The New York Times reports this week on efforts by social scientists to subtly encourage Americans to make healthier decisions at the supermarket. Many of their approaches seem harmless or clever: putting arrows on the floor pointing toward the produce department, displaying signs that told shoppers how much produce their peers were buying on average, designating a special area in each cart for fruits and vegetables. But one type of “nudge marketing” currently on trial in El Paso is downright disturbing: putting a mirror inside each shopping cart so people can see their reflection as they shop.
Why put a mirror in a shopping cart? “For those who are overweight, it might elicit the sense of, ‘Oh, I need to lose weight,’ ” one psychology professor explained to the Times. “Or, ‘I don’t like to see myself because I’m so big,’ which might lead to choosing healthier food.”
This is the first of many reasons that putting mirrors in shopping carts is a terrible idea: It’s intended to make people feel bad about their appearance. It’s not enough, I guess, for fat people face shame and stigma whenever they open a magazine, turn on a TV, or walk outside—now they need to be shamed at the grocery store, too. For some reason I’m skeptical that creating a Pavlovian association between buying produce and feeling self-loathing is the best way to encourage people to get excited about healthy eating.
Plus, the idea that the only people who need to buy healthy food are people who hate the way they look is flat-out wrong. Virtually everyone would be better off eating more vegetables, regardless of how they look or how they feel about their appearance. The mirror initiative reinforces the ludicrous and damaging idea that being healthy is about looking good rather than feeling good. Nevermind that some fat people eat an impeccably salubrious diet based on whole foods, and that some skinny people subsist on ice cream and potato chips. Also nevermind that many people suffer from body dysmorphia or anorexia and believe that they’re fat even when they’re dangerously underweight. (I shudder to think about a recovering anorexic coming across a mirrored shopping cart while in treatment.)
And on a slightly less urgent note: Everyone looks awful from that angle. There’s a reason most mirrors are vertical, not tilted upwards, and it’s that even people with model looks appear weird and bloated when reflected from below. But even if social scientists were somehow able to angle the mirror so that I wouldn’t appear to have a double chin when peering into it, I still wouldn’t want to look at myself while shopping. I don’t want to be distracted by the zit on my chin, or the dark circles under my eyes, or the frizzy catastrophe of my hair when I’m shopping for groceries. I just want to grab my peanut butter, coffee, and oatmeal as quickly as possible so I can get out of there and get home.
And, for the most part, other people oblige my desire to keep to myself when I’m shopping. There’s a pleasant, unspoken agreement in grocery stores that everyone gets to retain their anonymity, since the things we buy there often feel so personal. Mirrors would destroy the feeling of privacy one generally has while comparing canned tomato brands. And so much for hiding when you’ve ducked out in your sweats for a pint of ice cream and you spy your boss in the frozen food aisle—with mirrored carts, the odds are twice as good that she’ll see you.
I feel—as many people have felt since the dawn of civilization—that vanity, while harmless in small amounts, easily becomes a vice if not held in check by social norms. At the moment, looking at oneself compulsively in mirrors while in public is frowned upon. But shopping carts with mirrors on them threaten to change that. I don’t want to be constantly reminded of how I look, not because I necessarily dislike the way I look, but because I believe that how I look is trivial compared to how I think, how I treat others, and what I contribute to the world. I’m pretty sure most psychologists would agree with me on that, actually. It’s too bad the psychologists who came up with mirrored shopping carts are so blinded by misguided fat-phobia that they’re willing to sacrifice people’s inner peace on the altar of outward appearances.