Did You Hug Your Mirror Today?

By Rita Freedman, PhD

I'm startled as Ellen arrives for her first appointment. Poured into skintight jeans and a black tank top, her striking, tall body is a vision of fashion, but also a victim of famine—both at the same time. This recent Yale graduate soon describes a host of eating disorder symptoms, including a badly distorted body image. In a later session we stand together facing a full-length mirror. Gently I describe what I see. "You're a woman of stature," I begin. "You seem elegant, yet frail. Your sensitive features remind me of a classic portrait. Your eyes…"

Ellen studies her reflection then sadly murmurs, "If only I could see that person, but I can't."

Like so many of my clients, Ellen views herself as a shameful object, rather than a valuable subject. Her authentic self, a living-breathing-feeling person, remains hidden. Self-objectification distorts her body image and erodes her confidence. Correcting this fundamental error is crucial to Ellen's recovery.

What Is Self-Objectification?

Self-objectification is a process of seeing and treating one's self as a lifeless thing. Common among females, it often begins in childhood. Girls and women of every age are surveyed as pieces of "eye candy," objects to be visually consumed by others. Whether at home, at school, and especially in the media, "girl watching" is a kind of national sport. This destructive game of regarding people as things becomes internalized, at which point the body is unconsciously treated like an object on display.

Objectification is dehumanizing. It reduces you to a collection of parts, and then induces you to make over those parts in order to gain attention or affection. As in Ellen's case, it disconnects you from who you are.

When judged mainly as a lifeless object, your subjective inner self slowly fades from view, and you become a stranger, invisible to yourself.

Psychologists Barbara Fredrickson and Toni Ann Roberts conclude that objectification arouses strong emotions, which dominate our sense of self. There is anxious mirror questioning: "Do I look OK?" There's also tormenting guilt and shame when beauty ideals become moral ideals. For example, Ellen equates good looks with goodness. Eating in public seems sinful to her. Feeling full is a sign of self-indulgence and dieting serves as proof of being a good girl. Fredrickson and Roberts warn that objectification incites preoccupation with appearance. This in turn leads to endless body monitoring, which interrupts the focused concentration needed for success in life.

Appearance is not identity. To grow beyond self-objectification, Ellen must learn to recognize herself as more than a collection of parts. After all, the mind directs what the eye sees. There is a constant dialogue between what exists objectively and what we create subjectively. When facing the mirror with Ellen, I try to reflect an empathic view of her as unique, valuable, and lovable. Empathy has been compared to giving an emotional hug. My empathy guides her to embrace her subjective image with more compassion.

Exercises to Reduce Self-Objectification

Your own mirror can serve like an empathic therapist. It invites you in for a mini session of "meet the self," at truly affordable rates! Here are some exercises to reduce self-objectification and improve body image. The goal is to cultivate empathy and connect the virtual you in the glass with the real inner you, a whole person who acts, thinks, feels, and loves. (Additional exercises are outlined in the book Bodylove: Learning to like our looks and ourselves.)

  1. Tell Me about yourself - While facing a full-length mirror, ask your reflected double to "tell me about yourself." Then speak out loud and relate a tale, a trip, a wish, or a dream, just as if you were chatting with a friend. Notice your gestures and expressions as the "silent object" in the mirror becomes a living subject.
  2. Reflecting Together - Invite a friend or loved one over to a full-length mirror for a moment of shared reflection. Simply stand together in quiet contemplation; perhaps admire your reflections, hold hands, tell a joke, or dance. Notice how self-awareness shifts as emotions are contagiously passed between you.
  3. Cultivating Empathy - Empathy is the opposite of criticism or indifference. It includes concern, care, and compassion. Seated comfortably before a full-length mirror, relax by taking a few deep, cleansing breaths. While focused on your image, send a compassionate prayer to some aspect of your body or your self. For example:
    May I make peace with my lack of control.
    May I forgive myself for hating and hurting myself.
    May I accept my body with compassion.
  4. Self-Insight - Using a small hand mirror, sit quietly in close face-to-face contemplation for a full three minutes. Stare directly eye-to-eye, not merely at yourself but deeply into yourself. Search your eyes for an elusive essence beneath the surface, the I within the Eye. With your mind and heart wide opened, ask, "Who are you?" Then listen empathically for an answer from within.

It has been said that, "The best mirror is an old friend." Of course this insight has a rich double meaning. A friend doesn't see or treat you like a throw-away object. A friend knows that you're much more than your appearance. A friend is ready with a hug whenever needed. Perhaps it's time to face up to self-objectification and ask yourself, "Did I hug my mirror today?" And did it hug you back?