Mirror, Mirror

When you look in the mirror, what do you see? Where do you focus your attention? If you are like most people who feel dissatisfied with their body, you look straight to the places you hate the most. You probably look only at these places and do so with a critical eye.

What you see in the mirror and how you react to it may depend on a variety of things, such as your ethnic group, mood, what you have been watching on TV or seeing in magazines, what kind of childhood you had, the activity of your hormones, and even what you ate for lunch.

In other words, the reflection you see looking back at you is not just you in a mirror; it is a very complex process.

Yet, you may not even realize it! You peer into the mirror and focus on what you hate, telling yourself that you are fat, ugly, gross, disgusting. At this point (and perhaps from the start of your mirror gaze), you are no longer seeing what is in the mirror, you are seeing an emotional, reactive representation of how you think you look. Often, this leads directly into obsession about dieting and exercising to “fix it.”

I recently attended a conference in which the presenter asked a woman her height; she is 5’2”. He then asked how tall her reflection in the mirror is. I was shocked to learn that it is really ½ her size. He pointed out that most of us think we are seeing an exact reflection of ourselves. Instead, we see half.

In addition, Overvaluation of your body will lead you to distort what you see. In other words, you think those parts are bigger, uglier, grosser than they really are.

You may think that mirrors reflect what is real and therefore you think you can believe what you see. However, taking into account the complexity that goes into seeing your reflection, perhaps you cannot.

The below exercise was taken from The Body Image Workbook by Thomas F. Cash, Ph.D. In it, he recommends exercises to help you reflect on your image in a mindful, non-judgmental way. I highly recommend doing this exercise! After all, having a more positive body image is crucial to having a healthier relationship with food.

Session One:
Choose a time when you won’t be interrupted. Use a full length mirror and dress as you normally do. Stand in front of the mirror and for two minutes look at yourself from head to toe, paying attention to the front, side and back. Describe each aspect or feature, out loud. Describe it as you would to a blind person and be objectively descriptive. If you notice you are evaluating, judging, and criticizing, change these to descriptions of color, texture, shape, symmetry, etc. Finish by looking at your body as a whole, for about one minute. During the session, be aware of what you are feeling. After completing the above, write down your experience: how did it feel and what did you learn?

Session Two:
Repeat session one but this time, describe your body from toe to head, rather than head to toe and do so from all angles. At the end, look at your body as a whole for three minutes. Write down your feelings.

Session Three and Four:
In these sessions, do the same as above but dress in a more revealing way so that you can see more of your own skin. Ideally, you would wear only your underwear but if that is too much, try wearing shorts and a snug, sleeveless top. Wear a bit less in session four than you do in session three. Remember to write down your feelings.
If you have a difficult time doing the above exercise, as is, that is okay. Start small. Begin just by describing your foot in a non-judgmental, descriptive way. It is okay to take small, slow steps toward change. The important thing is to take the steps!

After doing these exercises, you may still look at your body in a critical way. Be aware; notice the criticism and remember that this is not necessarily accurate. Practice non-judgmental, descriptive, mindful mirror viewing each time you see your reflection. You will get better at it and begin to feel better about your body.