Wednesday, October 03, 2007

Mirror, Mirror

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. ; )


PalmTreeChick said...

Or, we can just do away with mirrors all together. Another positive with that, you don't risk 7 years of bad luck.

ps22 said...

You know, reading this post made me feel a bit proud of myself. When i moved into a new apartment some time ago, I broke my full length mirror by accident. Being a bit on the lazy side (and living in a 5th floor walk-up), I kept postponing buying a new one. For months, I never looked at a full length image of myself, and didn't even notice it. I would get dressed, use my small bathroom mirror to put on makeup, and leave the house every morning without even thinking about. In my current office, I have small mirror left by a former colleague. Its so funny - every time someone comes in my office they look at themselves in it (its hilarious to see the faces people make!). But I've found that I often go the entire day without looking it (not so fun when I go to brush my teeth at night and realize I had a piece of food stuck in my teeth all day). I'm not sure what the reason is for my mirror indifference, but whatever it is, I feel very happy that I have it!

PalmTreeChick said...

PS, it sounds like you might need to enlist in some reliable friends/colleagues who will tell you if you have "PIT" (particle in tooth). Poppies, spinach and brocolli are never a fun find at night. ;)

As for the other stuff...that sounds like a healthy approach.

dishes and laundry said...

Oh, I'm a total mirror addict right now. I'm in the middle of a "thinner" phase in my life right now - I say phase because my life experience has shown me that I can lose the weight and will gain it back again and again and again. But I think I'm a mirror addict because I don't look half bad right now, and maybe I'm thinking that I'd better enjoy it while it lasts. But I need to stop...I will even walk out of my way to go by a window with a good reflection. That sounds so vain and wrong. When I'm in a heavy phase, I avoid my reflections at all cost.

I'm also very aware that I have a body image problem. Funny story. Last time I was in a skinny phase, and mind you, I never get really skinny - 'bout a size 8 and 150 pounds, I tried to order a swimsuit off of Land's End website. I was filling out the advanced fitting guide and it was asking me questions about my body - opinion type questions - which I was answering very honestly. The questions would be something like "Do you think your bottom is wider than your shoulders?", or "How poochy is your stomach?". Anyway, the website was suppposed to create a virtual model of your body so you could virtually try on swimsuits. After I put in all my opinions about my body, the site couldn't generate a body - it said that there is no body like that in existance! I guess it's only in mind!

Spectra said...

When I was in therapy for my ED, I did mirror therapy and it works wonders. I think it just sort of got me used to seeing my body as "my body" and not some freak show. I think if you look at other women's naked bodies, that helps too. You realize that everyone's body has flaws and yours are unique. I've grown to accept my thick ankles, muscular calves, incredibly muscular quads/hams, boyish waist, little boobs, and hairy arms. So what if I'm not perfect, right? My husband thinks I'm just right. And it's not like he's a supermodel either...I could point out flaws on his body too. But all that stuff doesn't matter a whole lot when you're having great sex, right? Right? :)

disordered girl said...

You know, I bought the Body Image Workbook a looooong time ago on Amazon and only got about 1/4 of the way through it. Maybe it is time to take a look at it again... :-)

danzer1986 said...

came across ur blog.. and ecided to read it.. usually when i come across blogs like these i just don't even bothered.. but hey i changed my mind this time around..

mirrors are enemies... the make it worst..well fro me it does

i dont even have a mirror in my room.. just my bathroom and its from the neck up...

i find that when i look in the mirror i only can be judgemental...i cant help it

i was in inpatient for a while and that sorta help..but it didnt last long...i justaccept taht his is it u know.. lol im not her to talk abut my life or anything.. on my blog i rarely talk of it u know...

but just wanted to comment on the mirror thing.. that didnt work for me..infact it made it worst as i said..
but interesting blog and perspective on things.. i tryng but i still am struggling

RunningRose said...

I've done this trick a few times. Usually after a shower I'd shed my robe and just stare at myself all over in the mirror. But just standing there still always made me focus on neg. aspects of my body...I'd strike poses and sometimes even start dancing naked instead so I could show off my fav parts of my body to myself.

I also focused more on how my body moved and smiled any time I could see some muscle definition while moving my body to some upbeat music, naked.

After I do this for a lil bit I almost don't want to get dressed.

So, naked dancing isn't just for Satan worshiping witches =D

cggirl said...


Actually I'm embarrassed to admit I look at myself in the mirror every time i pass one. And i check myself in several mirrors at home to see how i look at different angles.

But in my defense, i love picking out different outfits and i like to look and see that i look cute from every angle! heehee.

Eh, sure there are some negative thoughts that creep in sometimes too. But mostly it's about checking out different outfits/hairstyles and if something doesn't look good, i almost always just think "this is not the right outfit for me" rather than thinking something bad about my body. So that's good :)

I think i'm more of a mirror addict now because as a teen i thought i looked bad and did not know how to dress my body. Now i love to shop for clothes (i'm telling u, it's those british what-not-to-wear girls, they really taught me a lot) and i'm sorta making up for that lost time by staring at myself in my outfits endlessly. Hopefully this will not make me TOO shallow... haha.

Anonymous said...

This sounds much like the neutral observation taught in Buddhism. This sort of practice has been the only thing saving me from depression and eating disorders. It's been so effective because it doesn't just focus on image, but on life as a whole.

I started out reading William Hart's "The Art of Living" and am attending a meditation retreat this month. It will be the most challenging but the most beneficial 10 days of my life.

On the topic of this post, practicing mindfulness has allowed me to stop judging my reflection... unless it's a judgement to think, "I'll work on my hamstrings some more." I'm not telling myself that I don't like them (because in fact, I think I have lovely legs.) I'm simply an artist planning the next stroke of her brush.

Fi Fo Fum said...

I 'discovered' your blog a week ago on my mobile phone, and since then i'm an addict! Finally a sane person with a blog that makes some sense in a disorderly cyber-world.

Those toxic pro-ed sites you did a post on way earlier, really are like poisonous super-glue. They attach one's identity to the ed, which is just WRONG. And they are TOO EASY to access.

Anyway, I hate mirrors. I hate any reflection of myself. I hate photo's as well. But not as much that I would SMASH my mirror like you did! I don't need those 7 yrs palmtreechick wrote about...;)

In primitive society, there was a reason why people used to look at themselves in water - whenever the wind disturbed the water, it was impossible to see your reflection. Wind-blown hair and red-rimmed (irritated by the dust blowing around) does not do one's self-image any good! ;)

I hope your book is a MASSIVE success. I would be the first one to buy it.

Fi Fo Fum said...

sorry, that was supposed to be 'red-rimmed EYES'

drstaceyny said...

ptc--true. Well, I have abt 6 yrs left!

ps--that's wonderful!

d&l--it doesn't sound vain at all. It sounds like you're at a partially self-accepting place, compared to times when the opposite is true. What an interesting Land's End story--I'll have to check out that site, b/c those questions make me cringe. Congratulations on your one-of-a-kind physique! ; )

spectra--right! It sounds like you've done some great work, but. . . Are there parts of your body you like?

dg--maybe. . . I really do like it. It's full of exercises, questionnaires, etc.

danzer--sounds like you're not in the place to approach this exercise. But, keep in mind, that you could TRY to make it work if you wanted to by following the guidelines in the post (even starting small, by looking at something on your face that you like). Just a thought. . .

rr--three cheers for naked dancing! ; )

cg--all in the name of fashion. . .

anon--exactly! It works with emotions, too--can you neutrally observe your emotions w/out judging them, trying to short-circuit them? Mindfulness can be incredibly helpful re: mental health in general. . .

fff--thanks! I really appreciate the support. BTW, I didn't smash the mirror--I dropped a dinosaur-era computer monitor on it (and myself). Oops.