MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Coming up, we'll hear from somebody whose voice you surely know, the one and only Macy Gray. We'll hear what the Multi-Platinum-selling singer is up to these days, and why she still thinks her own voice is odd. That's later.
But first, speaking of fitting into somebody else's idea of perfection, if you've ever gone on a crash diet to fit into a gown or go to a college reunion, then you'll probably want to hear what our next guest has to say. Kjerstin Gruys felt she was becoming obsessed with her weight in the months before her wedding. She actually bought four - yes, you heard that right - four different wedding dresses before the big day because she kept looking for one that made her look perfect. But then what she decided to do about that might surprise you.
She decided to avoid her reflection altogether. No mirrors, no reflective surfaces for a year, even on her wedding day. She wrote about all this in her new book, "Mirror, Mirror Off the Wall: How I Learned to Love My Body by Not Looking at It for a Year." And she's with us now from New York. Welcome, thanks so much for joining us.
KJERSTIN GRUYS: Thank you.
MARTIN: I think it helps to know a little bit about your background. You'd worked in the fashion industry, you'd experienced first-hand the intense emphasis on looks, and you'd also struggled with an eating disorder earlier in your life. But then you changed your life and career, and you're working on a Ph.D. in sociology at UCLA. So pick up the thread there. How did you get this idea?
GRUYS: As you mentioned, when I was engaged to be married, I had a lot of really high expectations for what it would be like to plan a wedding, to find a wedding dress, etc. And when I started looking for dresses, I found myself being really critical of my body.
And around the time was when I started thinking I should maybe lose a little weight before the big day. And part of the reason for that is I purchased a wedding dress that was a little tight. But I started realizing that things were getting into a direction that I didn't feel comfortable with, especially given the fact that I previously had an eating disorder.
MARTIN: You had some experience with this, having worked through this eating disorder. How did this moment come to you? Did you think, I just got to stop looking at myself? I mean, did it come to you just like that?
GRUYS: The idea came to me just like that, because it was actually the day after I bought the wedding dress. I was in St. Louis, where my parents live, and I found the wedding dress with my mom, just like you're supposed to. Wasn't very happy with the situation, wanted to get my mind off of it, so I started a new book.
Within the first page, I was inspired to pursue this project, because I've read a story of an order of nuns in Renaissance Italy who spent their entire lives not seeing themselves in the mirror, or even looking down at themselves or at each other when they were dressing or bathing. And that concept was really inspiring to me. I thought, for the first time in my life, I'd like to go join a nunnery.
MARTIN: Really? Okay. Even though you're engaged? Would have kind of been tough on your fiancee.
GRUYS: Well, yeah, you know, I had to, like, back up the idea a little bit, and use it as I could. So the way I interpreted it was, you know, well, what if I just found a way to stop seeing myself in mirrors and other reflective surfaces for a good chunk of time, to really focus my attention away from my appearance and toward the things in my life that are more in line with my values, so my work, my relationships.
MARTIN: What was the reaction when you told family and friends that you were going to give up mirrors for a year? 'Cause you had to get them on board with this.
GRUYS: I did. So the first person I told was my mom. She was really supportive, but she did, at the end of telling me it was a great idea and that I should totally do it, she said, but why don't you wait until after the wedding. I was like, well, I think you've got some vested interest in the wedding, and so I'm going to talk to some other people.
My sister was really in support. She's kind of like the super natural beauty, no makeup, so she was totally in favor. And my husband, or fiancee, at the time, he was also in favor. Although once I started taking all the mirrors off the walls in my home, he was a little bit like, oh, wait, this is going to affect me, too.
MARTIN: Well, what was the hardest thing to give up?
GRUYS: It was the sense of companionship that I had developed with my reflection. Throughout the day, I would frequently kind of get up and walk around to, you know, shake off the writer's block. And I would usually end up in front of a mirror looking at myself. And I look back, and I think part of it was pep talk, part of it was the opposite.
So I was kind of a "frenemy" (ph) to my reflection, where I was being critical. But there was a piece of it that was just kind of like, hey, you're here, I'm here, hello, now get back to work. So I had this companionship with my reflection, and when I didn't have a mirror to look into, I missed it.
MARTIN: What about now, now that you've undergone this, kind of - I don't know what you want to call it - an appearance cleanse, right?
GRUYS: A vanity cleanse...
MARTIN: ...Vanity cleanse...
MARTIN: What can the rest of us learn from this?
GRUYS: Well, one thing that I've taken away from it is that I had this unconscious belief that the extra time I was spending on, for example, my makeup really wasn't shaping the trajectory of my life the way I thought it was. Wearing eyeliner or not wearing eyeliner is not the difference between a promotion and not getting it.
And that's something that a lot of us, we know logically, but we have these unconscious assumptions that the extra five or 10 minutes that we might spend in a morning makes us more prepared to greet the day. And I argue that that's rarely the case. For good or bad, we're stuck with what we were born with.
So I argue that, find that point of diminishing returns, stick close to it, and then fill your life with other things that make you happy and feel like you're fulfilling your purpose.
MARTIN: Okay, tell the truth, do you, like, secretly have a whole drawer full of beauty products now or something?
GRUYS: Oh, are you kidding? I have a closet full of them. I do.
MARTIN: Have the makeup artist on speed dial?
GRUYS: No makeup artist on speed dial. I'm still kind of a girly girl at heart. I used to work in fashion. My closet, like, let's just say my husband and I each have our separate closets, and his is much smaller than mine. I really do enjoy my beauty practices, but I distinguish between a special occasion and every day.
My everyday beauty practice is, like, almost nothing. I can do it in five minutes, and that includes wet hair from the shower and me out the door. On a special occasion, hey, maybe I'll spend like an hour and a half getting ready, and my husband's eyes will pop out of his head 'cause he's like, who is this woman? She's very, very fancy today. But that's a special occasion, and I try to distinguish between the two.
MARTIN: Kjerstin Gruys is the author of "Mirror, Mirror Off the Wall: How I Learned to Love My Body by Not Looking at It for a Year." She joined us from NPR's bureau in New York. Kjerstin, thank you so much for speaking with us.
GRUYS: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.