Today’s upscale fitness studios have much in common, from pricey memberships and club-esque lighting to deafening music and top-notch equipment. Even if the workouts themselves are very different (e.g., a mix of running and weight training at Barry’s Bootcamp vs. a heart-pounding ride at Soulcycle) the feel of each studio is strikingly similar. One essential component of the boutique fitness experience might even go unnoticed, perhaps because its validity in the studio seems so natural: the mirror. Wall-to-wall, floor-to-ceiling mirrors line the perimeters of every trendy studio, but the purpose they serve might be more complex than you think.
Studies have shown that humans behave very differently when they think they’re being watched. In 1976, psychologists studied a group of over 360 children on Halloween to determine how mirrors affected their behavior. The group of children who faced mirrors were significantly less likely to take more candy than they were instructed than the children who could not see their reflections. Similarly, posting signs with images of eyes and the headline “Cycle Thieves: We Are Watching You” decreased bike thefts by 62% according to a study at the University of Newcastle in the UK. Under watchful eyes, we are more conscious of social norms and more likely to adhere to them. So, what does that mean in the context of you in your athleisure, sweating it out at Orangetheory?
Imagine for a moment that you are looking at your reflection. Now, imagine that you are looking at that same reflection, but never in your life have you seen another human being. Do you see yourself differently? Mirrors offer a direct method for contextualizing ourselves within a broader meaning of ideas like “human,” “woman,” and “beautiful.” They offer means for comparison and, unfortunately, means for obsession. And in fitness studios, they only add to the health sphere’s unfortunate preoccupation with appearance and measuring one’s self against set standards. Outside of initially correcting a beginner’s form, mirrors do little to nothing to enhance your workout. In fact, if you are overly absorbed with your reflection, you likely are not focused on the full range of mobility required for a certain movement or that mind-to-muscle connection that can only be forged internally.
So, why are mirrors so ubiquitous in fitness studios? Is it truly the case that they are planted to force thoughts of comparison upon their clients and keep them coming back for more calorie burn? Or is their manifest function much more innocent? In any case, I urge you to be aware of the effect of your own reflection, especially during exercise: a time that, at its core, should be dedicated to enhancing your health and your happiness. Take note when you find your eyes lingering and ask what purpose, if any, that image is serving. If the answer is “none,” then ignore it — or, better yet, find a studio that places less emphasis on the aesthetic of working out and more emphasis on the meaning. And above all, remember: the function of your body is to function, not to appear.