When I initially met Kjerstin Gruys online, my first thought was: There’s another one! Several weeks before I did my own month without mirrors, Kjerstin had launched a project going a full year without them—the same year in which she was getting married, incidentally. (No, she didn’t peek on her wedding day.) A Ph.D. candidate in sociology, Kjerstin has focused much of her academic work on body image and eating disorders. But her years in the fashion industry as a merchandiser for Abercrombie & Fitch, and then GAP Corporate, were hardly an aside: Her dissertation on the shifting standards of clothing sizes merges her passions of body image, cultural body imperatives, and fashion. The best way to get to know Kjerstin’s work is following her blog, Mirror Mirror Off the Wall—and reading her upcoming book chronicling her yearlong adventure, slated to be published by Penguin in 2013. But she also took the time to share some candid thoughts with readers of The Beheld. We talked about the creative self, the role of trust in body image, and what singing alone in the car has to do with mirrors. In her own words:
I first really became conscious of body image and women’s issues in late high school to early college. I had anorexia, and in going through the physical and emotional elements of treatment, I had to carve out an understanding of how our culture kind of shaped my experience. Having an eating disorder, you’re always aware of your own body image, but it’s not until you’re recovering that you’re really forced to take a step back and realize that you have to question a lot of assumptions.
In recovery I had to gain weight and I couldn’t get on the scale, couldn’t know the number; if I got on the scale I’d have to check in with my physician or whatever. But I just had to trust the process. I had to trust that I really didn’t feel comfortable with the numbers going up, and I had to trust that the process of recovery was at some point going to get me comfortable with a larger number. In terms of recovery there’s a lot of self-monitoring and constantly asking myself whether my behavior is in line with my values or with my disease. And luckily the past four or five years the values have won out over the obsession.
So when I started this project I had to consciously think: How am I going to do this in a way that I know is healthy? I didn’t want it to make me feel more symptomatic and paranoid, so I actually had to make the decision to get back on the scale more frequently to make sure that my paranoia that I’m constantly gaining weight has a logical answer. I’ve had to get back on the scale, and I felt kind of ambivalent about that. But now I’m very pleased because it’s not worse—it’s better. In one sense the project has made me say, You know what, good enough is good enough. And that is actually a shift of my values. I’m still very perfectionistic at times, so there’s been a step back from perfection, which is great. But there’s also a sense of trying to find something else to quiet my questioning mind that’s scared about not knowing what I look like in the mirror. It’s possible that I still have some dysmorphia about what my body is, and avoiding mirrors sometimes allows my imagination to run wild. And getting back on the scale has helped me not be dysmorphic about that. Getting on the scale most days of the week keeps me more in tune with what’s going on with my body, which is important if you have a history of ignoring your body!
On Vanity and Pride
At some point I looked up the definition of vanity. It isn’t caring what you look like; it’s caring too much about one part of yourself. The definition actually had “too much” in there, which obviously is subjective. An outsider can decide that somebody is vain based on their own ideas, but the person herself might not actually feel that way. There’s no one way to figure out what is too much, although I think that people who are particularly vain are often not very fun to be around—vanity causes one to be very self-absorbed. Not intentionally, but that’s what vanity is. Vanity can be totally destructive to intimate relationships.
I can say without apology that an eating disorder is one of the most vain things you can experience. I’m in no way saying it’s a choice. But an eating disorder totally warps your whole sense of priorities, even in people who hide it very well. I don’t think someone can feel fully recovered if they’re only eating properly. Behaviors can change, but if there’s this thing—like weight or food—that is the most critically important thing for them to monitor in their lives, that’s where vanity comes in.
But vanity itself should be distinguished from pride. Having pride in your appearance is a wonderful thing. I wish all women were “vain” in that sense—in taking pride in their looks and enjoying what they see in the mirror—without that subjective idea of putting your appearance higher on your priority list than spending time with your loved ones or being flexible with your routines, whether that’s eating different foods, or trying a different look with your makeup or whatever. I have friends who won’t go camping because they’ll feel so humiliated wondering what they look like without makeup and mirrors. And I myself have a little mini mirror and cosmetics that I usually take with me camping, so I can try to look like I’m not wearing any makeup when I really am. I guess you could say that my no-mirrors project isn’t an attack on vanity itself. But it’s definitely an attack on mine.
I’m a little worried that I’ll be disappointed in what I see when I look in the mirror again. [Note: March 24 will be Kjerstin’s unveiling—if you’re in the Bay Area, check out the “First Look” party she’s throwing with media literacy group About-Face to celebrate body positivity.] I was like, What if I develop this really positive sense of what I look like, and it’s not actually what I see when in look in the mirror for the first time? So I’m scared about that—that would be a little bit sad and scary to go without for a whole year and finally look in the mirror and be like, Oh, I liked myself better before I was looking in the mirror again. But my hope is that I will kind of be in a good place when that happens and even if I look in the mirror and I’m like, “Eh, it’s not really what I expected or wanted,” I’ll at the very least feel like it isn't the most important thing in my life. That, and I know I’ll be excited to finally experiment with makeup again, and I’ll certainly do some shopping for new clothes. No amount of research or activism will ever dampen my enthusiasm for a shopping trip!
Sometimes there’s almost a sense of numbness when I’m all by myself, without the mirror. It’s this sense of: Who am I, what am I? What is this experience? I’m thinking, I’m conscious, I can see my hands and feet, I’m typing on the computer, I’m petting the cat—whatever it is. But what am I? I can’t look in the mirror to see what I am. It’s made me realize that I used to use my reflection as a form of companionship and validation. So having moments when I think of these questions have been very bizarre.
One solution for those times (of feeling existential) has been to use something sensory, like scent, to signal one of my five senses to really experience the world instead of just being there. That’s helped me feel a little bit less like somehow I don’t exist. I’ll talk to myself, I’ll sing along with Pandora. I’m someone who doesn’t mind being alone a lot, and I really love driving in the car, listening to music on the radio, and singing at the top of my lungs. And I’m like: Okay, before I started being conscious of not looking in the mirror, being in the car and singing by myself never felt like an existential crisis. So I tried to kind of bring some of those things back, whether it’s feeling my toes on the carpet or smelling perfume or tasting chocolate. It’s like: Okay, I exist. I’m experiencing something sensual and I have an opinion about it. I’m not just a computer giving input and giving output. It’s weird realizing that simply seeing my reflection in the mirror was, in some ways, very grounding.
At one point I had a head cold, and I had no sense of smell. It was depressing. I’d figured out how to put on makeup without looking at myself, but being able to smell the product had actually been pleasurable for me, and not being able to see myself or smell the products left me feeling numb. I get a lot of pleasure about using scented products in the shower; if anything I found that since giving up mirrors I’ve become a bit more snobby about wanting to use more luxurious products, even though I try to avoid spending too much money.
On Trust and Self-Expression
So much of my issues with body image and not being a certain weight or certain size had to do with refusing to believe anyone who loved me when they’d say I was beautiful. I distrusted everyone, and I had my own sense of standards and disappointments for approval. It’s like if someone said, “I think you’re beautiful,” I’d be like, “Well, you’re either lying to me or you have bad taste.” That’s such a selfish side of yourself, and it’s interesting to see how difficult it is to give that up. I think most women struggle with this a bit. We’re supposed to be modest and not boastful, especially about looks—heaven forbid you say that you have a bangin’ bod! Normal women, if you compliment them, it’s like, “Oh, this old thing?” or “Well, maybe I look nice today but I’ve gained weight lately” or stuff like that. But with the mirror project I’ve really had to trust people, and myself. You start realizing that maybe this vision you have in your head about what you “really” look like—this idea of, “Oh, you might love me and think I’m beautiful, but really I’m not”—is faulty. Giving up the mirror is giving up the idea that your own image of yourself is the only image that’s real or even meaningful.
It makes you think about what purpose your appearance really has. If my relationships are healthy and the people around me are treating me well and telling me that I look good enough for them to love me, and respect me, then why is my own critical vision of my appearance so important? I’m still struggling with that question. I do think it’s important to have a sense of self, but I’m starting to see my sense of self as being more about self-expression and creativity and less of a status thing, or about being too much of this or not enough of that. And in a way it’s a little bit constrained right now because of not being able to look in the mirror—I mean, right around the time in my life when I had started to think that my sense of self was an expression of my own creativity and sense of fashion and play, I’m not as able to do these things. But it’s something I’m looking forward to enjoying again when the year is over. It’s such a great thing to miss! It’s totally different from being paranoid that I don’t look good enough; it’s that I miss something expressive and creative, and I know that this is a really great step in the right direction for me.
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