Girl Before a Mirror, Pablo Picasso, 1932
Whenever I'd try to quit biting my fingernails as a kid, inevitably my fingers would find their way to my mouth somehow. In the split second between noticing that I was biting my nails and ceasing to do so, I'd flinch, like I was smacking my brain on the wrist. The flinch was as involuntary as the biting—after all, nail-biting is a bad habit, not a conscious decision in which I'd sit there and weigh whether or not I should bite my nails. I'd feel that mild jolt of "oops! not doing that anymore!" and stop, and that would be that.
Naturally, I've had a few of those moments so far during my month-long abstinence from mirrors
. Most of them have been what you'd expect: emerging from an elevator to find a mirror directly ahead, turning the corner and seeing my reflection in an open shop door. I feel the flinch, avert my eyes from my image, and all is well. No big deal. What's concerning me are the times I'm feeling that reflex when there's no mirror involved.
The first time I felt that flinch when there wasn't a mirror around, I'd followed a link that brought me to a pair of Lululemon yoga pants. I mention the brand because Lululemon is associated with a very particular sort of lifestyle: not just yoga, but Yoga of the Upper East Side. Yoga of juice cleanses. Yoga of shiny ponytails anddesigner seaweed
. Yoga of silent retreats with Tibetan singing bowls and raw foods buffets. Yoga of maybe thinking you could live on air
? Basically: Lululemon embodies a sort of lifestyle that I have a love-hate relationship with, and I look upon the people who successfully embrace that lifestyle with a wary admiration. I like how I feel when I'm being all green-juice-proud-warrior, and those shiny-ponytail ladies tend to look fantastic (hence the admiration). I also know I just don't have the time or dedication to be a true yogi—and that it's also not that far of a trip to crazyland for me if I get too into "pure living" (hence the wariness).
So I was looking at these pants, but was really looking at the model's butt, and then reflexively stopped myself,because I'm not supposed to be looking in mirrors
The second time, I was waiting to cross the street and saw an arrestingly good-looking young man walking toward me. I looked away, then looked back at him, and my gaze settled on his face. He was handsome and chiseled and also probably 15 years younger than me—which, for the record, would make him barely out of his teens. I'm not prone to double-taking men on the street—it's rude, and I'm in no rush to "turn the tables" of the street dynamic that's more often directed at women. But there he was, young and handsome and muscular and narrow-hipped and with all the time in the world in which to be a good-looking man, blithely walking through the street traffic as though he knew that somehow he would be protected from harm.
And I flinched when I saw this broad-shouldered young man who was totally unknown to me, because I'm not supposed to be looking in mirrors
Now, it wasn't that I saw myself in these two people: I'm under no illusion that I have a perky yoga butt, nor that I have the sort of presence that routinely causes people to double-take on the street as I did with the young man. It was that in each case, I was treating others the way I sometimes treat myself when I gaze into the mirror. With the Lululemon model, I was taking her apart, zeroing in on one single part of her. And it doesn't matter whether I was looking at her rear end with admiration or admonishment. "Love your body!" wisdom often goes that if you look in the mirror and focus on the parts that you like, you'll feel better about your body. Yet this well-meaning exercise keeps the focus on parts, not the whole; on two dimensions instead of more. I saw a part of her as a possession—an object—that I'd like to own.
As for the young man: Sure, I was ogling him, but that wasn't the link between him and the mirror, as I don't normally ogle myself. (Just a wink here and there, I assure you.) It was that I imbued him with all sorts of qualities that I had no business presuming he actually possessed. He became successful, a heartbreaker, carefree, hopeful. I saw very little of him
(how could I; I saw him for mere seconds) but plenty of a type
, a set of signals I encoded with something that he wasn't necessarily presenting. I saw him as an object.
Note that each of my flinches weren't about "oops, I just objectified that person"—we all do it occasionally even when we know better, no true harm done. They were specifically a knee-jerk reaction about "oops, I'm not supposed to be doing that because I'm not looking in mirrors
." Objectification and the mirror are so tied together for me, however, that my animal brain was unable to untangle the two. And it's worth noting that I never had this flinch when I saw myself being looked at. I had other reactions to that, as I described yesterday
. But I didn't recognize anyone else's gaze as being forbidden, only my own.
* * * * *
Like all of these reflexive pullbacks, my third instance of flinching lasted less than a second. The buildup to that second has lasted twenty-five years, perhaps more.
You must understand that these moments aren't conscious thoughts; I'm reporting them to you in words because they're the best tool I have to communicate what I experienced in these instants. But words are tools of reason, and each time I've had a no-mirror flinch with no mirror in sight, there was no reason involved, only instinct. When your heart speeds up upon believing you see a crush from afar, you don't consciously think, Wait, that person has a corduroy jacket like him, could that be him?
Instead, your heart leaps, your head reels, your eyes get bright and focused. The thought process comes afterward, when you realize that wasn't your object of affection; that it was a stranger, and your heart leaped for naught. It was a malfunction, a result of your body and mind being on high alert to see this person. Your limbic system reacts before your conscious brain can catch up and let you know you're being irrational.
So: The third time I flinched, I was at home, alone, at night. A slight pang of hunger hit me. I went for my usual late-night snack, graham crackers with almond butter. This is something I eat probably three times a week, if not more: It's treat-like but not sugary, satisfying but not heavy. It's perfect. And I've been eating graham crackers with almond butter at least three times a week for about a year and a half, okay? I eat a lot of these miniature sandwiches. Yet familiarity alone does not quell my food-based anxieties: At least once a week—even though I know the information—I look on the side of the graham crackers box to check how many calories are in one serving.
I turned the box on its side to look at the nutritional information, then withdrew my hand from the box as though it were a hot iron. Because I'm not supposed to be looking in mirrors.