Family Matters

Woman’s Quest to Avoid Mirrors for a Year Raises Questions of Body Image

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Bad hair day? Kjerstin Gruys wouldn’t know. She’s nearly halfway through her quest to spend an entire year — including Oct. 1, her wedding day — avoiding mirrors. 

“I am trying to emphasize my appearance less and other parts of my life more,” says Gruys, a 28-year-old graduate student in UCLA’s Department of Sociology who is researching beauty culture and the fashion industry.

Her academic interests dovetailed with her personal life last year, when she went wedding-dress shopping with her mother. What she’d envisioned as a beautiful experience wound up as an exercise in critical body image. Less than a decade out from a battle with anorexia, Gruys was alarmed to find herself once again unhappy with her appearance, pondering a diet — even though she knew she didn’t need to lose weight.

“For me, looking in the mirror was attached to a lot of negative thought,” she says. “There is a point at which looking in the mirror doesn’t give you any additional information.” Uncomfortable with the renewed focus on her appearance, Gruys wondered how to cope.

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On the plane on the way back to L.A. from her wedding-dress shopping trip in St. Louis, where her parents live, Gruys started reading a new book. In the prologue, the author told a short story about an order of nuns who followed such strict vanity guidelines that they were not permitted to gaze at their own bodies when they bathed. “I never in my life thought I wanted to be a nun, but for a few minutes I was jealous of those women,” says Gruys. “It’s a huge contrast to L.A., where you’re told looks matter more than anything else.”

Her mind began to churn. Could she go a full day without looking in the mirror? Says Gruys: “A voice in my head said, Go bigger, go bigger!”

On March 26, she began her campaign to shun all mirrors, reflective surfaces, storefront windows, photographs of herself — anything that would give her a glimpse of what she looks like. It’s a way for Gruys to muse about how appearance shapes women’s lives. But she hopes the musing transcends her own personal experience. “I hope to make other women think about the impact the beauty culture has on their life,” she says.

In Mirror, Mirror…Off the Wall,  a blog in which she chronicles her adventures draping the mirrors in her home with curtains and learning to apply minimal makeup by feel, Gruys notes that a survey by QVC Beauty found that women spend a total of five days a year looking at their reflections. “Holy smokes!” she wrote. When Gruys asked her own readers how often they glance in the mirror, here’s how 134 responded:

0% Never! Your no-mirrors project is nothing compared to me!

7% Rarely. Like, if I’m getting a haircut or trying on clothes.

63% Several times each day, like when I’m getting ready or when I’m washing up in the restroom.

28% Constantly! I check myself out whenever I can…in mirrors, windows, silverware, other people’s sunglasses….

The past six months have been difficult for Gruys, and not only because she’s unaware that she may have a speck of spinach in her teeth. She’s hit upon some unsettling truths about herself. “The biggest challenge has been emotional,” she says. “I realized how much I’ve relied upon mirrors to feel okay throughout the day, to explain why the day is going well or isn’t.”

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There have been high points, too, including an interview she conducted for her blog with her fiancé, a post-doc at Stanford. “I found he prefers me with less make-up,” says Gruys, who used to rely heavily on cosmetics. “He said I don’t really look that different, and we get out a lot faster now.”

As for the rapidly approaching wedding, Gruys has no plans to break her streak and check out her bridal reflection. Her blog readers voted, however, and decided she should at the very least be able to look at her wedding photos. She’s undecided about whether she’ll allow that small concession on her big day.