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Mental Health

The House of Mirrors Project

Raine Mackay

Reprinted from "Eating Disorders" issue of Visions Journal, 2002, No. 16, pp. 37-38

Over the last four years, the House of Mirrors (HOM) Project has created an increased awareness around disordered eating/eating disorders in a unique way.

The underlying assumptions of Awareness and Networking around Disordered Eating (ANAD) are that disordered eating/ eating disorders are more than medical conditions, self-esteem issues or simply products of the fashion/diet/cosmetic surgery industries, and that disordered eating/eating disorders are woven into the very fabric of our society’s belief system. Therefore, in order to address this issue effectively we need to challenge the inherent assumptions our society makes based on these beliefs, and challenge them in all sectors of our community: a tall order for sure, but we believe that by using the House of Mirrors Project as a tool we can bring together the various sectors of the community to start the process.

Art is one of the most powerful means to encourage an examination of the attitudes, values and beliefs that underlie disordered eating/eating disorders. In order to develop a better understanding of the issue, we must look at where these attitudes, values, and beliefs come from. As individuals living in Western culture, we have all learned and absorbed societal stereotypes and prejudices. However, when we step back and look at the bigger picture, we can begin discussions that examine the context surrounding disordered eating rather than simply viewing disordered eating as an isolated ‘personal problem.’

The House of Mirrors is a visual arts installation of 26 full-length mirrors. Over the past four years, women, girls and artists of various cultures, ages, and body types have portrayed the numerous ways fat phobia and violence have impacted their lives.

For those of you who have never been in one, a typical house of mirrors at an amusement park contains mirrors that have flaws in the glass causing the reflections they cast to be distorted. The artistic director felt this to be the perfect metaphor for the distorted images reflected back to women and girls every day. It is very common for us to look in a mirror and not see ourselves as we are, but in a negative relationship to what we ‘should’ be.

The women and girls who participated in the project were provided with the opportunity to exorcize these distortions from their minds and get them out on to the mirrors. Through work with the artists, the participants developed ways to visually express their experiences, stories, and journeys and give them form through symbols, shapes, textures and colours. The hope is that the viewer will act as witness to them.

The installation, then, reflects how the participants have challenged the distorted images of the female body and the discrimination against people of size. The show’s themes reveal myths about fat, explore how we participate and perpetuate these prejudicial beliefs and look at how we can reclaim our bodies and change societal beliefs. The show is divided into three themes: The Lies We Are Fed, Swallowing the Lies, and Telling Our Truths.

The Lies We Are Fed

(such as “You can never be too thin or too rich”)

Through research, discussion and exploratory exercises, the participants examined what they had been told all their lives about how they should look. The women and girls looked at the media, fashion, diet and medical industries in order to examine societal belief systems and to uncover the subtle and obvious messages that shape and impact their self-confidence.

Swallowing the Lies

In this theme, participants explored the impact that fat-phobic messages have had on their lives, how these messages were internalized and how these internalized thoughts manifested in their behaviours, belief systems, eating habits, relationships and feelings about their bodies. As one participant stated “I literally purged the lies I swallowed through my bulimia.”

Telling Our Truths

Here, women and girls portrayed what is true for them about their bodies and the diversity and richness of who they are. As one participant said “Women are so much more than the images that we see reflected to us through the media.”

The House of Mirrors Project is designed to provide a tool for communities to use to increase awareness around this issue. So what does this look like in practice? Each community has varying needs, levels of public awareness and access to the full continuum of health, educational and social services needed to deal with this issue. In some communities, the emphasis will be on getting the local or regional health authority to recognize the need for health care services; in others, it will be to get the school boards to incorporate appropriate curriculum; or to get local youth-serving organizations to provide environments that are supportive around addressing these issues; or to get the local merchants to take some responsibility, and so on. The community decides the need and we provide the focus: the House of Mirrors Project.

The impact it has had on previous communities has been assessed through participant evaluations. Viewers reported an increase in knowledge and awareness around the impact of media on girls and women, the unattainable physical ideals found in the fashion industry, problems with diet/weight-loss programs and finally, fat prejudice. Participants considered the use of this type of venue to be a very creative and engaging way to get these messages across, and the project was consistently considered to be a thought-provoking means to create self-awareness.

The HOM was created in 1998, through the Canada Council’s “Artists in Community Project,” which initiated five-community art projects in British Columbia. The project used the arts to develop existing relationships between artists and their communities. In Vancouver, collaborative work between community organizations, artists, and 150 women and girls created a 26-piece art installation entitled the House of Mirrors. ANAD co-sponsored the creation of the House of Mirrors with Kiwassa Neighbourhood House, Pacific Immigrant Resources Society and the Roundhouse Community Centre. The art project was fist exhibited at the Roundhouse Community Centre from July 23 to August 2, 1998. It has been shown in Prince George, 100 Mile House, Smithers, Campbell River and earlier this year in Victoria.

 
About the author
Raine is the Executive Director of the organization Awareness and Networking around Disordered Eating

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