Saturday, March 24, 2012

Day 365: An Interview With Cynthia Bulik, PhD, Author of Woman in the Mirror

TODAY (Saturday) is the LAST day of my quest to live mirror-free for 1 year!  I'm almost too busy running around with my family, and throwing together last-minute party-planning ideas, to really absorb things.  I think that's okay.  I mean, by now really I ought to be able to run around frantically for a day without worrying about mirrors or what I look like in them - that was the whole point of this project!  So for now, I'm just going with the flow, and plan to over-analyze everything later (on this blog, of course!).

In the meantime, I want to share with you a resource that has been particularly helpful to me over the past few months.  It's an eerily on-topic book.  I was so impressed (and simultaneously starved for therapy!) that I went so far as to ask the author for her professional opinion on what I might expect, psychologically - from my "first look" and the days after.  Here's the scoop!

Cynthia Bulik, PhD and mirror. :)
Several months ago I received an email from one of those BIG NAME people in the field of eating disorders and body image research.  Cynthia Bulik, PhD, Director of the University of North Carolina Eating Disorders Program, and author of countless research articles on all the topics nearest-and-dearest to my heart, dropped me a note to introduce herself (as if I wouldn't know who she was?!?!) and let me know she was enjoying my blog.  We wrote back and forth a few times, and Cynthia generously arranged for me receive a copy of her latest book, titled: The Woman in the Mirror: How to Stop Confusing What You Look Like with Who You Are.  Clearly, we had a lot to talk about!

Learn more or buy your own copy here.

Well, I've read the book and loved it.  Cynthia writes with clear prose about complicated topics.  She skillfully explores the body image traps that women encounter at every stage of their lives, starting in early childhood all the way through our senior years.  Most importantly, she provides readers with practical (evidence-based!) tools for navigating these challenges and traps, predominantly by countering negative self-talk.  Boy, oh boy, have I needed this book over the past few weeks!  As much as I've learned by personally going without mirrors for the past 12 months, a 272-page pep-talk + play-book can't hurt. 

Here are the questions I posed to Cynthia, along with her responses.  

KJ:  I read your book and found it phenomenal!  In particular, the distinction you make between self-esteem and body-esteem really hit home.  Could you describe this difference and its importance for my readers?

Cynthia:  Sure, Body esteem refers to how you think and feel about your physical appearance: your size, shape, hair, your features—basically anything that makes up your physical self. Self-esteem refers to how you think and feel about the whole package that is you— your personality, your role in relationships, your accomplishments, your values, your spirituality, and your appearance—all of the dimensions that contribute to who you are as a person in the world.

If you look at self-esteem as a pie, and each of the different components as slices of the pie, the key question is how big the body esteem slice is. If body esteem is the biggest piece of your self-esteem pie, meaning that your self-esteem is almost completely defined by your body esteem, then there’s some work to be done. The goal of the book is to help people tease out self-esteem from body esteem and allow them to build up those other domains of self-esteem so that they can value all facets of who they are not just their physical appearance.

KJ:  You're an internationally renowned scholar on the topic of eating disorders.  How did you first become interested in the topic, and what continues to motivate your work, particularly Woman in the Mirror
Cynthia: The roots of Woman in the Mirror were in two locker rooms. I am an ice dancer, and my skating rink shares a locker room with a pool. I was changing one day and some little girls (about age 6) came running out of the pool, dripping wet. They looked like they were having so much fun, but when I overhead their conversation, the talk was all about having big tummies and needing to go on a diet. At age 6! So I archived this scenario in my mind, and two weeks later I was visiting my parents in their retirement village in Florida and found myself in the locker room of their wellness center. This time I was listening to a group of women who were anywhere form 60-80. I thought for sure in a retirement village, appearance focus would not be an issue, but to my horror, the conversation was the same as those little girls. Not only was it about hating their wrinkles and sagging skin, but they were still talking about how fat they were and what procedures they needed to get done (face lifts, tummy tucks etc.). At that point I realized that this has just gotten out of hand and I had to do something about it.

I first became interested in eating disorders when my mentor at the time was invited to write a book chapter on depression and anorexia and didn’t have time to write it, so he handed the project off to me. Like any good actor preparing for a role, I prepped myself for the writing by doing rounds on an eating disorders unit with the attending psychiatrist. I was completely intrigued by these girls (at the time it was mostly girls) who were around my age, but half my size. It was also an Aha! Moment when I realized that eating disorders had been all around me, but they weren’t really talked about at the time. Several girls whom I skated with had just sort of shrunken and then disappeared from the rink. Another skating friend’s mother used to have a padlock on the refrigerator and we had to ask for a key if we wanted something to eat. Her mom would just say that her daughter would eat them out of house and home if she didn't lock things up. We just thought it was odd, but took it for granted, little did we know that she was suffering from what would later be called bulimia nervosa. That experience on the ward basically sparked my determination to figure out what causes these illnesses and how best to treat them.

What continues to motivate my work is my absolute admiration for women and my desire to do whatever I can to ensure that my daughters’ generation has more opportunities and greater equality than I had. Women are an enormous resource. We have so much to offer the world, but we are held back by Big Industry’s schemes to constantly make us think that there is something wrong with us that needs to be fixed. The Big Industries have crafted the best marketing strategy in the world. They worm their way into your head convincing you that you have some sort of a flaw (eyebrows too bushy, skin too dark, skin too light, hair too curly, hair too straight, poorly formed belly button, inadequate eyelashes, etc.). Then convince you that this flaw that they convinced you that you had can and should be corrected. Then they offer you the magic product or procedure to erase any trails of this self-consciousness-inducing flaw. Then they promise not only to correct the flaw, but a remarkable boost in self-esteem along the way (coupled with being loved, getting the man, being popular, becoming rich, etc.). I get angry every time I see an advertisement designed to convince you there is something wrong with you that you should get fixed. I also get angry whenever I am unable to focus on the wonderful talent or accomplishments that a woman has made because her publicist has dressed her in an outfit that looks like it is going to malfunction at any moment. I am motivated by the desire to release women from the tyranny of appearance focused subjugation.

KJ:  Right on!  Your passion is inspiring to me!  I know that eating disorders have both biological and social roots.  We can't change our biology much, and cultural revolutions take a lot of time... Given this, do you have any tips or steps women can take in their everyday lives to reduce their risk (or their children's risk) of developing disordered eating? 

Cynthia: You’re right—the causes of eating disorders are truly an intricate dance of genes and environment. We can’t change our genes, but we can work on developing a more buffering environment. One of the best complications of recommendations from “experts” was in an iVillage piece by Karen Springen. Rather than recreating those recommendations, I would suggest reading: 

I’ll also emphasize the importance of being a healthy role model. One of my favorite quotes from Gloria Steinem is, “Every time a woman passes a mirror and criticizes herself, there’s a girl watching…” How we show respect to our own bodies is powerful medicine for young girls who are being bombarded by messages of dissatisfaction. And, every day, tell your children something you value about them aside from appearances to help them develop respect for all that they are as an individual in the world, not just what can be seen reflected in the mirror.

KJ:  I couldn't agree more.  Final question!  You know about my quest to give up mirrors for a year. Most people have been supportive of the project, but some also worry that I'm just "denying" the issue of poor body image by not looking at myself.  What's your take?  

Cynthia: I think this has been an enormously brave and admirable project and I have enjoyed watching the truths unfold during your journey. I see the opposite of denial, frankly.  I’ve watched this project encourage you to tackle the real issues and address the real person behind the looking glass.

KJ: Awww, shucks.  Thanks! :) Okay, I fibbed.  One more final question: My project ends soon.  Do you have any suggestions for how I might transition back?  I'm pretty nervous - what if all of the good changes I've noticed fall apart as soon as I see myself again!?!

Cynthia:  If you think about it, before the invention of the mirror, unless we lived by a calm body of water, we wouldn't have been able to pick ourselves out of a line up! We had no idea what our faces looked like. I would expect that you are going to go through somewhat of a reorientation phase once your project ends. You’ll probably be most fascinated with your face, because the rest of your body you can sort of get glimpses of without a mirror—so they wont have become as unfamiliar. There might have been some changes in your face. You’re a year older, maybe some new freckles, or other subtle changes that might lead you to ask…was that there before? You might also find yourself doing double takes for a while—like when you walk into a restroom or past a window and see your reflection. There will be some novelty to your reflection and hopefully it will be a pleasant surprise to see your face again!

My hope for you is really the fundamental message of a project we have going on called the Mirror Project. We’re working hard to get women and men to change their relationship with their reflection, and each time they look in the mirror to say something positive about themselves—not necessarily about their appearance, but some affirmative statement about who they are in the world or what they have done well that day. What I noticed in writing The Woman in the Mirror is that women rarely smile when they approach the mirror: they walk up to it with a frown, a scowl, and with trepidation about what they might find. Then they use the mirror as a flaw detector—scanning from head to toe to catalog all of their flaws. I hope that your unveiling will allow you to do just the opposite and remind you of all of the wonderful aspects of your apeparance that bring light to the world, to use the mirror to boost your self-esteem rather than bash your body esteem, and to embrace your new found reflection as a positive force in your life.

THANKS SO MUCH CYNTHIA!!  You're awesome. :)  (please tell yourself this the next time you look into a mirror!)

Okay, readers.  Did you read that last point I put in bold purple?  What "affirmative statement" can you tell your reflection today?  I need to collect ideas for my "first look" at midnight!!


  1. Stuart Smalley's famous SNL quote; "I'm good enough. I'm smart enough. And doggone it, people like me."

  2. I'll be thinking of you today/tonight, Kjerstin! You know, I misread this at first and thought you were asking for "affirmative statements" for you, and what came to mind was: You were whole then, you are whole now. As in, you've had an incredible, intense journey in the past year--a healing one, it sounds like--and that is still a part of you no matter what you see in the mirror at 12:01 a.m. But then I saw that you were asking for our own affirmations, and you know what? That works well for me too. Thank you for asking.

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  3. I think all you need to do is smile at accomplished a major goal and achieved some much more while on your quest. Thank you thank you thank you for encouraging girls and women all over (I bring your blog up often in conversation with my 8th grade girls). Just smile and be proud.

    Today when I look in the mirror right before bed I am going to do the same, just smile and be happy.

  4. Thanks for sharing this interview - it was enlightening. I had a wonderful guidance counselor in my all-girls middle school who taught us this mantra: "I am a valuable person, I have dignity and worth, and what I do makes a difference".
    Sadly, that guidance counselor passed away a few years ago, however I know that she made a lasting impact on generations of young women with that simple phrase - and her insistence that we learn to love ourselves, inside and out.

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