Addressing Body Image Concerns Using Mirror Exposure

Feb 1, 2023

Staci Jacobs

Who hasn’t experienced some form of self-criticism about their body image? We are all too familiar with examining ourselves in the mirror and zeroing in on whatever it is that we do not like. It’s a process so many of us unconsciously engage in…but what effect does it really have on us? Negative body image is associated with lower self-esteem, anxiety, depression, eating disorders, and body dysmorphic disorder. Concerns about our appearance can have a profound effect on social functioning and intimate relationships. People may avoid wearing certain clothes, being seen or touched, or going to places based on concerns about how they look. While everyone can relate to experiencing dissatisfaction with their appearance, few of us are aware that how we examine ourselves in the mirror plays a drastic role in what we see, think, and feel.


In today’s blogpost, we are going to talk about one specific intervention for addressing body image concerns: The mirror exposure. Please note that addressing negative body image is challenging and can call for a number of different interventions including but not limited to, examining underlying beliefs about what our bodies should look like as well as the degree to which we base our self-worth on how we look. If you have an individual therapist, I recommend bringing up your body image concerns in that supportive space. If you are looking to learn more on your own, I recommend a book like: The Body Image Workbook. Okay, now back to mirror exposures…


Let’s start by debunking a myth:


Is what you see in the mirror completely accurate?…. Not quite!


Have you ever looked like yourself in one mirror and totally different in another? The lighting, type of mirror, and glass quality all affect how your image is reflected. Beyond that, consider the size of your image in a full-length mirror. Does the image in the mirror reflect your true height and width? You can experiment with this by having someone mark the top of your head and your feet in the mirror and measure it. The short answer is no.


Am I advocating for no mirrors? Of course, not. They have their value, but taking the reflection you see in the mirror as capital “T” truth and then criticizing yourself can contribute to a variety of mental health concerns.


So, what IS body image?


When we think about body image most of us will think about…well…our bodies. However, it’s a bit more complex than that. Our body image is made up of perceptions, cognitions, feelings, and behaviors. Perceptions are what we become aware of by way of our senses (e.g. the sensation of my waistband pressing on my abdomen or the way I see myself in the mirror). Cognitions are thoughts, beliefs, and interpretations about our bodies (e.g. “I’m fat”). Feelings are the emotions we feel about our body which can be amplified by negative cognitions (e.g. disgust, shame, embarrassment, and/or guilt). Finally, behaviors are actions we take (e.g. restricting food/food groups, checking your stomach in the mirror repeatedly, and/or avoiding looking at yourself in the mirror). Each of these components impacts one another and can happen in any order.


How can behaviors reinforce the cycle?


If someone assumes they look “fat” and “disgusting,” they may avoid looking in the mirror. This avoidance strengthens those beliefs by leaving them unchecked. Now, let’s say you do the opposite…you check repeatedly whether you look fat and disgusting. Well…what you discover depends on the way you assess yourself. “Flaws,” that would otherwise go unnoticed, become prominent, when you seek them out. Furthermore, scrutinizing yourself in the mirror magnifies perceived defects. Consider the study that showed how people with spider phobias perceived spiders to be larger than they actually are in reality. This is because when looking at the spiders through the lens of fear, they focused on unpleasant characteristics and ignored things in the environment that provided a reference to size. Similarly, when people study themselves in the mirror, they fixate on perceived flaws, which, in turn, magnifies them. If you are looking for a flaw, you will find it. In other words, how you examine yourself in the mirror influences what you see.


Enter stage left…the mirror exposure:


Mirror exposures, sometimes called perceptual retraining, is an intervention that works to break the cycle of negative body image. We are looking to confront anxiety, disgust, shame, guilt…any uncomfortable feelings having to do with our body. We are also practicing looking at our bodies as a whole rather than focusing on the parts of our body we dislike.


How do we do this?

1. This practice is really tricky. If you are doing this on your own (versus with a therapist), it can help to record yourself so that you can play it back afterwards and give yourself feedback.

2. Stand in front of a full-length mirror and practice systematically describing your body using neutral, objective language. Go from head to toe or toe to head.

a. Examples of neutral descriptions include: Describe colors you see, shapes you see, textures, measurements using neutral, and objective terms (e.g. my forehead is about three fingers tall). Think about any description you might use to help someone build a model of your body.

b. Examples of non-neutral descriptions: Fat, ugly, gross…need I go on?

c. If you are unsure, ask yourself, does that description feel neutral to you?

3. Pacing: Spend a similar amount of time on each area.

a. Notice if you have urges to avoid certain areas on your body. If the urge is there, practice approaching and slowing down using the neutral descriptions.

b. Conversely, if you have the urge to spend extra time on a particular section of your body part (e.g. checking), practice pacing yourself in the same way you do for a part of your body you don’t check.

4. When you are finished, listen to the recording of yourself doing this practice and determine whether there were areas of difficulty.

5. If you avoided, checked, or used non-neutral language go back over these areas and practice confronting, pacing, and using neutral language.

6. Practice this daily. You can vary the exposure using different types of clothing.


Why is this helpful?

In case it’s not already clear, mirror exposures target the self-perpetuating cycle of negative body image by…

● Disrupting hyperfocus on perceived flaws by viewing your body more globally.

● Breaking the cycle of avoidance via confronting/exposing (avoidance reinforces negative thoughts/feelings).

● Teaching you to tolerate and accept (versus fight) difficult thoughts and emotions. If we stop fighting these things, over time they will die down. Keep in mind, however, this takes time! Measure your success by the fact that you are doing the mirror exposure practice versus by the presence of negative thoughts and feelings.


To conclude:


Body dissatisfaction takes place when a person has persistent negative thoughts and feelings about their body which, in turn, shapes behaviors such as the way you look (or don’t look) at yourself in a mirror. While this is an internal process it is heavily influenced by external factors – think messages in our culture, media, and

immediate environment that tell us what the ideal body “should” look like. Mirror exposure is one practice that can help you move towards a more positive body image. What IS a positive body image? Accepting, appreciating, and respecting your body. This does not mean you are never dissatisfied with aspects of your appearance, but it does mean that you practice acceptance with all of its limitations. Positive body image is a protective factor against developing eating disorders and is also associated with higher self-esteem, self-acceptance, and more adaptive living. While changing your relationship to your body is challenging, it is worthwhile if it can leave you feeling more flexible and free to live the life you want.