The Eye in the Mirror: How Mirrors Keep Women Out of the Gym
By Nancy Brown
The concept of the gymnasium has its origin in Ancient Greece, conceived as a place for men over the age of eighteen to train for the Olympic games. The root of the word gymnasium is gumnos, naked, for that is how these men both trained and competed. This practice was seen as an homage to the gods, a crediting of their work. The male form, it seems, needed only be revealed to be revered. Body oil was the gymnasiums’ largest expense, and it was paid for by the public, with their taxes. With oil and through sport, the body was made a spectacle.
And although our gyms, temperature controlled and in many cases hardly even graced with windows, bear little resemble the outdoor stone complexes of that civilization, perhaps we have inherited more than architecture would lead us to believe. Most of us will never compete in a spectator sport, at least beyond childhood, but the mirrors that line the walls of most North American gyms ensure that our bodies are still on display. And it is often not just one wall that is mirrored but the adjacent wall, the opposing wall, or both, creating a kind of reflective embrace and showing us our own bodies not only from the usual frontal view, but from every possible angle. Mirrors, by their nature, make each of us an audience to ourselves, but is that the only audience they engender? We often consult mirrors in nervous anticipation of how we might be seen by others, projecting another, future audience with every glance. The gym becomes like an expanded dressing room, but instead of auditioning outfits, we audition our own physique, our own competence. Different too is the privacy of the dressing room, which allows one to foresee and circumvent the public embarrassment of an ill-fitting pair of jeans. In the gym, the performance is live. Mistakes cannot be edited out. The body is not some future, aspirational body, but our actual body, the one we have right now.
We may think that mirrors could or should be motivating, that by giving us a reality check, they jolt us out of complacency. But that doesn’t seem to be the way it works, at least not with women. In a 1998 study out of the University of Illinois , moderately active women were surveyed on their sense of self-efficacy (their belief in their own abilities) before and after exercising in one of the three following environments: unmirrrored laboratory, mirrored laboratory, and a setting of their choice. Self-efficacy seems, according to other research, to be a critical component of motivation, which means that a belief in one’s abilities may be a prerequisite to showing up to the gym. Women in the study saw a marked decrease in self-efficacy after exercising in front of a mirror, but no change after exercising in the other two environments. This would seem to show that exposure to mirrors can be demotivating to women. Men, however, seemed immune to these negative effects, and saw no change in self-efficacy after exercising in any of the environments. More studies have been conducted on women exercising in front of mirrors, and the results are not totally consistent, especially with regard to “experienced” female participants. Still, the preponderance of data, gathered both in group settings and in isolation, show that mirrors negatively impact most women’s self-perception and overall experience of exercise, and that this impact trumps the feelings of self-efficacy and regeneration reported after exercise in an nonmirrored environment.
At the ancient gymnasium, the audience was external and vocal. Athletes got realtime feedback based on their performance, just as they do at sporting events today. In our gyms, the audience is phantom, silent, extrapolated from a glance here and there, a smile or a snub, and the feedback is generated within the gym-goer’s mind. According to a few large-scale surveys, fear of judgment is the number one thing that deters women in the United States and Britain from going to the gym. So is it any wonder then, that the phantom audience a woman confronts when she faces a mirror is jeering? Is it any wonder that she becomes discouraged? Is it any wonder that the population with the lowest self-efficacy, sedentary women, gravitates towards the cardio deck, where the equipment is simple to operate and the mirrors are fewer?
JDI Barbell in Queens was my first encounter with a mirrorless gym. I began working there as an intern in the summer of 2016, and was stunned to find so many women lifting. I had been accustomed to being the only woman in the free weights at my previous gyms. The other women who ventured there I recognized individually. There were so few of us. I would later discover that JDI was not unique, that gyms with similar environments had similar membership demographics. The weightlifting team at CrossFit Prospect Heights, for instance, is made up almost entirely of women. I went on to start a beginning powerlifting class at JDI Barbell that was open to women and non-binary folks. One of my students told me that her fiancée was aghast when he discovered that JDI had no mirrors. “How do you see what you’re doing?” he’d demanded to know. And this seems the most common argument for the presence of mirrors in gyms, that they allow gym-goers to see their form and self-correct. In fact, the American College of Sports Medicine has recommended that at least two walls in any group fitness classroom be mirrored. But do we really need mirrors by the machines?
The truth is that the ability to self-correct at times requires advanced knowledge of biomechanics and self-cuing that the average gym-goer simply doesn’t have. Having worked both at a mirrorless barbell club and at commercial gyms that had mirrors on every conceivable surface, I would say that, from what I have seen, trainers and coaches (and knowledgeable lifting partners) help people achieve better form. Mirrors, on the other hand, almost certainly do not. In gyms across America, one can witness people doing all kinds of dangerous and ineffective things while directly facing a mirror.
But visit a gym where a large portion of the members are personal trainers, coaches, and competitive athletes and you will see that even beginners in such gyms are lifting fairly well. The resident experts are there as examples and guides. A rising tide of competency lifts all boats. And of course, these tend to be the gyms with fewer mirrors, or none at all.
As crazy as it may have seemed when I stated that the largest cost of running an ancient gymnasium was that of body oil, the same marriage between exercise and beauty exists today.
That mirrors are demotivating for women only seems paradoxical because we are looking at the fitness industry as corollary to the beauty and diet industries, which, historically, have used insecurity to conscript women into their ranks of devotees. What the above studies show us is that such methods do not in fact work in our field. What works, what will get more women exercising and lifting is giving them a space in which they feel secure and empowered. To remove mirrors from gym spaces, and to replace them with human guidance, is an act of resistance against the patriarchy, against a capitalist machine that fosters insecurity in women so that they will become better consumers.
But we do live in a capitalist society, and the concerns raised by our economic realities should not go unanswered. Lets say you work at a commercial gym and you are in a position to make changes. Can we extrapolate what works in a small gym setting to a larger, commercial setting? Would such changes be financially viable? I believe so. Statistics released by the International Health Racquet and Sportsclub Association and the Fitness Industry Association showed that 44% of the membership at surveyed gyms attended less than once a week over their first six months, and that such members account for most of the 50% annual attrition rate at those gyms. In light of such statistics, it seems that anything that increases frequency of attendance may increase member retention.
Programs could be introduced wherein women are invited to sign up for small group coaching on how to use free weights. These programs would last eight to twelve weeks and be offered for a nominal fee or, better, for no fee at all. This, obviously, would require an investment on the part of the gym, but the return would be a sense of community and competency among members, which will make them more likely to attend, and hence to stick around.
But capitalist concerns aside, I believe all of us in the fitness industry are here ultimately because we want to help people. We want to encourage people to move their bodies and we want them to fall in love with moving their bodies. To remove mirrors may seem risky because it goes against the status quo. There may even be initial protest from members.
But ultimately, do we want to align ourselves with health and wellness, with sports performance, or with the beauty and diet industries? Counterintuitive as it may seem, it is only by unchaining ourselves from the last two, to which we have been shackled for so long, that we may find a new way to thrive.
1 Unfortunately, no research has been done on folks who might not identify with the gender ascribed to them at birth, so this article will focus on cis women.
2 Katula, Jeffrey A., et al. “Mirror, Mirror on the Wall... Exercise Environment Influences Self-Efficacy.” Journal of Social Behavior and Personality, vol. 13, no. 2, 1998, pp. 319–332.
3 Focht, Brian C., and Heather A. Hausenblas. “State Anxiety Responses to Acute Exercise in Women with High Social Physique Anxiety.” Journal of Sport and Exercise Psychology, vol. 25, no. 2, 2003, pp. 123–144., doi:10.1123/jsep.25.2.123.
4 Ginis, Kathleen A. Martin, et al. “To See or Not to See: Effects of Exercising in Mirrored Environments on Sedentary Women's Feeling States and Self-Efficacy.” Health Psychology, vol. 22, no. 4, 2003, pp. 354–361., doi:10.1037/0278-6220.127.116.114.
5 In one particularly telling study, cited below, a mirror was placed near a set of stairs and an elevator. Female participants who saw their reflection were actually less likely to take the stairs than those who didn’t. The only group that was more likely to use the stairs were those women who engaged in unhealthy weight-controlling behaviors such as fasting.
Hodgin, K. L. & Graham, D. J. Mirror, Mirror by the Stairs: The Impact of Mirror Exposure on
Stair versus Elevator Use in College Students. Frontiers in Public Health4,(2016).
6 By weightlifting I mean the sport of weightlifting, in which the snatch and clean and jerk are contested.
We publish our pieces in the voices, styles, and structures of each writer and they do not necessarily represent the perspectives and experiences of everyone in Women's Strength Coalition. It is our intention to use the blog to highlight the experiences of our coalition members and draw attention to issues, questions, and events of meaning in our community.