronicled the journey on her blog with started in March of 2011 and ended in March 2012.

Several things about this story intrigue me. First, it is a fascinating experiment in taking steps to address body image issues in our society and in our personal lives. Gruys has done academic research “on the relationship between beauty and social inequality.” This is an area of research that Christian Psychologists would be wise to examine as well, given the even greater implications of the body being made in God’s image.

Second, I think it accurately depicts the symbolic nature of mirrors in our society, especially for young women. Mirrors seem to carry the weight and expectations of perfection that we as a society have put on young women (and men) to achieve a certain (arbitrary) kind of body. Our mirrors serve as judges whether or not we have achieved our goal (a similar argument could be made for weighing ourselves on scales, but mirrors are more pervasive); to quote Grace Gold’s article (from the first link above):

“. . . recent studies have pegged the average number of times a woman looks in the mirror at over 70 times in just one day. According to Renee Engeln-Maddox, Ph.D., psychology professor and body image expert at Northwestern University, constantly checking ourselves out in the mirror can be bad for our mental health. ‘What you see in the mirror is what other people see-it's an outsider's perspective. When you look in the mirror, you're increasing your tendency to see yourself as an outsider would,’ says Engeln-Maddox. ‘A lot of research has shown that lowers your body satisfaction and depletes your cognitive resources, meaning that your brain-which has limited resources-is less able to think about other things."

In the Christian worldview, mirrors are symbolically useful in seeing ourselves as we really are (Exodus 38:8; James 1:22-25); but when they have become subverted as they have in our culture to promote values of impossible perfection, maybe it’s time we cover them up and look to God for our self-worth more intentionally. We need more spiritual disciplines that engage our body image before God, and maybe “mirror fasting” could be one way to do it.


Fr. Gregory Jensen said...
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Fr. Gregory Jensen said...

n Eastern Orthodox monasteries there are traditionally no mirrors. The monks self-image should be rooted not in physical appearance but the fruit of his relationship with the Holy Trinity.

Though I am a married priest, I will often visit monasteries for a period prayer and reflection (sorry for the pun). I must confess I find the absolute absence of mirrors a bit unsettling.

The importance I place on my own physical appearance was brought home to me recently when I was at a neighboring Orthodox parish where the priest had a mirror in the sacristy. Catching my reflection in the mirror before the service, I spontaneous stopped to adjust my vestments and smooth my hair. While I wouldn't go so far to say shame on me, it does give me pause to realize that I'm more than a little vain. This in turns causes me to wonder where I root my own self-image in God or somewhere else?

Thanks for the thoughtful post.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

Scott said...

Thanks so much for your feedback, Fr. Gregory! I didn't realize that there were Monasteries that practiced this! Makes me consider it's impact even more. It's an interesting (and sad) line of thought to consider the relationship between mirrors and self-worth in my own life and in society. It's really a form of self-worship, I think.

Perhaps an interesting corollary to this would be to contrast this relationship of mirrors to self worth with looking at Chris and His word for our value & identity, etc., esp. Christ as the image of God.

Scott said...

"looking at Christ" (spelling error - oops!)

Also, your comment seemed to double-post, so I removed one