UCLA doctoral student Kjerstin Gruys can’t see her reflection.
Gruys has sworn off looking at herself in mirrors — or in reflective windows, new photos, or even during Skype chats — for an entire year, which, not coincidentally, includes her wedding day. It’s both an extreme stunt and a serious attempt to improve her self-image by eliminating her ability to criticize what she sees in the mirror.
The sociology student and former fashion employee, who studies the relationship between beauty and inequality by looking at body size and the fashion industry, was newly engaged and had just finished shopping for a wedding dress when inspiration for the mirror-diet struck in March.
After weeks of casting a critical eye on herself in the mirror, the 28-year-old was fed up with the voice in her head that said she didn’t look good enough. As a feminist and as someone who struggled with an eating disorder in high school and most of college, she knew the bridal industry’s emphasis on perfection was dangerous, and yet she wasn’t immune.
"I felt myself being insecure about my body … even though I know my wedding and future marriage are not built on a foundation of me being one size smaller," Gruys said. She felt the urge to realign her feelings with her values — and she wanted to nip any threat of a relapse in the bud. "I realized that I needed to do something, something immediate and possibly a little extreme. … I’m not very good at making small changes."
Gruys trying on her wedding dress.
The day after buying her dress, she read a story about an order of nuns who, hundreds of years ago, never looked at their own bodies. They looked at a cross on a wall while they changed or bathed, and never saw themselves in a mirror. To Gruys, it sounded like a kind of freedom.
"It was probably the first time in my life when I thought to myself, ‘Wow, I kind of wish I was a nun,’" she said. "I thought, ‘Could I even go one day without looking at myself in a mirror?’ And then this little voice went off and said, ‘Go bigger, go bigger! If you want this to make a difference in your life, go bigger!’"
She’s five months into the project, and she’s felt the difference. Her self-image has improved, she feels more confident and believes more fully what she always trusted: that her loved ones love her back no matter what she looks like, she said. She blogs about the project at "Mirror, Mirror … OFF The Wall," where she shares her experiences and insights with other women who struggle with their body image. She drops in tidbits such as studies showing that women look in the mirror an average of 70 times a day, or five full days a year. As her project began to attract media attention, hits on her blog soared to as many as 44,000 a day.
Quirky as Gruy’s commitment is, her academic advisor, UCLA Sociology Professor Abigail Saguy, didn’t bat an eye when she heard about Gruy’s new after-school project.
"It’s an interesting experiment that complements nicely the research she’s doing on vanity sizing and media reporting on obesity," Saguy said. "It’s a clever way to observe herself and other’s responses to her. She’s breaching normal conventions and therefore getting a new understanding of what those conventions are. It’s intellectually provocative, and it’s getting the conversation into the public eye."
Kjerstin Gruys, uncut: Join Kjerstin in the UCLA Broadcast Studio to hear her talk about her project and admire her mirror-free makeup. Because of the rules of her mirror fast, she won't watch this video for months.
Gruys has successfully gone months without mirrors. She covered all the mirrors in her apartment. In public restrooms, she washes her hands while staring at the sink. While walking to work, she looks straight ahead to avoid glimpses of herself reflected in store windows and shiny parked cars. She depends on honest friends to tell her if her lipstick is askew or if there’s food in her teeth.
She allowed herself a few weeks transition at the beginning of the project to teach herself mirror-free makeup and blind hairstyling, with the safety net of a quick check in the mirror to see how she’d done, but no longer. In the spirit of the project, she’s sworn off looking at pictures or videos of herself taken during this year – with one exception: her wedding photos.
She’s had slip-ups, mostly when mirrors caught her by surprise, but for the most part, even when an eyelash in her eye left her crying in the middle of a meeting, she hasn’t given in.
Averting her eyes from all the world’s reflective surfaces is tricky, but the real challenges have been more emotional and intellectual.
"The practical stuff is frustrating, but that’s an issue of problem solving," Gruys said. The hardest moments are the long hours that she works alone most days.
"I realized that I had been using mirrors as a sense of being less alone. I would see my reflection and be like, ‘Oh, hey, there you are. Looking good! Get back to work now.’ And without seeing myself … I would have this weird feeling of ‘Do I even exist?’ That probably sounds so strange," she said. "But my reflection was a form of companionship I didn’t count on."
Another surprising challenge has been finding a creative outlet. She’s learned that what she considered to be her shallow love of clothes and makeup actually fulfilled an almost artistic craving.
"I didn’t realize how fun that was until I couldn’t do it anymore. I’m wearing the barest amount of makeup now, and it doesn’t change everyday, so it’s become routine instead of an act of creativity and expression," she said. "That was actually a good thing to find out, that wearing makeup and picking out clothes wasn’t just about covering flaws, but also about being creative." Shoe-shopping became her new outlet because "I have a great view of my feet."
She’s taken a lot of flak for wearing make-up during her mirrorless year, with online commentators asking her how she can accept herself or call herself a feminist if she still alters her appearance to feel comfortable and beautiful. Gruys sees makeup as a gray area, listing other things that alter appearances and impressions: shoes, deodorant, even wearing clothes. Like makeup, sometimes they can be part of an oppressive, sexist beauty culture, but "they’re also things we take for granted for simply moving through society without upsetting anyone," she said. She’s started a tradition of no-makeup Mondays, anyway.
She’s received lots of support from her fiancé, Michael Ackermann, who encouraged her to start the blog, Gruys said. Fittingly, she interviewed him for the blog, asking him whether he’d noticed any changes in her.
Gruys with her fiancé, Michael Ackermann. Photo by The Goodness Photography and Design.
"You don't look that much different," he told her. But he’s attracted to her lighter makeup, he added. The look exudes self-confidence, he said on her blog:
MICHAEL: I like it. I think it's really sexy. You have beautiful eyes and beautiful cheeks, and I see you more now. And since you're not wearing much makeup I can actually see your skin instead of a layer of film and gunk, and stuff. KJERSTIN: Film and gunk!??! Hey now! You never complained about it before. MICHAEL: Well, whatever. There's just something really nice about you being just you. … It feels more special now when you DO wear more makeup. You've made it meaningful instead of mundane, because it marks special occasions.
With feedback like that, perhaps it’s no surprise that Gruys feels comfortable going mirror-free for their wedding day on Oct. 1.
"I know that will be a challenge, but I try to focus on the fact that this is probably the only day of my life when so many of my loved ones in my life are in the same place," Gruys said. "[They’re] my motivation to get away from the mirror to go spend time with these people and appreciate these other meanings of the day."
On March 26, 2012, Gruys — by then married, a year older and more confident — will look in the mirror again. Her first act, she said, will be to come up with a list of 10 things she loves about what she sees.