Wednesday, October 03, 2007
Often, women with body image issues will use the mirror the way they use the scale, for frequent, instantaneous feedback on the value of their self-worth. Stomach look flat enough? Check. Hips look too wide? Devastation.
A number of writers in the eating disorders field encourage mirror exercises, in which you expose yourself to your reflection (first clothed, then, for the more advance, naked) as a way to address negative body image. Jane Hirschmann and Carol Munter, of Overcoming Overeating and When Women Stop Hating Their Bodies (see sidebar) call the exercise "mirror work" and suggest you stand in front of the mirror and make non-judgmental statements about your body. "My arms look big." Judgment. "Here, the angle of my legs increases." Non-judgment. The goal is to engage only in non-judgmental statements about your body. If you can't, slowly back away from the mirror. . . and try again another time.
Thomas Cash, in the The Body Image Workbook writes about "mirror desensitization." The term "desensitization" is borrowed from behavioral psychology. Usually used with phobias, psychologists will encourage patients to expose themselves to their phobic stimuli, with the idea that with time and exposure, anxiety will fade. Afraid of spiders? Hang out with one for an hour. Scared of elevators/heights/subways/crowds/rats? Come to New York!
With mirror desensitization, the idea is create a "Ladder of Body Areas," in which you rank a number of your body parts on a satisfaction hierarchy--the part or parts of your body that you're most satisfied with go on the bottom, while those you detest the most go up top. Once you've done this, you're ready to face the mirror.
Stand in front of your mirror and begin by looking at a particular body part that doesn't cause you much distress to view--maybe even a part of your body you like. Breathe. Relax. Think pleasant thoughts. Then, according to Cash, go to a body part that causes a bit more discomfort for you. Look at the body part for a full minute. Shut your eyes and relax. Cash encourage readers, systematically, to work their way up their "Ladder of Body Areas" until they reach the top (i.e., the part of your body you find most difficult to view). Does this happen immediately? Of course not. Mirror desensitization will usually take multiple sessions--do a couple of body parts at at time. If you can't relax, breathe, and avoid judgment, stay at that particular rung until you can.
Hard work? Potentially. Impossible? Not at all. The goal is to work your way toward what I call "mirror indifference." You can look or not; it doesn't matter. You don't feel the need to pause at every mirror you see. Your reflection says nothing about who you are, and a mirror, is, after all, just a piece of broken glass.
*Yes, the picture of the broken mirror above is mine; no, I didn't do it purposely. ; )