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, (, 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.

  • Kerry Wiley

    Thank you so much for your comments on the article.

    Kerry A. Wiley