Experiments

05.17.13

Kjerstin Gruys: My Year of Not Looking in a Mirror

The author of a new memoir decided to shun her reflection and focus on inner beauty for a whole year—which happened to be the one in which she got married.

After stressing out over her body while trying on wedding dresses, Kjerstin Gruys, now 30, decided to give up looking at her reflection for a year. Her experiment, chronicled in her new memoir Mirror, Mirror Off The Wall, gave her a better sense of beauty—and taught her how to see herself more clearly. As told to Adrienne Vogt.

 

I remember the time I felt most beautiful. It wasn’t at my wedding or prom; I didn’t have a big fancy dress or any makeup on. It was when I was camping with my husband. We were on a long hike through a forest in California, and I couldn’t help but admire all the redwood trees surrounding me. They were all huge, different and majestic, and I felt tiny in relation to the entire universe. As I marveled at the variety of beauty in nature, I said to myself, “This is what beautiful feels like.”

I’m not sure if I would’ve felt the same just a few months earlier. That was before I made a pledge to not look at myself in the mirror for one whole year. That’s right, I spent an entire year, from March 2011 to March 2012, shunning my reflection. What’s more, that was also the year I got married.

It all started when I began trying on wedding dresses, which was a surprisingly negative experience for me. As I was shopping, I became very critical of my body. I turned into a woman obsessed with spending time, energy, and money focusing on my appearance. In the end, I found myself with four wedding dresses (three that didn’t fit and one that did)—but even more self-doubt. I didn’t feel like me.

I always say there are two parts of body image: one is your feelings about your body and the other is the extent to which those feelings shape your entire sense of self. In high school and college, I battled an eating disorder. During my recovery process, I started reading more about women’s studies and feminism, which ultimately gave me the tools and sense of worth to march to my own beat.

In the midst of the wedding-dress crisis, I started reading The Birth of Venus by Sarah Dunant. I was struck by a passage about nuns in Renaissance Italy who were barred from ever seeing their bodies. Bam! I thought, Could I go even one day without looking at myself in a mirror? Hell, why not a year? And my no-mirrors project began.

I gave myself a few guidelines—mainly, that any and all reflective surfaces, plus photos and videos, were off-limits—and eased into my experiment.

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Avery

It wasn’t easy—at times, I felt like I was in an obstacle course—but I found out that all humans are adaptable. I trained myself to consciously look away if I caught a peek of my reflection. My fiancé and I covered all the mirrors in our house (good thing he was 100 percent supportive!) and I learned a simple makeup routine, sans mirror. Wearing less makeup was a big thing, since my makeup really was a security blanket. But I kept reminding myself that tons of women don’t wear any makeup at all. It’s not like people were pointing at me on the street for not wearing makeup. Honestly, others don’t notice as much as we think they do.

During my no-mirrors project, I had a couple of “a-ha moments.” When I was working from home one day, I realized I kept getting up and looking for a mirror without even thinking about it. I missed my reflection, who was my constant companion and office buddy. It had given me a sense of being present, and now I was almost questioning whether or not I existed. I didn’t think my reflection had that kind of power over me. The second main thing I realized was that I didn’t trust anyone. Before, if someone would give me a compliment, I’d say thank you but then run to the mirror to see if they were right or wrong. I had to learn to trust people, and the only way to do that was to see what happened when I actually did just that. I found out, for the most part (except if I had a stray piece of food in my mouth), that I went through my daily life without any different reactions to my image.

I started this project believing the most important thing for women was to think they themselves are beautiful, and it doesn’t matter if anyone else thinks so. But throughout this project, I came to a different realization: Namely, screw that! If the people I care most about think I’m beautiful, then why not wholeheartedly agree. After all, we’re usually our worst critics.

When the day of my wedding arrived, in October 2011, I was still going back and forth about looking at myself in the mirror. But I ended up putting my trust in others. When I turned to my group of family and friends after I was all dolled up and asked “How do I look?” their reactions reaffirmed my decision. I felt so great that I didn’t think seeing my reflection would make me look or feel any better than I already did. Later, when I finally saw my wedding photos, I really did look as amazing as I felt.

In sociology, Charles Horton Cooley’s ‘Theory of the Looking-Glass Self’ tells us that the only way we figure out who we are is through social interaction. We are taught how to think of our bodies. But back when this theory was proposed, the media climate was very different than it is now. Today, in addition to social interactions, we have magazines and websites bombarding us with “100 Most Beautiful” lists showing unrealistic images of beauty. But I don’t think we are destined to always be in tug-of-war about our looks. We can create our realities. We can change our environment to change our perceptions. And that’s exactly what I did and what I found.

Since my no-mirrors project, I am more conscious about not spending as much time in front of my reflection. This is not because I’m unhappy with myself; I’m actually very happy with what I see now. But I’ve simply got better things to do with my time.