Kjerstin Gruys, a 29-year-old PhD student in sociology, has mastered the art of avoiding her own reflection. For months, her daily schedule began with the typical teeth brushing, but a curtain covered the bathroom mirror. She inserted her contact lenses and applied her makeup by touch, not sight. Driving to work required glances in the rear- and side-view mirrors, but Gruys avoided peeking at her own image.
It was part of a unique experiment that Gruys hopes will help boost her own self-esteem and inspire others to stop focusing on external perfection. In her blog “Mirror, Mirror Off the Wall”, she documents her yearlong effort to live mirror-free.
The project had its roots in Gruys’ struggles with body image and her experience overcoming an eating disorder. In high school, Gruys said, she had insecurities about her appearance and suffered from anorexia.
“All my obsessing was kind of directed toward how much I weighed,” she said. She restricted her food and liquid intake, resulting in serious health problems. “I had kidney stones five times … and the lack of body fat started affecting my bone density.”
Through years of therapy, Gruys finally overcame her eating disorder. Gruys began volunteering for About-Face, a San Francisco-based organization that seeks to help women and girls free themselves of body-image problems.
Gruys launched her no-mirrors project in March 2010, while planning her wedding to then fiancé Michael Ackermann. Wedding dress shopping was not the pleasure-filled experience that she had expected.
“I thought I was going to find a dress that somehow fulfilled every dream, and that I’d enjoy the process of shopping for dresses, I’d feel my most beautiful. I’d find this perfect dress that complimented my body.”
But instead, Gruys says dress shopping was a source of stress.
“I saw myself in the mirror and was being critical,” she says. “I thought, Well, maybe I should lose a little weight before the wedding, always a bad thing to focus on when you have a history of an eating disorder…. I wasn’t afraid of relapsing into my eating disorder, but I felt like a hypocrite because of how far I’d come.”
Then Gruys read a passage in the book “Birth of Venus,” describing an order of nuns in Renaissance Italy who had severe restrictions against vanity. “They didn’t have mirrors in their lives. They were forbidden to look at each other when undressing. They were actually forbidden to look at themselves while they undressed.”
For the first time in her life, Gruys said she was tempted to follow suit.
“This idea of living your life experiencing the world for itself instead of constantly reflecting, you know, pun intended, on how you looked…. It was a life where you could get away from yourself,” she said.
“I just kind of kept coming back to this pattern of perfectionism, and obsessing about my appearance, and I thought, If I can’t think myself out of it, then maybe I need to change something about my environment to force me to change,” Gruys explained. “The project was to get rid of mirrors with the intention of focusing on everything else in my life.”
Gruy’s mother, Julie Elmen, was supportive but initially surprised by the timing of Gruys’ project.
“The first thing she said was, That’s a great idea, it seems like the perfect experiment for you to do, but you’re not going to do it until after the wedding, right?” Gruys recalled.
Elmen told “20/20” that, at first, she was just concerned about her daughter having a “normal wedding.”
“I wanted her to be able to enjoy every part of it and be able to look at herself in the mirror and see how lovely she looked on her wedding day.”
In the beginning of her mirror-free lifestyle, Gruys admits there were a few maintenance mishaps.
“The first month of the project …when I was walking out the door…it was maybe a 50-50 shot that I had mascara on my nose.”
But quickly, she learned to adapt. Gruys says she trained herself to avoid eye contact with her own image in windows and other reflective surfaces, trusted friends to tell her what looks good instead of relying on the mirror in dressing rooms. And she put complete faith in her hair stylist.
To the surprise of many, Kjerstin says the wedding day was actually one of the easiest days to navigate mirror-free.
“I’m getting my focus back to thinking about the real meaning of the day, which isn’t how I look but marrying the love of my life,” she said.
Bridesmaids scurried to shield the mirrors from her view. Fittingly, she and Ackermann’s first dance was to a song called “I’ll Be Your Mirror.” The lyrics included “I find it hard to believe you don’t know/The beauty that you are.”
In March 2012, the experiment came to an end. At an event surrounded by family and friends, Kjerstin Gruys finally looked at her own reflection.
“I had a little ambivalence, and at the same time, pleasure, because I was happy with what I saw,” she said.
In attendance was fellow About-Face volunteer Aubrey Toole, who says she hopes people take inspiration from Gruys.
“So many things are important about her message,” Toole said. “I think so much of being a female in our society today is seeing yourself from the outside. And her message is really to see yourself from within.”
Gruys said she has learned to pay more attention to how she feels, rather than how she looks.
“There is nothing wrong with enjoying, um, looking at yourself in the mirror, … but it’s important for every woman, and man, I think, to really think for a few minutes about whether there is a point of diminishing returns,” she said. “Because we have so much more to offer the world than just our looks.”