Research finds that eight in 10 women are dissatisfied with their reflection in the mirror. It’s not surprising. Media images of women retouched to perfection create standards of beauty that are nearly impossible to attain. The pressure to be thin, young and sexy – but not too sexy – seems to come from all angles. So much so that when we look in the mirror, we can see ourselves as an image that needs fixing – rather than a real person suffering from self-criticism. We use the mirror check how we look more often than to check how we feel.
Mirrors are used to perform social grooming rituals and to check our appearance before we go out in public. Self-objectification is the process by which we evaluate our image based on how it will look to others. It serves a very important social function because our appearance matters a great deal in how others respond to us. But when we habitually look in the mirror to check and adjust how we look on the outside, we can also get in the habit of ignoring how we’re actually feeling on the inside. We can disconnect from our authentic selves in favor of an image we believe we must maintain to be accepted by others. Researchers have found that self-objectification actually reduces our awareness of bodily sensations and emotions. We begin to see ourselves as things when we look in the mirror — instead of as real people.
Focusing attention on our appearance also undermines our ability to maintain optimal states of awareness (or flow states) that are linked to intrinsic motivation and enjoyment in the present moment. Many women habitually compare themselves in the mirror with idealized images in the media — this has been found to intensify feelings of shame and anxiety. By putting so much critical attention on ourselves, we actually create our own suffering. The Dove Self-Esteem Project finds that more than half of women globally (54 percent) agree that when it comes to how they look they are in fact their own worst beauty critics.
In my research using mirrors as a meditation tool, we’ve discovered that the best way out of the pain of self-objectification is through it. How? By looking at yourself in the mirror for an extended period of time.
Looking at yourself can evoke strong feelings. The first layer of thoughts and judgments is usually those having to do with your appearance. As I watch people criticize their own appearance in the mirror, their eyes are often harsh and piercing, or they may space-out and be unable to maintain eye contact with themselves. I ask them to soften their gaze and let go of any thoughts or judgments.
We’ve discovered that going through this process has some great benefits. Research participants reported a decrease in stress and an increase in self-compassion after two weeks of doing mirror meditation for 10 minutes daily. Some have also said that they are more content with their appearance, began to wear less make-up, and no longer dreaded the mirror. Those who continued to do daily mirror meditation reported an increase in their ability to concentrate, better discernment in their relationships, and more overall enjoyment in life.
Try Mirror Meditation
Position a mirror so that it’s freestanding and you can see into your eyes without straining or leaning forward, while you’re sitting on a meditation cushion or on a chair with both feet on the ground. Set a timer for five minutes (and work up to 10 minutes). Have no goals other than to sit with yourself for the allotted time.
Notice your breathing: Are you holding your breath or breathing rapidly? Take a few slow, deep belly breaths. Then breathe regularly and naturally, just observing your breath move your chest up and down. Notice any areas of tension in your body, and use your breath to relax those areas.
Then begin to look into your eyes. Is your gaze harsh or soft? Try to soften your gaze as much as you can. If you notice yourself hardening by focusing on a detail or a flaw in your appearance – breathe until you feel yourself softening again. Gaze at your reflection, staying open to whatever arises. Notice any sensations or emotions that come up and allow them to simply be there without judgment or interpretation. Let your feelings and thoughts simply pass by as you breathe, relax your body, and gaze at yourself with no goal other than to be present with yourself. As you do this, you may be surprised how much your view of yourself can change over the course of five or 10 minutes.
Questions for Going Deeper
What labels do you use to describe what you’re seeing in the mirror? Physical appearance? Personality adjectives? Say these words aloud to yourself as you gaze at your image. How does it feel? Do you notice any shifts in your awareness?
Please feel free to post your experience, questions, and comments on the Mirror Meditation Face Book page.