Does Not Looking In Mirrors Really Help Your Self-Esteem, Or Could It Hurt It? Here's What The Science Says

A model looks at her make-up in a mirror prior the Gianfranco Ferre Fall-winter 2012-2013 show on February 27, 2012 during the Women's fashion week in Milan. AFP PHOTO / GABRIEL BOUYS (Photo credit should read GABRIEL BOUYS/AFP/Getty Images)
Source: GABRIEL BOUYS/AFP/Getty Images

Have you ever thought about experimenting with not looking in mirrors? If the idea sounds familiar, it's likely because in 2011, New York blogger Autumn Whitefield-Madrano wrote about her no-mirrors experiment on her blog The Beheld, and the idea went viral. Women are conditioned to constantly monitor themselves and their attractiveness, she said, so going on a "mirror fast" could help. The trend is still going strong in 2015. But does it actually make any psychological sense? Could something as simple as not looking the mirror really change the way we feel about our bodies?

There’s no doubt that media-driven Western society places enormous demands on women to look a certain way, from having symmetrical faces to clear skin and big boobs. And it’s pretty clear that mirrors — and reflective surfaces of all kinds, from shop windows to iPhone screens to car hoods — play a strong role in how we react to those standards. Women checking themselves in mirrors (up to 38 times a day, according to one British study) aren’t actually being vain; they’re seeking reassurance that they’re up to snuff. But does mirror avoidance break that chain — or is it missing the point?

If you were thinking of giving up mirrors in an attempt to help your self-esteem and make you less appearance-reliant, read this first. It might make you think a little differently.  

Why We Like Mirrors In The First Place

Mirrors are actually pretty important to our psychological development and being. They’re the foundation of a classic test of when we develop “self-consciousness,” or the awareness that we are people in the world, rather than just experiencing it cluelessly.

Babies up to 20 months old regard their reflections in the mirror as either another baby they want to play with, or something suspicious and a bit peculiar. But once they get to 20 months, they clearly recognize themselves.

We still don’t know if this is precisely the point where we develop a sense of ourselves as people; but it’s pretty clear that mirrors, and knowing that the person on their surface is in fact you, are a good indicator of how our brains are developing. (As I write this, the woman at the next table is showing her 14-month-old baby his face in her hand mirror, and he is very confused.)

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Once you’re past babyhood, though, do you still need mirrors? Yes, as it turns out. Experiments with mirrors, like arranging them to make it look as if your left hand is actually your right and looking at what happens (serious confusion and a feeling of disorientation), have shown that our brains use mirrors to keep us “anchored” in our bodies. Mirror therapy was used by famous psychologist Oliver Sacks in his books to help people who've had nerve injuries and limb amputations feel “connected” to their bodies again

Reflections aren’t just about what we read into them; they’re also keeping us self-conscious and present in our bodies, which is a tricky thing to leave behind for a month.

What Happens When You Go On A Mirror Fast?

So what really happens when you mirror-fast? The results are pretty revealing. Some experimenters, like Whitefield-Madrano, said that it made them less worried about other peoples' perceptions, and less likely to fill their heads with negative thoughts about their bodies. Others, like Johanna Debiase over at xoJane, said they discovered that they never used the mirror in an objective way: it was always fraught with other messages about the value of what was shown. These responses are interesting, because they're not just about mirrors: they're about what we say to ourselves while we use them. 

So mirror-fasting is a way to change your own conversation with your image. And moderation, it seems, might be the best way to do it — or is it? 

The Potential Problem With Mirror-Fasting 

This is one of the biggest criticisms of the whole avoiding-mirrors experiment: that giving up mirrors and refusing point-blank to look at ourselves is just another way of making appearance all-important. One psychologist even called it “narcissistic.” The argument? That completely dismissing mirrors from your life — and talking about that choice at length — just reinforces how important they, and appearance, are.

Psychologists who aren't sure about the whole mirror-fast idea mention how it seems to parallel addiction: you have to go "cold turkey" to feel any control over this immensely powerful thing, rather than be able to handle it in incremental doses. Other psychologists have compared the fast to “crash dieting,” in that it may just make participants think about their appearances even more.

Could Mirror-Binging Be Better Than Mirror-Fasting?

A few psychologists have put forward a radically different idea about using mirrors to help us disconnect our appearances from our self-worth: go for mirror-excess rather than mirror-fasting. It’s an approach used in treatment of people with eating disorders and body dysmorphic disorder (a radical mismatch between their mental concepts of their bodies and their bodies’ actual shapes). 

Mirror-gazing for long periods is meant to be “exposure therapy” for people whose bodies and eating habits are disordered; it’s supposed to make the mirror less powerful and let them become aware of how they react to one. It's like dulling the blow, so to speak.

But another study seems to show that this might have the opposite affect, if you’re not careful. In a study of 50 people, half of whom suffered from body dysmorphic disorder, even the “control” group with normal attitudes towards their bodies began to get anxious and depressed if they were left to look in the mirror for ten minutes. Ten minutes alone was long enough to get them obsessing over flaws, big pores, and all the other things that even “well-adjusted” people are conscious of in our appearance-driven world. 

Too much mirror, it seems, might have just as many risks — if not more — than too little if you're not focused on changing the conversation. 

So, How Do We Actually Change Our Conversation With Mirrors?

It looks like the solution to better self-esteem isn’t how much or little we look in mirrors, but how we treat what we see. The connection between what the mirror shows us and how we think about ourselves is the chain we need to break — and that’s a much longer journey than just throwing your bathroom mirror in the trash. 

So how can you really break the link? Women are encouraged to have negative self-talk about their bodies and faces 24/7, in the mirror or out of it: I'm too thin, my pores are too big, my hair is frizzy. Catching and challenging that is the best way to have a healthy relationship with your reflection. Affirmations, dorky as they sound, can be a pretty good way to stop yourself talking trash to your reflection, as can the power of smiling at yourself. 

Examine your own thoughts as you're sneaking a peek in a reflective surface: what kind of things do you think? Is it possible to look in the mirror, clear your mind, and have no thoughts at all? Can you meet a critical thought with another, more positive one?

It seems like a basically impossible demand — but you can still tell yourself you’re lovable and worthy, even if you see Oscar the Grouch on a bad day staring back at you.  

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Images: Giphy

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