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What the mirror doesn’t tell you


“I hate my body.”

“I’m such a fat, worthless cow.”

“Where did all these gray hairs and wrinkles come from?”

“I have total thunder thighs.”

“How could anyone find me attractive when I look like this?”

“My body is such a burden.”

If you’re like 97% of the American population, you’ve probably had thoughts like these at some point. According to a survey by Glamour magazine 30 years ago and updated in 2014, 54% of women are unhappy with their body and 80% claim the mirror makes them feel bad about themselves. Unhappiness about body image has been reported in girls as young as age 6. Even men admit to body-image angst; from 1997 to 2001, the number of men who had cosmetic surgery increased 256%. Clearly, we need to evaluate the messages the mirror is telling us. (See Campaigning for real beauty.)

Mirror, mirror, on the wall

Although many of us rely on the messages in the mirror as the absolute truth, we need to be aware of the inherent distortions it may hold. Ever since 8,000 B.C., when the mirror made its first appearance, people have been evaluating their personal worth based on their physical appearance. Two opposite attitudes exist: Some people are fixated by their own faces, as shown by an obsession with “selfies.” Others declare their body hatred throughout the day.

We have a love-hate relationship with the mirror—but the mirror may not always tell the truth. People with anorexia nervosa see a distorted view in the mirror; some view themselves as fat even though they’re scarily thin. The mere act of focusing on something, such as a nose or a mole, may make it look larger in the mirror. Even your mood may affect the way you see yourself. When you’re tired, angry, or anxious, the mirror may reflect your emotions more than your true physical image.

What the mirror tells you

Relying on the mirror to tell you “who is the fairest of them all” may not give you the honest truth. But despite potentially negative messages people get from the mirror, it can provide helpful information.

It can tell you a lot about the outside and the inside of your body. Although we focus on our exterior image, the mirror offers clues to the internal health of your body.

Using your critical thinking assessment skills, take an objective look at your skin and hair. The skin, the body’s largest organ, can provide feedback on your sleep (or lack thereof) and nutrition. Without adequate vitamin intake or sun, your skin may look  pale and flaccid; without adequate essential fatty acids, it may be dull or dry. Stress, overwork, and lack of purpose in your life may reflect in the eyes

that stare back at you. Your hair texture and natural color also can hint at the state of your nutrition, exercise, and rest.

What the mirror doesn’t tell you

The mirror doesn’t tell you about the amazing functions of your body systems, or that you and your body are the most brilliant creations in the universe. As Shakespeare’s Hamlet exclaimed, “What a piece of work is man! How noble in reason, how infinite in faculty! In form and moving how express and admirable!”

Your endocrine system, for instance, is an amazing creation of numerous autonomic functions working through a negative feedback loop of chemicals to regulate many systems. It also balances your energy levels through the thyroid gland. And when is the last time your thanked your adrenal glands for helping regulate your blood pressure via cortisol and aldosterone?

Thanks to auto-regulation, your body can keep its temperature within the same general range even when the environment around it changes constantly. Breathing is controlled by tissues in your carotid arteries that track carbon dioxide (CO2) concentration and send messages to the brain’s respiratory center. Your body breathes faster or slower to eliminate CO2 as needed, all without your conscious awareness.

Your pancreas produces both insulin and glucagon, which naturally oppose each other but work in harmony to balance blood glucose levels. These levels affect the function of all three trillion cells in your body. Your glucose level rises in the morning to awaken you and give your cells energy to start the day automatically. Somatostatin regulates the endocrine system, balancing insulin and glucagon to work in complete balance without your attention.

The mirror doesn’t tell you how well your liver detoxifies drugs and chemicals and maintains your blood glucose level when you’re asleep. Nor does it reveal that your immune system constantly monitors and patrols your blood for foreign pathogens, which it then kills through a complex chemical cascade. Does it tell you that your spleen has been working hard to store white blood cells and recycle red blood cells?

What the mirror doesn’t tell you about your magnificent self is far more interesting and exciting than the cellulite you may glimpse in your reflection. It doesn’t let on that your body has innate abilities, such as auto-regulation, self-defense, and self-healing. Even the guy who cut you off on the freeway yesterday has an amazing physical orchestra playing within  him. (See Amazing body facts the mirror doesn’t tell you.)

The nursing reflection

Ironically, some nurses who care for sick patients and help promote health and healing are unhealthy themselves. Research shows that occupational stress, poor coping behaviors, and lack of support cause anxiety and depression in nurses. The longitudinal Nurses Health Study, which began in 1988, examines relationships among hormone replacement therapy, diet, exercise, and other lifestyle practices and chronic illnesses. It found female nurses’ health was no better than that of the general populace. Ideally, nurses’ health should mirror their knowledge about the human body, health, and illness. Unfortunately, knowledge alone doesn’t create vibrant health. We should sing along with the Disney character Mulan, who asks, “When will my reflection show who I truly am?”

As nurses, we can do better to reflect the true inner beauty of our bodies—and project that beauty in our lifestyles. Balancing the mirror’s messages is the key. What the mirror doesn’t tell you can inspire you to honor your body. What it does tell you can motivate you to care for yourself so you can better model healthy behaviors for patients.

Fixing the mirror’s reflection

In our society of quick fixes and limited warranties, it’s easy—and often necessary—to replace just about everything. We can replace most material objects when they’re worn out. The only thing that can’t be replaced is the human body. We can misuse and abuse it, or treat it with loving care. (See Learning to love your reflection.)

Despite the wondrous advances of medical science (and plastic surgery), your body is still your very essence. Although it comes with a lifetime warranty, its quality isn’t guaranteed; that’s up to you. So what does your mirror say to you? And will you listen?

Tracey Long is a professor of nursing for Kaplan University and International Service Learning in Las Vegas, Nevada. As an identical twin, she sometimes uses her twin sister as her mirror.

Selected references

American Nurses Association. Healthy Nurse, Healthy Nation.

Cleveland Clinic. Fostering a positive self-image.

Coditz GA, Manson JE, Hankinson SE. The Nurses’ Health Study: 20-year contribution to the understanding of health among women. J Women Health. 2009;6(1):49-62.

Dove® Campaign for Real Beauty.

Enoch JM. History of mirrors dating back 8000 years. Optom Vis Sci. 2006;83(10):775-781.

Mark G, Smith AP. Occupational stress, job characteristics, coping, and the mental health of nurses. Br J Health Psychol. 2012;17(3):505-21.

Song M, Giovannucci E. Preventable incidence and mortality of carcinoma associated with lifestyle factors among white adults in the United States. JAMA Oncol. 2016 May 19.

1 Comment. Leave new

  • I am writing in response to “What the mirror doesn’t tell you” by Tracey Long published in Volume 11, Issue 9. As a registered nurse focused on living a healthy lifestyle, I am concerned about the state of health of our general population but, frankly, alarmed by the wellbeing of healthcare professionals today. I was pleased by Dr. Long’s article shedding light on this issue. I appreciate how she began her article by mentioning a societal obsession with body image then urged people to look deeper and recognize all of the amazing functions of the body that are not reflected in the mirror. However, what stood out the most was her connection to nursing professionals. She pointed out that while they are responsible for promoting the health of others, they ignore their own health. I fully support her article but feel that she is missing an important factor: a solution.

    Authors Chan and Perry wrote an article entitled “Lifestyle health promotion interventions for the nursing workforce: a systematic review.” According to the article, research indicates that health risk factors in nurses are “at least equivalent or greater than population values.” Another research article written by Miller, Alpert and Cross entitled “Overweight and obesity in nurses, advanced practice nurses, and nurse educators” found that almost 54% of nurses studied were overweight or obese. One would hope that given the education on the body systems, nurses would tirelessly work to promote their own health. However, authors Malik, Blake and Batt of “How healthy are our nurses? New and registered nurses compared” argue that the work-related stressors nurses experience contribute to physical inactivity and a consumption of high fat and high sugar foods.

    As Dr. Long pointed out, clearly there is an issue. However, Miller, Alpert and Cross found that 53% of overweight nurses report a lack of motivation to make lifestyle changes. So how do you motivate people to make a change? Gingerich, Anderson and Koland studied the “Impact of Financial Incentives on Behavior Change Program Participation and Risk Reduction in Worksite Health Promotion” and found that employer incentives increased participation rates in healthy lifestyle programs. Whether it is through Health Savings Account contributions, awards or various prizes, employers were able to motivate their employees to focus on their health. Similarly, “Promoting Changes in Obesogenic Behaviors: Does Coworker Social Support Play a Role?”published in the American Journal of Health Promotion, identified social support as playing a role in health promotion. The long-term behavior change is questionable, but at the very least it gives people the motivation they were lacking. Thus, both incentive programs and social support are possible solutions in motivating nursing professionals to live healthier lifestyles.

    With obesity rates increasing in our communities, it is up to trained healthcare professionals to educate the public on healthy practices. As professionals preaching healthy living, I feel that it is our duty to first reflect these practices and show the benefits of taking care of our own bodies. Let us take care of our caregivers and continue this discussion and identify successful ways to motivate each other. All we need is a little motivation.

    Kara Pevarski, RN


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