As a fitness professional, whether during one-on-one personal training sessions or while leading cycling classes, a large majority of my waking hours have been spent in front of a mirror. I like to think that “body checks” were more of an occupational hazard from all my time spent in front of a mirror. But, if we’re being honest, I remember grabbing a bathroom pass to check my reflection in middle school. At 12 years old, I started staring at my reflection to see if the way I sat at my desk made my legs look too big.
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Throughout my teenage years and well into adulthood, there wasn’t a mirror, store window, car door, or front-facing camera that was safe from my constant need to check on my body. Each reflective surface I passed had the ability to make or break my self-esteem. I was a woman possessed until, in early 2021, I ditched almost all mirrors. It’s been a full calendar year without them ruling my life—and I’ll never go back. Read on for my experience with body checks, how and why I got rid of mirrors, and how you can gain more confidence too.
What are “body checks?”
Body checking is the repeated behavior of seeking details about your body’s size, shape, weight, or appearance from mirrors, reflections, photos, or other people. Checking your reflection in a mirror as you pass by or zooming in on yourself in the group photo are normal behaviors. However, compulsive body checks are when these habits happen compulsively and negatively affect your mood and self-esteem.
When I started my career in fitness, mirrors were in no short supply. I was performing body checks almost constantly. I started looking for these checks to define my self-worth and place in the industry. Often, this made me feel like an imposter posing as a personal trainer. I watched my reflection as I demonstrated every exercise, taught every class, and walked from one corner of the gym to the other. All the while, I was seeking constant validation and often ridiculing my body in my own head. This was my constant reality until last year when I decided constantly checking mirrors was ruining my confidence. So, I ditched body checks, and it changed my life.
How I limited mirrors and stopped body checking
A year ago, I began working at a gym that doesn’t have a single mirror in the whole facility. There was no way for me to see what my body looked like. This forced me to be present in the moment and focus on what I was doing. For the first time, I was unable to obsess over what I looked like while working or working out. For the first few weeks, I felt myself yearning for a way to see how others saw me when I moved. Although, as time went on, my concern with what I looked like dissipated as my confidence grew.
As months passed, my desire for body checks waned. I focused instead on performing well, making friends, and improving my skills as both an athlete and a trainer. Slowly but surely, this release of control over knowing what my body looked like at any given moment began to creep into my life outside of the gym. I no longer opened my front-facing camera to check my reflection every time I went on my phone. I stopped wondering what my body looked like to others. The oversized full-length mirror in my living room no longer had a grip on me, and when I moved into a new apartment in the spring, I chose not to take it with me. I didn’t need it anymore.
While the complete lack of mirrors in my workspace was the catalyst for this change, what really broke my habit of habitual body checking was this discovery: I could be valued for things other than what I looked like. I focused on the intangibles that I brought to the table, such as knowledge and commitment. I learned to be proud of those characteristics—irrespective of my size, shape, or weight. Lastly, I stopped thinking about what other people looked like and instead focused on their qualities and how they made me feel. For the first time, I really saw people for who they were—myself included.
Today, I have a small, full-length mirror next to my closet to use while getting dressed, and I do my hair and makeup in a medicine cabinet mirror over the sink in my bathroom. My obsession with staring in the mirror has completely changed. When I look at my body (whether it’s in a mirror, window reflection, etc.), I do so with neutrality. I repeat, “This is what my body looks like today,” and choose to reflect on what it’s capable of, the person it houses, and all the people who love her. These days, I’m often pleasantly surprised by the reflection looking back at me. I’ve realized my body looks exactly the same whether I can see it or not. The difference is that what it looks like no longer has a death grip on how I feel about myself.
Tips I learned to improve body confidence
1. Limit mirrors
I challenge you to remove the full-length mirrors you find yourself obsessing over for just one month. While it might be scary to break such a strong habit, you just might find freedom and gain confidence. Instead of working out in front of the floor-to-ceiling gym mirror, set yourself up in an area where you can’t fixate on what you look like. When passing by a mirrored store window, take the time you’d normally spend checking out your own reflection to smile at a stranger, window shop the store displays, or simply be more present in the moment. Lastly, replace any mirrors used for “decor” with beautiful art that makes you feel happy.
2. Notice the ebb and flow of your body
When I stopped fixating on what I looked like every second of the day, I started to understand that the things that used to upset me about my body (bloating, hormonal changes, PMS, lack of sleep, dehydration, etc.) were predictable and, more importantly, impermanent. I used to cry about the way I looked a few days before my period, but now I treat that time with far more grace because I know that it’s normal and no fault of my own. The body is meant to fluctuate—in weight, symptoms, cravings, strength, and appearance. Once you realize bodies are meant to be ever-changing, you can better understand and appreciate yours.
3. Use a mirror affirmation
Sure, it would be a lot easier if I could avoid any and all reflections altogether, but mirrors are unavoidable. Plus, your reflection shouldn’t be a scary thing. You can rewire your mind to actually like what you see. When I look at my reflection, whether I’m passing a reflective store window or doing my makeup in the morning, I use a mirror affirmation. Lately, my mirror affirmation has been, “This is my body today, and I choose to love it.” It reminds me that I am grateful for my body, who I am, and all that I can do—even on the days that I don’t feel my best. It might feel weird at first, but before long, you’ll be repeating your mirror affirmation subconsciously (and believing it too).
4. Shift your focus to qualities that are not appearance-related
The next time you find yourself obsessing over what you look like, make a list of things you love about yourself that are not image-related. Don’t forget to include things you’re good at, the way you make people feel, your educational or work achievements, and all the wonderful qualities that you possess. Learning to value yourself for more than the shape of your body will change the way you see yourself, the things you value, and the way you present yourself to the world. By limiting mirrors and reframing the way I saw my reflection, I learned to trust myself and feel proud of my non-physical qualities. The removal of unnecessary body checks from your life will improve your relationship with yourself. You deserve it.
While this article addresses body-checking behaviors, it is not meant to treat body dysmorphia or disordered eating. If you are struggling with body image or disordered thoughts or behaviors regarding food and eating, please seek help. Call the National Eating Disorders Association Helpline at 1-800-931-2237 for support, reach out to a qualified medical professional, or, for a 24-hour crisis line, text “NEDA” to 741741.