The Wall of Mirrors: Reflections of Self Image, Disability, and Exercise

Feb 05, 2013
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9-29-12 K.W-JRH Session Video (1)The Associated Press published an online article from the National Association of Physical Activity and Health, (http://napah.ca/asp/news/articles/women_who_exercise_mirrors_feel_worse.asp), which cited studies that indicate mirrors in workout settings can have a negative influence on how women feel and view themselves.  The article did not focus on women with disabilities.          Kerry Wiley working with James House, III                  

Yet, when I read the article, I thought about the wall of mirrors in the fitness center I attend.

During my workouts, I am challenging the limits of my body, how I view my body, and my capabilities.   Frequently I work with my Movement Specialist in a studio. The room has an entire wall covered with mirrors.  The mirrors are there to help clients improve their technique.  When I start my workout, I turn away from the mirrors.  I do not want to see myself when I exercise.  I feel when something goes wrong, such as having my legs go into spasms from an exercise,  I do not need or want to see the visual effects of the leg spasms or some other “dysfunction.”

When I am in session, I am using every ounce of energy and concentration I have to accomplish the assigned task and exercise.  I am giving everything I have physically and psychologically to defy the spasticity and other challenges related to my Cerebral Palsy.  In these moments, I only see the goal I am working towards— to walk without assistive devices.  I do not see what the mirrors show, the asymmetries, imbalances, or “dysfunctions” of my body.

A 2005 study noted that “women with disabilities ages 19 to 60 negatively evaluate their bodies.”[i]    Studies have also shown that “exercising in mirrored environments produces negative feelings in sedentary women who exercise alone or in the presence of others.” [ii]

When I pay attention to the mirror image in the studio, my feelings about myself often change.  I experience a heightened sense of self-consciousness.  If I have successfully completed the instructions or exercises given by my Movement Specialist, I’m okay with the reflection in the mirror.  If I have not been successful in my program, the feelings of frustration and disappointment multiply when I see my reflection and what appears to so many as my physical “dysfunctions.”

The Movement Specialist I work with often prompts me to look into the mirror to view a specific body position or stance, and copy the corrections they illustrate, all with the intent of having me learn a new pattern or technique.  Sometimes when I look into that mirror, I fail to see the alteration or improvement.  Instead I see the physical limits of my movements.  I become sidetracked and am forced to see how far I have to go or discover another new hurdle to overcome.

Should mirrors be in fitness centers?  Given the choice, I would remove all of the mirrors from the fitness center I attend.  I work hard to safeguard the image I hold of myself away from the mirrors; the reflection I see is one without imbalances, asymmetries, and dysfunctions.  One day I may come to value the use of mirrors as a tool in my fitness program.  For now, I am a woman giving everything she has towards achieving a personal goal, and I will continue ignoring the wall of mirrors.



[i] Reel, Justine J.; Robert Bucciere,. “Ableism and body image: conceptualizing how individuals are marginalized. (NAGWS Position Paper)(Report).” Women in Sport & Physical Activity Journal. American Alliance for Health, Physical Education, Recreation and Dance (AAHPERD). 2010.

[ii] Martin Ginis, K. A., Burke, S. M., & Gauvin, L. (2007). Exercising with others exacerbates the negative effects of mirrored environments on sedentary women’s feeling states. Psychology and Health, 22, 945-962.

Martin Ginis, K. A., Jung, M. E., & Gauvin, L. (2003). To see or not to see: Effects of exercising in mirrored environments on sedentary women’s feeling states and self-efficacy. Health Psychology, 22, 354-361.

Author: Kerry



  • J

    Beautifully written and excellent food for thought!! Nice work Kerry.

  • http://www.facebook.com/kerry.wiley.9 Kerry Wiley

    Thank you so much for your comments on the article.

    Kerry A. Wiley