Mirror Mirror Challenge—and Giveaway

I'm terrifically excited for Kjerstin Gruys' literary debut, Mirror, Mirror Off the Wall: How I Learned to Love My Body After Not Looking at It for a Year—which, for the record, is fantastic (and which you have a chance to win; scroll down)—so when she did a shoutout for bloggers to follow in her footsteps and go a day without looking in the mirror, of course I wanted to participate. But as longtime readers of this blog may remember, I've already taken a month-long break from mirrors—twice—and honestly, I didn't think I'd get much more out of abstaining from my reflection for a day.

So instead, I took a different route: Instead of refusing my reflection, I'd take it in mindfully. Every time I looked in the mirror on the chosen day, I took note of my first reaction to what I saw, and snapped a photograph, the idea being I could later compare my reaction with the "reality" of the photograph. Stripped of the context of my mood, would I actually see any difference in how I looked? Obviously this is full of flaws as an actual experiment: Each time I approached the mirror, I knew I'd be recording whatever crossed my mind, which naturally colored my reaction. Plus, overlaying my mirror-face with my photo-face means that the static photographs aren't necessarily representative of what I initially witnessed (though to be sure, I still have my mirror face, despite my best efforts to rid myself of it). Still, it was an interesting exercise. The results:

7:24 a.m., wake-up call: So fucking metal. (I don't normally sleep in my earrings but as my "so fucking metal" initial reaction implies, it was quite a night.)

8:07 a.m.: When did I get dark circles between my eyes?

11:05 a.m.: Have my eyes gotten closer together? Is that even possible?

11:38 a.m., post-makeup: Much better.

2:40 p.m., with Kjerstin: Happiness! (I actually didn't plan it this way, but my "mirror diary" day happened to be on the same day Kjerstin was in New York for her Good Morning America appearance. Obviously we couldn't resist taking a mirror photo of the two of us together, given our mutual abstinence. As Kjerstin pointed out later, isn't it sort of poetic that the photo is blurry?)

5:18 p.m.: Healthy. Why do sunglasses perched atop one's head make one look both brimming with good health and a tad glamorous?

6:34 p.m.: I look hungry, but I'm actually not. Do I look this way when I really am hungry? Eyes look big.

6:39 p.m., pre-workout: Maybe I just look pale, not hungry. Take your iron pills. 

8:52 p.m., post-workout: Girlish! Not like girly like feminine, just girlish like young.

10:11 p.m.: Tired, look it. Face looks rounder than it did earlier today? Round but pleasant.

11:38 p.m., pre-bedtime: I look like a compassionate librarian.

A few thoughts:

    1) There might be a daily cycle of how I feel about my looks.
    I'm surprised to see that there was an arc to how I felt on this day—beginning in a self-critical mode, then switching to more appreciative, neutral, or merely observant as the day went on. My suspicion had been that every time I looked in the mirror it was actually reflective of my mood—feel bad, "look" bad; feel good, "look" good, even though my face doesn't actually change all that much. But I was actually in a neutral-to-moderate mood all day long, including the morning, when I was particularly critical of my looks.

    2) The things I notice now in these photographs aren't the things I noticed when I was taking the photograph. Again, part of this is just the nature of how being observed—even just by ourselves, or by a camera—changes us. But still: There seems to be zero connection between what I saw then and what I see now. I think I look worse in the nighttime photos than I do in the morning snapshots (and I look older than usual in my "girlish" photo), but my thoughts toward the end of the day weren't nearly as self-critical. I don't actually look any more pale in the pre-workout photo than I do in the others. (I maintain, however, that I indeed looked so fucking metal in the morning.)

    3) My activities, more than my mood, influenced what I saw. I didn't smile in these photos because I don't usually smile at myself in the mirror, and obviously it would have been a little weird if I'd not been smiling in the joint photo of Kjerstin and me. But beyond the smile or lack thereof, it's clear that I'm joyful in Kjerstin's company—a feeling that lasted upon my return home, even though I was groggy and disconnected (I'd fallen asleep on the subway ride home). 

    4) I "appear," even to myself. About a third of my thoughts had something to do with putting on a persona, even though I didn't consciously approach the mirror with play-acting in mind. Metal chick, sunny glamourpuss, youthful girl, compassionate librarian (no idea where that came from, but I share it with you in the name of dutiful reporting): None of these are how I would identify myself, but I saw each of these types in the mirror at various points. 

    At the end of my first mirror fast, I wrote about how I found that I was more aware of my emotional labor in regards to other people because I hadn't had the "warm-up" of appearing—if only to myself—in the mirror. I'd forgotten about that finding of the experiment until I saw how much play-acting I was unconsciously doing in the mirror with this experiment. What's interesting, though, is that I'm seeing that there's a whimsy to it that I hadn't previously seen. I wasn't trying to be any of the momentary personae that I spotted (okay maybe I like to play glamouspuss every so often); they just appeared. There was no comparison to some standard I'd dreamed up, because there was no standard in my mind. Instead I was just having a little moment of fun—which I hadn't recognized until I recorded my thoughts for this exercise.

  • 5) The mirror is more tied to my eating patterns than I'd like to believe. I don't write about this much on here for a variety of reasons, but I have a history of disordered eating. (If you're interested, you can read my ladymag version of it here.) And one of the reasons I don't write about it here is because I'm firm in my belief that we as a culture have overconnected eating disorders to a wish to be thinner or better-looking—and that doing so masks the deeper, murkier reasons some of us develop eating disorders and some of us don't, even though we're all subject to the same cultural pressures surrounding thinness. So when it first became apparent to me during my mirror fast that there was a connection between the mirror and my eating, I was reluctant to admit any connection between the mirror and my eating history. But just as eating disorders don't neatly fit inside the frame of beauty, neither do they neatly exist outside of it.

  • So when I looked in the mirror and thought, I look hungry, even though I wasn't hungry, I knew it signaled something. What, I'm not quite sure. But here is what I notice now: That photo is rather flattering. It was a time of evening when the light becomes honeyed and soft; my hair was loose, the way I prefer it; the slight below-the-eyes puff that springtime allergies give me had receded, making my eyes look larger than they had. And yes, what I see in the photo now may not be what I saw then (see item #2). But I have to wonder how much I still connect looking pretty with being hungry. And if I happen to not be hungry, as was the case when I took the photo? I can still look hungry. Which means, in the mind of a disordered eater, I just might look thin

    Consciously, I know better. I know that hunger does not equal thinness, and that thinness does not equal prettiness, and that therefore hunger cannot equal prettiness, and that absent other physical signs there's really no such thing as "looking hungry." And perhaps I'm overanalyzing this, or misanalyzing it—maybe I was conscious of not wanting to be hungry since I was about to hit the gym and wanted to make sure I was fueled up, or maybe part of my brain had been planning dinner and the messages just got jumbled up in that moment, or maybe it was just as random as the "compassionate librarian" thought that entered my mind at bedtime. (Which, really, random.) But once a part of your brain connects disordered eating to beauty—which mine definitely did, for some time—I'm not sure the two can ever be wholly unharnessed. Unearthed, examined, monitored—yes, of course. Yet for me, in some small way, as much as I consciously reject it, the two remain in tandem.

    *     *     *

    But! The purpose here is to examine how mirrors affect the way we walk through the world, and I'm looking forward to seeing how other bloggers participating in Kjerstin's challenge handle it. (Get a head start with Meli Pennington, whose musings at Wild Beauty World on her weeklong mirror abstinence are consistently intriguing.) If you're interested in the least in exploring our connection with mirrors, Mirror, Mirror Off the Wall is a must-read, and lucky you, I'll be giving away a copy. 

    To enter, leave a comment (karma points if you share your thoughts on mirror abstinence—or mirror diaries, but not necessary to enter/win) on this post by 11:59 p.m. EST Sunday, May 12. I'll select a winner via a random number generator (comments assigned number in chronological order, beginning with comments at the-beheld.com, followed by comments left at The New Inquiry). Enjoy!

    Kjerstin Gruys, Ph.D. sociology student, Bay Area

    When I initially met Kjerstin Gruys online, my first thought was: There’s another one! Several weeks before I did my own month without mirrors, Kjerstin had launched a project going a full year without them—the same year in which she was getting married, incidentally. (No, she didn’t peek on her wedding day.) A Ph.D. candidate in sociology, Kjerstin has focused much of her academic work on body image and eating disorders. But her years in the fashion industry as a merchandiser for Abercrombie & Fitch, and then GAP Corporate, were hardly an aside: Her dissertation on the shifting standards of clothing sizes merges her passions of body image, cultural body imperatives, and fashion. The best way to get to know Kjerstin’s work is following her blog, Mirror Mirror Off the Wall—and reading her upcoming book chronicling her yearlong adventure, slated to be published by Penguin in 2013. But she also took the time to share some candid thoughts with readers of The Beheld. We talked about the creative self, the role of trust in body image, and what singing alone in the car has to do with mirrors. In her own words: 

    On Scales vs. Mirrors
    I first really became conscious of body image and women’s issues in late high school to early college. I had anorexia, and in going through the physical and emotional elements of treatment, I had to carve out an understanding of how our culture kind of shaped my experience. Having an eating disorder, you’re always aware of your own body image, but it’s not until you’re recovering that you’re really forced to take a step back and realize that you have to question a lot of assumptions.

    In recovery I had to gain weight and I couldn’t get on the scale, couldn’t know the number; if I got on the scale I’d have to check in with my physician or whatever. But I just had to trust the process. I had to trust that I really didn’t feel comfortable with the numbers going up, and I had to trust that the process of recovery was at some point going to get me comfortable with a larger number. In terms of recovery there’s a lot of self-monitoring and constantly asking myself whether my behavior is in line with my values or with my disease. And luckily the past four or five years the values have won out over the obsession.

    So when I started this project I had to consciously think: How am I going to do this in a way that I know is healthy? I didn’t want it to make me feel more symptomatic and paranoid, so I actually had to make the decision to get back on the scale more frequently to make sure that my paranoia that I’m constantly gaining weight has a logical answer. I’ve had to get back on the scale, and I felt kind of ambivalent about that. But now I’m very pleased because it’s not worse—it’s better. In one sense the project has made me say, You know what, good enough is good enough. And that is actually a shift of my values. I’m still very perfectionistic at times, so there’s been a step back from perfection, which is great. But there’s also a sense of trying to find something else to quiet my questioning mind that’s scared about not knowing what I look like in the mirror. It’s possible that I still have some dysmorphia about what my body is, and avoiding mirrors sometimes allows my imagination to run wild. And getting back on the scale has helped me not be dysmorphic about that. Getting on the scale most days of the week keeps me more in tune with what’s going on with my body, which is important if you have a history of ignoring your body!

    On Vanity and Pride
    At some point I looked up the definition of vanity. It isn’t caring what you look like; it’s caring too much about one part of yourself. The definition actually had “too much” in there, which obviously is subjective. An outsider can decide that somebody is vain based on their own ideas, but the person herself might not actually feel that way. There’s no one way to figure out what is too much, although I think that people who are particularly vain are often not very fun to be around—vanity causes one to be very self-absorbed. Not intentionally, but that’s what vanity is. Vanity can be totally destructive to intimate relationships.

    I can say without apology that an eating disorder is one of the most vain things you can experience. I’m in no way saying it’s a choice. But an eating disorder totally warps your whole sense of priorities, even in people who hide it very well. I don’t think someone can feel fully recovered if they’re only eating properly. Behaviors can change, but if there’s this thing—like weight or food—that is the most critically important thing for them to monitor in their lives, that’s where vanity comes in.

    But vanity itself should be distinguished from pride. Having pride in your appearance is a wonderful thing. I wish all women were “vain” in that sense—in taking pride in their looks and enjoying what they see in the mirror—without that subjective idea of putting your appearance higher on your priority list than spending time with your loved ones or being flexible with your routines, whether that’s eating different foods, or trying a different look with your makeup or whatever. I have friends who won’t go camping because they’ll feel so humiliated wondering what they look like without makeup and mirrors. And I myself have a little mini mirror and cosmetics that I usually take with me camping, so I can try to look like I’m not wearing any makeup when I really am. I guess you could say that my no-mirrors project isn’t an attack on vanity itself. But it’s definitely an attack on mine.

    I’m a little worried that I’ll be disappointed in what I see when I look in the mirror again. [Note: March 24 will be Kjerstin’s unveiling—if you’re in the Bay Area, check out the “First Look” party she’s throwing with media literacy group About-Face to celebrate body positivity.] I was like, What if I develop this really positive sense of what I look like, and it’s not actually what I see when in look in the mirror for the first time? So I’m scared about that—that would be a little bit sad and scary to go without for a whole year and finally look in the mirror and be like, Oh, I liked myself better before I was looking in the mirror again. But my hope is that I will kind of be in a good place when that happens and even if I look in the mirror and I’m like, “Eh, it’s not really what I expected or wanted,” I’ll at the very least feel like it isn't the most important thing in my life. That, and I know I’ll be excited to finally experiment with makeup again, and I’ll certainly do some shopping for new clothes. No amount of research or activism will ever dampen my enthusiasm for a shopping trip!

    On Existentialism
    Sometimes there’s almost a sense of numbness when I’m all by myself, without the mirror. It’s this sense of: Who am I, what am I? What is this experience? I’m thinking, I’m conscious, I can see my hands and feet, I’m typing on the computer, I’m petting the cat—whatever it is. But what am I? I can’t look in the mirror to see what I am. It’s made me realize that I used to use my reflection as a form of companionship and validation. So having moments when I think of these questions have been very bizarre.

    One solution for those times (of feeling existential) has been to use something sensory, like scent, to signal one of my five senses to really experience the world instead of just being there. That’s helped me feel a little bit less like somehow I don’t exist. I’ll talk to myself, I’ll sing along with Pandora. I’m someone who doesn’t mind being alone a lot, and I really love driving in the car, listening to music on the radio, and singing at the top of my lungs. And I’m like: Okay, before I started being conscious of not looking in the mirror, being in the car and singing by myself never felt like an existential crisis. So I tried to kind of bring some of those things back, whether it’s feeling my toes on the carpet or smelling perfume or tasting chocolate. It’s like: Okay, I exist. I’m experiencing something sensual and I have an opinion about it. I’m not just a computer giving input and giving output. It’s weird realizing that simply seeing my reflection in the mirror was, in some ways, very grounding.

    At one point I had a head cold, and I had no sense of smell. It was depressing. I’d figured out how to put on makeup without looking at myself, but being able to smell the product had actually been pleasurable for me, and not being able to see myself or smell the products left me feeling numb. I get a lot of pleasure about using scented products in the shower; if anything I found that since giving up mirrors I’ve become a bit more snobby about wanting to use more luxurious products, even though I try to avoid spending too much money.

    On Trust and Self-Expression
    So much of my issues with body image and not being a certain weight or certain size had to do with refusing to believe anyone who loved me when they’d say I was beautiful. I distrusted everyone, and I had my own sense of standards and disappointments for approval. It’s like if someone said, “I think you’re beautiful,” I’d be like, “Well, you’re either lying to me or you have bad taste.” That’s such a selfish side of yourself, and it’s interesting to see how difficult it is to give that up. I think most women struggle with this a bit. We’re supposed to be modest and not boastful, especially about looks—heaven forbid you say that you have a bangin’ bod! Normal women, if you compliment them, it’s like, “Oh, this old thing?” or “Well, maybe I look nice today but I’ve gained weight lately” or stuff like that. But with the mirror project I’ve really had to trust people, and myself. You start realizing that maybe this vision you have in your head about what you “really” look like—this idea of, “Oh, you might love me and think I’m beautiful, but really I’m not”—is faulty. Giving up the mirror is giving up the idea that your own image of yourself is the only image that’s real or even meaningful.

    It makes you think about what purpose your appearance really has. If my relationships are healthy and the people around me are treating me well and telling me that I look good enough for them to love me, and respect me, then why is my own critical vision of my appearance so important? I’m still struggling with that question. I do think it’s important to have a sense of self, but I’m starting to see my sense of self as being more about self-expression and creativity and less of a status thing, or about being too much of this or not enough of that. And in a way it’s a little bit constrained right now because of not being able to look in the mirror—I mean, right around the time in my life when I had started to think that my sense of self was an expression of my own creativity and sense of fashion and play, I’m not as able to do these things. But it’s something I’m looking forward to enjoying again when the year is over. It’s such a great thing to miss! It’s totally different from being paranoid that I don’t look good enough; it’s that I miss something expressive and creative, and I know that this is a really great step in the right direction for me.

    For more interviews at The Beheld, click here.

    Mirror Mirror or Your Wall

    I’ve written a bit before on here about how I tend to prefer videos of myself to photos, and this TV segment on self-esteem follows that pattern, so I’m particularly pleased to share it with readers. Broadcast journalists Debra Pangestu and Malgorzata Wojtunik, graduate students from CUNY’s channel 75, produced this five-minute segment on women and self-esteem, using my month-long mirror fast from last May as one of the anchors of the piece.

    Courtesy Malgorzara Wojtunik and Debra Pangestu;
    if this doesn't load, you can watch it at Malgorzara's website

    So! This is what I sound like! (You should watch the whole video, but if you're just dying to hear my voice, I come in around 0:55.) I do not have vocal fry! And I apparently wear far more bright colors than I had realized! And I laugh when I’m talking, that is when I’m not looking very very earnest! This is actually the first time I’ve been on video with this caliber of filming (when I say I prefer myself on video, I’m referring to goofy vacation clips of me singing “Allentown” while IN ALLENTOWN), and it's neat to see what a difference good lighting makes. (I tried to hire Debra and Malgorzata to follow me around with their lighting kit, but they had "work" to "do.") In any case, here I am.

    But the segment has a greater message beyond just proving to you that I’m not actually a middle-aged monk named Brother Frankie who's just posing as a ladyblogger for kicks. It gets into questions of how we determine our self-esteem, and how much control we actually have over our own image. Setting up a contrast between our self-image as determined by the mirror and our self-image as determined by social media, the reporters talk to Amy Gonzales, a researcher whose work indicates that social media may have the potential to increase our self-esteem. (Yes, this runs somewhat contrary to that study last year that got everyone talking, about how the more photos you had on your profile, the lower your self-esteem, which just seemed like bollocks to me and other like minds.) Study participants were put in a room and asked to fill out a questionnaire designed to measure self-esteem. Some participants had access to their Facebook profile while filling out the survey, others had access to a mirror, and the control group had access to neither.

    The TV segment reports that the mirror group scored lowest on the self-esteem survey and the Facebook group scored highest, which is true, but that’s not what grabs me the most. (The mirror group’s score was lower by a negligible amount.) What grabs me is how the ways people used Facebook affected their scores: People who viewed only their own profiles scored higher than those who looked at profiles of other people, and those who made changes to their profiles during the study had the highest self-esteem of all. Which is to say: It’s not affirmation from others on Facebook that leads to a self-esteem boost; it’s the ability to gaze at and manipulate your own image. A little like...mirror-gazing and applying makeup, you might say.

    I’m pleased with the segment and think the reporters should be too—they reported on a widely done topic (self-esteem) with a fresh spin, and they did it with professional panache. But there’s one sentiment I somewhat disagree with: “We cannot control what we see in the mirror, but we can control what others see on social media networks like Facebook.” One of the biggest things I learned during my mirror fast was exactly how much I do control what I see in the mirror: My “mirror face,” for starters, which ensures I’ll always be seeing a wider-eyed, poutier-lipped version of myself than what you might see when you look at me. Then there’s makeup, hairstyles, lighting, angles—not for our Facebook photos, but for the mirror. (I’ll spend more time looking at my reflection in a fitting room that’s softly lit, with mirrors hung in a way that captures me at my best, as opposed to a harshly lit dressing room that makes me look dumpier than I probably am...I hope.) And then there’s mood, moment, preexisting conditions, daily events, chance comments—we take in all of these, and they shape what we see in the mirror. It may not be conscious, but we absolutely control what we see in the mirror.

    One of the main differences might be that with the mirror, we control what we see; with social media, we control what others see. But even with this, the differences are blurred. It wasn’t until my mirror fast that I had to accept—really accept—that my mirror face isn’t the face any of you would see when talking with me. I thought I could control my appearance because I could control my visual image of myself, but in fact I can do nothing of the sort. After the mirror fast, I realized there's a reason I prefer videos and candid photos of myself: I'm not posing. In trying to control my appearance whenever I knew I was being photographed, I was robbing myself of the very thing that makes me appealing (besides my ever-present scent of daffodils)—my warmth. How warm can one be when arranging one's face into a series of manipulations designed to avoid all points of insecurity? I needed to divorce myself from that image entirely before I could understand that there was something to divorce myself from. The only person I'm fooling with my mirror face is myself. There's much to say about Facebook and authentic representations of the self—but in this particular way, social media might be a more accurate reflection of ourselves than what we see in the mirror.

    The Solace of Convention: Abuse, Beauty, and What Happened When I Left

    This isn’t about an abusive relationship. This is about what happened next.

    I decided to leave my boyfriend not because he had ever hurt me, but because I was turning 30. I mean, he had hurt me, but by the time I left him, it had been four years since he’d touched me with intent to harm. Our first year together was violent; eventually he was arrested for domestic assault, and he was one of the small percentage of men who go through a batterer intervention program and never harm their partner again. For the years that followed his arrest, I stayed with him because I needed to prove to myself that there was a reason I’d stayed in the first place. The relationship was never a good one, but by its end, it was tolerable. That is why I left.

    More directly, I left because one day at age 29 as I was rising from a nap I literally heard a voice in my head say, “If you do not leave now, you will spend the rest of your life like this,” and while I had thought such things plenty of times, I had never heard it, never heard it with such finality and stark potency, and it was too true to be ignored. I spent a few weeks figuring out how I would do it in a way that would cause the least damage, and then I did it, and that is where this story begins.

    *   *   *  

    A few things happened around the time I decided to leave. First, I lost a lot of weight. Once I’d done that, I bought new clothes, clothes that were different from my normal jeans-and-hoodies gear that I had chosen because I didn’t like to wear anything that was designed to be looked at. I started wearing skirts and cute little dresses with cute little heels. I got a shorter, more daring haircut; with my diminished size I began to look nearly gamine. The increase in exercise made my skin glow. I discovered liquid eyeliner. “When did you become such a babe?” a coworker asked. “You’ve been an undercover hottie all this time,” said another. I would remember this as I’d go to the gym or plop down sums of money on clothes that had seemed unimaginable to me only months before.

    You might think, as I did at the time, that my self-guided makeover was about rediscovering my self-worth. It was partly that, yes: When your “emergency contact” is the same person at whose hands you have suffered an emergency, your sense of self-worth isn’t exactly at its healthiest. It wasn’t difficult to see that my physical changes were announcing my renewal to the world.

    But it wasn’t just change that drove me, nor even the satisfaction of looking good as I began to create a better life. This era wasn’t the first time that I’d felt pretty or had been called such. It was, however, the first time I felt like I “passed”—passed as someone who was blandly, conventionally, unremarkably pretty; passed as pretty without anyone having to look twice to make sure it was true.

    When you’re in an abusive relationship, or at least when you are me in an abusive relationship, you don’t recognize how standard your story is. You think that you’re special. That he’s special, that he needs your help and that’s why you can’t leave; that you’re special for recognizing what a great gift you’ve been given, despite its dubious disguise. I never believed the cliche of “he hits me because he loves me,” but I came close: I stayed because I truly believed I alone was special enough to see through the abuse to see him, and us, for what was really there. It was an isolating belief—another characteristic of abuse, one I didn’t recognize at the time—but moreover, it was a combustible mixture of arrogance and piss-poor self-esteem, and one that made me feel unqualified to ever play the role of Just Another Person.

    Upon exiting the relationship I’d finally recognized as anything but special, I wanted nothing more than to be unremarkable. Striving to be conventionally pretty was my way of re-entering the world of, well, convention. It was no accident that the first post-breakup date I accepted was with the most conventional man I’ve ever gone out with: a hockey-loving lawyer with a tribal armband tattoo who used the term “bro” without irony. It wasn’t that I thought his was a world I ultimately wanted to inhabit; it was that I needed to prove that the “special” men weren’t the only ones who would see me and want to see more. So I put on a pretty little dress with pretty little lingerie underneath, and I let him buy me dinner. I showed little of my inner self to him—I wasn’t ready for that, and I knew he wasn’t the one to show myself to anyway. But eagerly, and with every convention a pretty girl might use on a good-looking bro, I showed him the rest.

    Beauty can be a tool. It can be a tool we use to tell the world we want to be a part of what’s going on; manipulating our appearance can be a tool we use to trumpet a part of ourselves that might otherwise go unseen. Beauty can be a way of participating.

    To be clear, I don’t think adhering to the conventions of beauty is the way most of us become our most beautiful. Our spark and passion will forever trump our perfectly whitened smiles or disciplined waistlines. But for me, beauty became a tool to let myself begin to believe that I was worth being seen. When I was recovering from a life of apprehension—after years of longing for even a single day when the first thought that entered my mind in the morning would have nothing to do with him, after years of exhausting my every resource to try to convince my family and friends and boss and above all myself that I could handle it—the stream of assurance I got from looking pretty in an everyday, pedestrian, stock-photo, conventional sort of way was a lifeline. I let the slow drip of looking unremarkably pretty sustain me while I began the real work of rebuilding. Beauty—or rather, giving myself the tools of banal, run-of-the-mill, utterly ordinary prettiness—allowed me to reconstruct a part of myself that had gone mute for years. And then, I constructed another, and another, and another.

    *   *   *

    During the time I was dating the bro, I also became involved with a man with whom I formed a poor romantic match but, as it turns out, an excellent friendship. We stayed in touch after we stopped dating, but I hadn’t seen him again until last year, when I happened to be visiting the city he now calls home. I was backpacking, and the clothes I wore reflected that—jeans, layered T-shirts, a grungy hoodie, worn not out of a desire to avoid anyone’s gaze but for comfort and practicality.

    I mentioned what a relief it was to not be wearing high heels. He eyed me evenly. “The little dresses you wore when we were seeing each other—they weren’t you,” he said. He sensed my recoil and amended: “You pulled them off, no worries. You looked good. But even though I hadn’t ever seen you wear anything else, I could tell it wasn’t...you. It wasn’t the you I knew.” In part, he was right. The cute little dresses, the high heels, the smart haircut: In embracing that part of myself to the exclusion of all other styles, I was still reacting to a desperately unhappy time of my life. I wore red nail polish because my ex hated it; I wore heels because he liked me so much in sneakers. I wore dresses because, for the first time in years, I truly wanted to be seen. It had been fine for me to embrace a conventionally feminine look to alter my baseline of how I wanted to present myself to the world. And I didn’t need that baseline any longer.

    Yet what stands out to me now about that exchange isn’t the message, but his words, It wasn’t the you I knew. Abuse had swallowed me to the point where I could no longer detect my own identity—but he, and other people I was wise enough to trust, could. We form our self-image not only from ourselves, but from those around us. When you are in the fog of abuse, the chaos and torment that occupies the abuser’s inner life becomes your own. When you leave, that fog is replaced with what and who is around you: the man who said It wasn’t the you I knew; the friend who raised her glass “to the beginning of you” when I told her I’d left; the running partner who, years later, would become a partner in other ways as well. Even the tattooed-armband “bro” was an imprint of my desire to be utterly cliché for a while before turning my head toward what might actually make me special. Each gave me what beauty did—a sense of normality. But they also took me beyond the limits of what conventional prettiness could ever do. They reflected back not only what I knew of myself, but what they knew of me. They were my mirror.

    I don’t recommend that any of us form our mirror entirely from others; that’s part of what lands some of us in an abusive relationship to begin with. But when you are beginning to rebuild a bombed-out identity, you need something beside you other than just your naked soul. The people around me were part of that. Beauty was another.

    The mirror of plebian prettiness is a precarious one. It’s not built for the long haul, and it is easily shattered. There are a million ways my unintentional strategy could have been disastrous. But people who are recovering from difficult situations are often told to draw from their “inner strength”—good advice that forgets that sometimes, every gram of inner strength is going toward just holding yourself together. And with abuse, which is known for its powers of erasing the victim’s identity, the concept of “inner strength” is particularly questionable: You can’t draw from inner strength when you feel like nothing is there. I needed to draw from outer strength; I needed a routine that would help me reconstruct. I eventually got to reconstructing the inside. But I needed the framework first.

    Attention to one’s appearance cannot be the end point of becoming our richest selves. But for some—for me—it can be a beginning.


    October is Domestic Violence Awareness Month, and this post is part of the Domestic Violence Awareness Month blog roundup at Anytime Yoga. If you are in an abusive partnership—whether you’re being abused, abusing your partner, or both—tell someone. You can begin by clicking here or calling 800-799-SAFE.

    Do We Have to Make Body Love the Goal?

    When the National Organization of Women contacted me about today’s Love Your Body Day blog carnival, my first thought was to feel honored that an esteemed organization that has been a part of my life for literally as long as I can remember—my mother was one of the founders of a local NOW chapter in North Dakota when I was a wee one—had put me on their radar. Of course I’d be happy to participate (and I am).

    My second thought was: What? I continue to be surprised whenever someone refers to me as a body image blogger. I’m pleased by it, of course, and it’s certainly not inaccurate; I suppose whenever a feminist writes about beauty, the tyranny of the body beautiful organically comes under critique. And while I do have a body-positive spin in the sense that I don’t think any of us should suffer in the name of our bodies—and I made a conscious decision early on to never bash any bodies on here, including my own—less than 10% of my posts here deal with body image, or even bodies at all.

    More to the point of Love Your Body Day: I do not love my body, and I don’t particularly want to, and not once on this blog have I said any of us should.

    That’s not to say that we shouldn’t love our bodies, or at least sound an alarm when we find ourselves treating our body the way we’d treat something hated. But in my experience, the way to experience a relief from bodily scrutiny isn’t love, but not thinking about it so damn much. We’re at our best when we’re in a state of flow, wholly immersed in whatever we’re doing, whether that be our professional work, creative expression, or merely being fully present in the moment and sharing it with whomever is in our company. We’re at our best when we’re engaged—oftentimes engaged with others. Certainly many women treat their bodies shabbily because they’re focusing their energies on others and neglecting themselves; others, like me, start to treat our bodies shabbily when we become too focused on ourselves, allowing the roar of body dissatisfaction to dim out the world around us. And while conscious body love is a better response to that roar than continuing to punish my body in various ways, when I am focused on body love, my focus is both inward and separate from myself. When I file acts of self-care under that of love, it makes my body feel even more separate from my very self, instead of more unified.

    Bumper-sticker wisdom aside, love is not only an action word: It is a feeling. I don’t want to have feelings about my body any more than I want to have feelings about my intellect or my voice; I want it to be one part of the entirety of who I am, not something I have to have all these emotions about. To do that I need to care for my body—and I also need to consciously devote my love to things greater than my body, my self. If I keep my body into the category of Things That Should Be Loved, I’m continuing to sever my self—the self that can love—from my body. As with many people who have struggled with an eating disorder, the disconnect between the self and the body is part of what has allowed me to treat my body poorly at times. The times when I’m truly treating my body right are not times when I’ve decided to love my body for all it’s worth, but times when I’m authentically engaged in the world around me.

    If that bit of bumper-sticker wisdom is correct and “love is an action word,” that leaves me with little to work on. Care, on the other hand, is also an action word, and one that leaves me with a goal, not an elusive sense that I’ve either succeeded or failed in “love.” Care is a step we can take to make sure that, as Rosie Molinary writes, we are doing “the work we are meant to be doing and [giving] the gifts we are meant to be giving to this world.” At its beginning self-care may even be a way for us to even identify what that work is, something I struggled with for a long time. Care prepares us for our lives’—and our bodies’—greater journeys. My journey does not necessarily exclude loving my body. Neither is body love my goal.

    I don’t want to diminish the wonderful work of people who explicitly work to activate body love—women I consider my allies in trying to help all of us not be so damn obsessed with this stuff. Golda Poretsky’s Body Love Wellness, Medicinal Marzipan’s Body Lovin’ Projects—this is good work from smart women, and they’re but two examples of the plethora of body love work out there. Participating in these programs can bring a sense of flow in their own right, and I imagine the power of being wholly engaged with body love is mighty indeed. I know many people have been helped by programs specifically targeted toward body love, and that aid is vital and real—and in many ways, what body love experts are saying isn’t that different from what I’m saying here. As Golda says, “You can’t just arrive at [body] acceptance. If you’re coming from a place of not accepting your body, you first have to swing the pendulum the other way to love.” But the active path to body love isn’t the only path toward a similar end goal, even as it’s alluring when you’re in a place of tumult with your body.

    That place of tumult—of war—can be damning, silencing, and most frightening when you don’t even realize how much it can hold you back. I’ve been in that war at times. I know how hard it can be. I know. And looking at body love from afar seems more comfortable than the prickly, unbearable spot of shame that we inhabit when we wage war on our bodies. It is more comfortable. But body love is not the only way to find that space of comfort; love needn’t be the goal you’re working toward. For some of us, striving for body love as our personal pinnacle serves to reinforce the very self-consciousness that prevents us from doing our work in the world. Self-consciousness needn’t be negative in order to be damaging; caring for ourselves can be an act in its own right, not a pit stop on the path toward body love. For if the problem is that we wage war on our bodies, consider that the opposite of war is not love, but peace.

    This post is part of the 2011 Love Your Body Day Blog Carnival.

    Beauty Blogosphere 10.14.11

    What's going on in beauty this week*, from head to toe and everything in between.

    From Head...
    The new face of MAC: Miss Piggy. You know, I used to be skeptical of MAC because it was trying to seem terrifically edgy while simply being an arm of one of the biggest cosmetics companies in the world. And I maintain that advertising can never be subversive, so I'm not about to do the Internet equivalent of pat MAC on the back. That said, between its makeover campaign in the UK and Miss Piggy, the company has officially won me over. Its brand managers have a keen appreciation of the fantasy aspect of makeup, and even though I wear makeup in a pretty straightforward manner, I like that MAC isn't asking me to buy its product to make a better version of myself.

    ...To Toe...
    As a disliker of most things remake (with the possible exception of the Joe Cocker "With a Little Help From My Friends") I remain appalled by the new Footloose, and DOUBLE APPALLED by Deborah "Traitor" Lippmann's polish collection inspired by the remake. My feet will remain tight.

    ...And Everything In Between:
    Big hair: Hairstylist Bashar Brown opened up a UK salon catering specifically to plus-size clients. The idea makes sense—larger chairs and drapes, for starters—but some salons are just snooty anyway regardless of one's size, and I'd hate to see salons seizing this as an opportunity to further snootify their offerings since "they have their own salons now."

    Backpedal: Procter & Gamble assures shareholders it doesn't support political causes—and then reveals its $40,000 donation to conservative causes in Ohio, including support of Senate bill 5, which would restrict collective bargaining power of public employees.

    Gross violation: In other assuring Procter & Gamble news, the district attorney in Scranton, Pennsylvania, assures the public that "No Procter & Gamble products were contaminated" in the case of the P&G employee who has been injecting his semen into coworkers' yogurt containers. 

    Latin American biodiversity: Colombia's plan to become a major cosmetics player: Bank on its biodiversity, which, in conjunction with the call for natural ingredients, could easily prove a boon to the nation's economy.

    What I see in the mirror:
    Wonderful series at The Guardian in which well-known people are asked to share what they see when they look in the mirror. (via Already Pretty) For as Elissa at Dress With Courage reminded us this week, "Your body image is how you perceive, think and feel about your body. This may have no bearing at all on your actual appearance." 

    Dirty politics: Interesting twist in Massachusetts politics: Senator Scott Brown posed nude in a 1982 Cosmo spread to help pay for law school. When his likely rival, Elizabeth Warren, commented that she "kept her clothes on" to pay for her own degree, Brown later responded to her jab with, "Thank God." I don't care what Warren looks like or how Brown paid for school; what's interesting is that people thought Brown's words were unkind, as though it would be a compliment to say that we should all want to see a politician nude. Can't we just fast-forward to the sexy stuff like S.139, the Equal Access to Tax Planning Act?

    Stuck on you: Beauty Redefined is offering their fantastic body image media literacy billboards as sticky notes. "You are capable of much more than being looked at" is a success writ small as well.

    Sunspot: Nail polish that changes colors in the sun! I was all over "mood polish" in the '80s so this is catnip to me.

    The best dry shampoo: Two of this week's Beheld topics are magically synthesized this week at Persephone magazine, where Tuesday's interviewee Golda Poretsky writes about not washing her hair. (Her secret hair powder trick made me snort out loud, and it's one I guarantee you haven't heard of yet.) 

    What a drag: Rachel Rabbit White asks why we don't love drag kings as much as drag queens. I'm not into most drag queens—most of the ones I've seen seem to be co-opting the sucky stuff about femininity and presenting it as sheer fabulousity instead of truly engaging with it or critiquing it. (In fact, the only drag queen I've seen and truly loved is...a woman, the World Famous BOB, who is a self-described "female female impersonator" and manages to be both fabulous and critical of the feminine role.) My quick answer to her provocative question is that we're used to seeing women take on the hallmarks of masculinity but not the other way around; I suspect that if we had a more culturally equal society drag queens would lose much allure as well.

    Small pleasures and the new Dr. Pepper slogan: Finally, someone says something intelligent about the "lipstick index" other than note its existence. (Lipstick sales haven't gone up in this recession, leading to patter about a "nail polish index.") Thank you, Molly Lambert.

    "Self-consciousness isolates and cancels": Sally works her magic at Already Pretty to weave together a few of my favorite topics: self-consciousness, projection, and the words we speak to one another about our appearance. 

    Beauty, Disrupted: Supermodel Carré Otis's memoir is out this week, and though the number of celebrity memoirs I've read I can count on one hand (I was once stranded in a cabin with nothing to read except Shirley Maclaine's Out on a Limb), this seems promising. She touches on something in this interview with ET that you rarely see acknowledged in talk about domestic violence: "I think that that initial meeting [with ex-husband Mickey Rourke, who was arrested in 1994 for spousal abuse] was an immediate familiarity. It was sort of recognition of somebody who I knew there was an incredible charge with, and energy between. So in a way it was that 'dangerous at first sight' ...and now I think, I know better —those are the red flags." Also, it's cowritten with Hugo Schwyzer, who always takes a fresh spin on questions of appearance and gender in his own work.

    Daredevils, from left: Annie Edson Taylor, Maria Spelterini, Maud Willard

    *I spent most of said week taking in a different sort of beauty—upstate New York and Niagara Falls—so this roundup isn't as complete as usual. In compensation, I offer you an off-topic collection of daredevils: Annie Edson Taylor (the first person to go over Niagara Falls in a barrel), Maria Spelterini (the first woman to cross the Niagara gorge on tightrope, in 1876, shown here wearing peach baskets on her feet during one of her three follow-ups to her first successful crossing), and Maud Willard, a dance hall actress who perished in 1901 while trying to shoot the rapids in a barrel. She was accompanied by her fox terrier, who survived, presumably by shoving his little nose inside the single air hole in the barrel.

    Golda Poretsky, Wellness Counselor, New York City

    For Golda Poretsky, body acceptance isn’t quite enough. “I named my business Body Love Wellness because for me body acceptance was the key for everything else to fall into place—but you can’t just arrive at acceptance. If you’re coming from a place of not accepting your body, you first have to swing the pendulum the other way to love.” Drawing on the “diets don’t work” principles of Health at Every Size, her background in nutrition and holistic health, and her skilled combination of enthusiasm, warmth, and frankness, she counsels group and private clients who want to exit the dieting cycle. Her book, Stop Dieting Now: 25 Reasons To Stop, 25 Ways To Heal, was published in paperback and Kindle, and she lectures and gives workshops around the country, including teleclasses. We talked about the willingness to fail, being revolutionary, and how a question about cough drops got her wheels turning. In her own words:

    On Trust 
    I was literally on diets from the age of 4 on. I was either on a diet or off a diet, and if I was off I felt like I should be on. In 2005 I did Weight Watchers and I lost 40-something pounds, and I thought life was great. I still hadn’t met my goal, but I was feeling really good—and then the weight started coming back on, and I was still doing the program. I was all, “What’s the deal?” People turn that around onto you and make it like you’re doing something wrong. I literally had this Weight Watchers check-in where we sat down and they were like, “Well, you must be eating a lot of cough drops.” No, I’m doing everything I’m supposed to be doing. So I started to research it a little bit, and I started to think about it, and I realized it wasn’t just me. I found Kate Harding’s blog, which is sort of what everybody finds when they first come around to this, and I was like, “Oh! I don’t have to be in this constant paradigm of worrying about my weight, struggling with food all the time.” I started seeing research saying that losing weight and gaining it all back was the norm. But it's still hard to let go of that desire to lose weight, and there’s always that one person you know who keeps up their weight loss for years, and you think, Well, they must have it right. 

    That lack of trust in their own experience is the attitude a lot of people have when they first come to Health at Every Size. They think, “Okay, size acceptance makes sense, but it’s not for me.” They try to resolve new information that way, by dismissing it for themselves. Because it’s not a comfortable place to say, “I know 99% of people see things one way. I see things differently.” It’s hard to live in the world that way because we still have these internalized worries about how people are literally being cast out for being different. I see it with clients, I saw it with myself, and we have to say, “Okay, you know, it’s not easy. Certain people are not going to agree with you, certain people are not going to support you—but you’re a revolutionary.” It’s more internal than anything else. The idea of being revolutionary is one of the ways I support myself when I feel overwhelmed. It helps me remember that it’s not easy, and that change takes time.

    I always remind people that they need support, and that it’s not this thing that happens overnight. I’ll hear people say, “I tried body acceptance for a week and I didn’t get it, I couldn’t do it.” It takes time. It takes trust in yourself. It takes the willingness to fail and keep going. You might feel great about yourself for two weeks and then suddenly you’re walking down the street and you catch a glimpse of yourself in a window, and you think, Wow, I thought I looked better than that. But if you’ve been thinking about self-acceptance, you begin to have the tools to take that moment as just information. You can say, “Okay, I didn’t like my reflection. So maybe I just have some work to do on seeing myself in the mirror. And what else was going on with me that day—was it a bad day anyway? What was my internal dialogue like?” It’s taking negative experiences as information rather than proof that you're bad or wrong or ugly or whatever. It’s trusting that if you keep doing this, it will work—which it will. Not liking what you see in the mirror one day isn’t proof that you’re not doing body love right. It’s information that indicates, Okay, this is something I can work on. I think very often we see our quote-unquote “failings” as proof of something not working, as proof that we’re damaged, rather than part of the journey. Things are rarely that linear.

    On the (Non)-Intersection of Dieting and Confidence 
    I remember starting Weight Watchers with a friend of mine. In a couple of weeks we’d both lost about eight pounds, and I remember her saying, “I know I lost weight, but I feel less attractive.” I was like, Me too! People say this stuff to you once they start noticing, like, “You look really great.” And then you’re like, How did I look before? I didn’t think I looked that bad. There are studies about how dieting lowers your self-esteem: There’s this feeling, like you get on the scale and you’ve lost weight, and the sun is shining and the birds are singing—there’s just this feeling. And then you get on the scale again and you’re up a couple of pounds and the world falls apart. Everything becomes tied to your weight. And when you’re able to separate feeling good from weight, you get to feel consistently good about yourself—which is actually more attractive to other people.

    There are always people you know who are just really attractive--you’re drawn to them, and they’re just really sexy people. But they’re just people! People tend to think that that quality is just this innate thing, and maybe it is, partially. But I also think it’s about that person having a clear concept of what’s attractive about themselves. They know they’re worthy. The internal is much more external than we realize. So if you’re okay with yourself no matter what size you’re at, it goes from, “Oh, I feel thin, so I can go out with my friends and have a good time” to you just feeling whatever you feel. You can go out and have a good time, you can meet people and believe that you’re as attractive and beautiful and sexual as someone who is thinner than you. We hear a lot of times, “It’s not about how you look; it’s about how you feel.” Well, yeah! But it’s very hard for people to just make that happen. It’s a big mind-set shift.

    I’ve worked with a lot of people to try to make that mental shift happen. But it’s not just a mental shift; it’s also physical. I have this thing called the body-love shower. And all it is, is that literally, in the shower, you really concentrate on how good it feels to touch your body—how good it feels to touch your shoulder, your chest, your butt. You do everything in a way that feels good for you. You really enjoy the sensation of touching, and if you do this every morning for a week, you will feel differently about your body. You will. And suddenly it’s not about how you look. It’s about what your body is capable of sensually, how your body is capable of giving and receiving pleasure. And that is much bigger than what magazines tell you.

    On Living From the Neck Up 
    A lot of times we’re taught to live from the neck up. That’s another issue I hear a lot from people, because they don’t accept their bodies and they don’t even want to think about their bodies. There’s a disconnect, and that disconnect allows you to act a certain way toward your body. If you’re not part of your body then you can starve it or binge or whatever, because it’s not you. It’s like it’s this part of you that isn’t acting the way it’s supposed to, and you kind of whip it into shape or whatever, but it’s not you. So when you eventually start to connect the two and you’re like, “This is my body. How do I want to be treating it? Do I want to be intentionally hurting it? It is me.”

    Living from the neck up makes it difficult to really look at the whole of yourself. When I was in law school, I went through this period where I couldn’t look in a mirror, and I’ve talked with other women who sort of have this too. I literally would look just for second, really quickly, with the light off. I wouldn’t really look. It’s creepy! And I was also much thinner then, I was younger. I was really struggling. What helped me is affirmations. I started to actually say affirmations in the mirror. It sounds really corny, but they sort of saved me. At first I couldn’t do it without crying, but there was a part of me that was like, Do this. It changed my relationship with the mirror. Now I actually do a lot of mirror work with my clients, especially if they’re fixated on one part of their body being not okay. I have them find five things they like about that part of the body and say them aloud. That can be hard, to say things you love about your body when you don’t necessarily believe it yet, but I really think you can’t just try to accept yourself, you have to try to truly love yourself. Most people think acceptance is the first step, but I think if you're trying for acceptance, you'll land somewhere between acceptance and dissatisfaction. You have to go all the way to love and then maybe you’ll settle into acceptance, or maybe you'll really go for broke and experience true love for your body.


    Feeling invigorated by Golda's words? Body Love Wellness is offering a deal to readers of The Beheld: The first five people to sign up here will receive a free Body Love Breakthrough session, which will help you develop essential tools for wellness and self-acceptance. Fantastique!

    Invited Post: Letting Myself Go

    When I read the essay "Chasing Beauty: An Addict's Memoir" by Good Men Project publisher Lisa Hickey, I was riveted. I'd been turning to The Good Men Project for insightful commentary on gender issues aimed at men for a while, but this was different. This was speaking to men, yes, but it was also speaking to me: "[W]hen I’m beautiful—or close to beautiful—it’s all I think about. When I’m beautiful and I’m with you, I’m wondering if the guy across the room thinks I’m beautiful. I think beauty is going to connect us; but I’m not connecting with you, I’m connecting with a beautiful image of myself that I think you might like."

    If you followed my month without mirrors project, you know that divorcing myself from my
    image of myself was one of the major themes I was working with—so to read someone else share her own thoughts on the matter was a thrill. I reached out to Lisa to thank her for her work, and she responded with what in some ways functions as a sequel to "Chasing Beauty." This time, it's "Letting Myself Go."


    It’s five years ago, and I’m walking down the street with Caroline, a work colleague; we just had grabbed a couple of salads at the nearby cafeteria, and she’s asking about my dating life. I murmur what I hope is something non-committal about the non-existence of a "dating life," and she says “Yes, I had a friend who also let herself go and my friend found it really hard…” And that was the last thing I heard. The implication that I had somehow “let myself go” was just too hard to bear. I couldn’t listen to another word she said. It was true I was no longer beautiful. It was true I used to be beautiful. But “letting yourself go” implies that you woke up one day and said, "Aww, screw it, ugly wins" with a shrug of the shoulders. Or perhaps you gradually crossed off this and this and this from your beauty routines. But it didn’t come close to acknowledging that there was still a Herculean effort going on with me vs. the forces of nature, and that the tidal wave of ageing was simply winning out no matter how hard I fought.

    *   *   *   *   *

    Last night I’m in the car with my two daughters, Shannon, age 16 and Allie, 19. I tell them about Autumn’s experiment with a month without a mirror. They both get all excited about the concept. Allie yells out gleefully, “Shannon could never do that.” At the same moment, Shannon says, “I could never do that.” Shannon is honest and resigned. “I think that makes me narcissistic. But I couldn’t do it. I need to see me to be me.”

    I’ve written about my addiction to beauty that I’ve had most of my life, but beauty wasn’t all I was addicted to. It took me an equally Herculean effort to get sober after I became a blackout alcoholic at age 14 and drank every night of my life for the next 30 years. The addictions went hand in hand. I never understood the concept of being comfortable in my own skin. And I couldn’t stand it. So I drank to get rid of me. As a long-term life plan, it wasn’t the wisest of choices.

    Caroline’s dig at having "let myself go" came at two years into being sober, when everything was still perilous. There was no escape route. I had to figure it out. I had to get a life I could own and embrace. A life I could own—that was a new concept for me.

    About that time, I was realizing something profound about my interactions with other people. I couldn’t recognize faces. I had always known there was a problem, but now it seemed impossible. Everywhere I went—my kid’s hockey games, work functions, meeting someone for coffee—I had no clue who people were. Men, women, children, would come up to me, have a conversation, and I had no idea who I was talking to. I started to panic about going out in public. It was one thing if someone was the same place I had seen them last—office cubicles were a pretty safe bet—but anywhere else I’d have to search for contextual clues to recognize someone—clothing, the room we were in, height, glasses, voice, piercings. Without something specific, I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t recognize someone I had met the day before unless they had really specific unique qualities. I was constantly smiling or saying “hi” to people that might be someone I knew, just in case they were. I couldn’t tell a complete stranger from someone I had known for months.

    It was maddening, and I found a name for it—prosopagnosia, or face blindness. I never knew why I had it, or what caused it.

    Until I read Autumn’s one-month experiment without a mirror, with this paragraph in particular:
    When I see my image reflected on a mirror behind a bar I think, Oh good, I look like a woman who is having a good time out with friends. Or I’ll see my reflection in a darkened windowpane, hunched over my computer with a pencil twirled through my upswept hair, and I’ll think, My, don’t I look like a writer? Or I’ll walk to a fancy restaurant and see my high-heeled, pencil-skirted silhouette in the glass of the door and think: I pass as someone who belongs here. You’ll notice what these have in common: My thoughts upon seeing my reflection are both self-centered and distant. I’m seeing myself, but not really—I’m seeing a woman who looks like she’s having a good time, or a writer, or someone who belongs at Balthazar.
    And it hit me. My inability to recognize other people’s faces happened because—whenever I met someone—in my mind, I was visualizing my own face, not theirs.

    Everything clicked. I had been so worried about how I was being perceived, that it was me I was seeing in every situation, not the other person. No wonder I couldn’t remember them.

    This story really, truly does have a happy ending.

    I’m still sober, and along with it, all the joy of having a life I’m not constantly trying to run away from. Accepting the fact that beauty cannot, should not, will not be the defining quality of my life forced me to figure out which qualities should be. I learned to talk again by writing. I learned to connect through social media—slowly, learning about people first, caring about them first, letting them care about me long before they even knew what I looked like. I had always wanted to be funny, so I took a humor-writing course, and then a stand-up comedy course, and then an improv class. People laughed. I wrote poetry and did poetry slams. I learned to love public speaking—a feat I never would have thought possible. Public speaking, after all, requires you to actually connect with an audience, not just stand up there and look good. One of the first times I tried, it was a presentation to a room full of 75 people, most of whom I had known in various times in my advertising career. And I started out by saying “I bet most of you are here today because you didn’t actually believe that I could speak in public.” Loudest laughter I had ever heard.

    Somewhere along the way someone told me, “If you want self-esteem, the best way isn’t to tell yourself you look good. It’s to go out and do something esteemable.” OH.

    Somewhere else I heard, “Love is an action word.” OH. “Feeling” love wasn’t enough to make the other person love me. OH.

    A sentence from a book: “Seek to connect, not to impress.” OH. OH.

    And, gradually, gradually, gradually, I realized—once I didn’t have to worry about appearing funny but could talk and upon occasion have a funny sentence come out of my mouth; once I didn’t have to worry about appearing intelligent but could just offer insights that combined my knowledge with the other person’s equally important intelligence; once I didn’t worry about appearing loveable, but instead could just act with love to the person I was with—then—then—then—I could actually get into the flow with another person, just as Autumn described it. Not by performing for other people; and certainly not by desperately trying to come up on the spot with an appearance that I hoped would impress them. And once I got in the flow with the other person, even my memories of interactions changed—my memories became about them, not me. And I was able to recognize faces.

    I had finally figured out that in order to connect with people—really connect with them—I, did, in fact, have to let myself go.

    And that’s something I can live with.


    Lisa Hickey is publisher of The Good Men Project, and CEO of Good Men Media, Inc. When she’s not writing about beauty, she’s writing about men. Her post on The Good Men Project that started the connection between Lisa and Autumn is here: "Chasing Beauty: An Addict’s Memoir."

    Beauty Blogosphere 9.16.11

    What's going on in beauty this week, from head to toe and everything in between.

    From Head...
    Earth face!: If body typing is appealing on the level of being an ersatz personality test, physiognomy like this new face-reading book being touted in The Daily Mail is even more oddly appealing, even though I think it's utter bullshit. Always fun to play, though!

     ...To Toe... 
    If the shoe doesn't fit: Decoding Dress on why capitalism made her hunt for a month for black pumps. With her size 11 fitting, "There aren’t enough women like me to make it commercially worthwhile for manufacturers to cater to us." (Solutions, or at least ways to ameliorate the problem, here.) The shoe size question is interesting to me, as when applied to clothes we can't help but integrate the discussion with body image (as Already Pretty did this week by reminding us that "Clothes should fit you, you needn’t fit them," and as an oldie but goodie at Inkdot does with this post on tailoring). Shoes have less of an impact on our body image than clothes, so looking at the lack of diverse size options in footwear is a nice way to examine the sizing problem from a numbers-based perspective—and, yep, the man ain't giving Decoding Dress a new pair of shoes easily anytime soon. 

    ...And Everything In Between:
    Ask a Dude: Hairpin's Dude answers two questions this week about appearance: How to accept a compliment when you're all hot and heavy with someone, and what to do when you find out your gross boyfriend has been making gross comparisons between your body and another woman's. Gross!

    I'll have what he's having: We're more likely to consider someone beautiful if we think our friends think the person is beautiful. Science sez!

    Fashion weak: Ashley Mears, sociologist, model, and author of Pricing Beauty: The Making of a Fashion Model, on modeling as precarious labor, with few rights for the people wearing the clothes that make Fashion Week so damned glamorous.

    Southern belles: A look inside the world of Venezuelan beauty pageants, and what it means for all Venezuelan women. (Banks there give loans for plastic surgery with slogans like "Have your plastic on our plastic"?!) Venezuelan models tend to be in high demand in the U.S.--very young women who can earn far more from their families while living abroad than they can from working at home--so I'm wondering about the economic implications of the beauty imperative there.

    "If you could change one of your physical characteristics, which one would it be and why?":
    This was asked at the Miss Universe pageant, which is, as a reminder, a pageant in which contestants are selected for their physical beauty—but, of course, still need to be prodded to put down their appearance. Aiaiai! (Thanks to Caitlin at Fit and Feminist for the link.)

    Vote for "The Illusionists": Filmmaker Elena Rossini (you've met her here before) is up for a nice publicity boost from IndieWire; won't you take a second and vote for "The Illusionists," a promising documentary about the exploitation of women's bodies for profit? UPDATE: "The Illusionists" won! (And had won before I posted this roundup, which I hadn't realized.) Nice work, all!

    She's a winner!:
    Guinness world record holder for world's longest fingernails tops in with a combined 19.2 feet in length. Vacuuming, of all things, is what she claims is the hardest thing to do. (Clearly she does not wear contact lenses.)

    Survivor: Cosmetics salesman is lone survivor of plane crash in Bolivia. No word as to whether skin cream played a role in his survival in the Amazon jungle.

    Fly this: I've seen plenty of "travel-friendly" beauty products but had never thought about what it meant for the industry: Sales of products under three ounces have grown 10% a year since liquid restrictions were placed on U.S. flights.

    Mirror Abuse Resistance Education: A high school in the UK has not only banned makeup, but has removed mirrors from the bathrooms. I think this is pretty awesome--I hear the idea that makeup allows you to express your individuality, but if the idea is to focus on learning (à la school uniforms), this certainly removes a distraction. Attention, Shelley College students: I had a great month with no mirrors, and Kjerstin Gruys is having a great year without 'em--you'll thrive during your on-school hours if you let yourselves, okay? 

    Everybody loves Tavi: Nice piece in Slate about the advantages Tavi Gevinson's Rookie has over traditional teen mags (plus an acknowledgement that feminists in teen magazines aren't unicorns! we exist!). 

    Smart eye for the racist guy: Remember that Crystal Renn shoot in which her eyes were taped back but of course the idea wasn't at all to look Asian? Minh-ha T. Pham at Threadbared takes it on: "Renn’s explanation is an example of a post-racial narrative in which race is simultaneously articulated through and disavowed by discourses of class, culture, patriotism, national security, talent, and, in the case of fashion, creative license."

    It's called "lift and separate," Captain.

    Cartoon boobs: Hourglassy on breasts in comics. Hint for aspiring comics artists: "When fabric is stretched across boobs, no matter how tight the spandex, it does not suction cup itself to each individual breast."

    The Evolution of Ape-Face Johnson: Speaking of comics, cartoonist Carolita Johnson has a stunning piece in The Hairpin about her journey from supposedly funny-looking child, to high fashion model, to supposedly funny-looking model.

    Army of two:
    Fantastic talk between Cristen Conger at Bitch and Hugo Schwyzer on the male beauty myth. "It’s self-centered in terms of meeting your own ideal, becoming the man you want to be. This all started with the Army...when they went with the most brilliant advertising slogan ever: 'Be All You Can Be.' ...They decided to stop selling patriotism because that was old school and start selling personal transformation, and that was absolute genius." (Or take it from the horse's mouth: Men's cosmetics marketers on their thoughts on the difference between marketing to men and women.)

    "As much as I love feminism, I don’t believe it’s the only concept you will ever need": Nothing to do with beauty! But everything to do with feminism, and this Sady Doyle piece is one of the best I've read recently.

    New No More Dirty Looks challenge: Meditation sort of kills me—it's one of those things I know I would really benefit from, but it feels impossible to do. So I'm eagerly jumping on the next No More Dirty Looks challenge: five minutes of meditation every day for sever consecutive days. (There's a prize too, but what prize could be better than EVERLASTING CONTENTMENT?) Guidelines for the challenge here, plus a nice how-to guide that shows you there's no "trick"; you've just got to do it.

    Paging Amelie:
    A take on what it's like to be the "manic pixie dream girl" trope that plenty of smart feminists have deconstructed, and that this smart feminist has embodied. (I've played MPDG and have experienced a hint of self-loathing for it over the years, and this helped me ease up on that front.)

    Apology not accepted: Virginia of Beauty Schooled guest posting at The Daily Glow about why beauty makes us happy. "I noticed that a lot of women tend to apologize for how happy beauty makes them.... Somehow, we’ve gotten the idea that it’s shallow to get too excited about beauty." But no more!

    What do women look at first on a man?: Warning: This is sort of creepy and uncomfortable, but interesting as well—a man strapped tiny cameras to his biceps and crotch, then asked women for directions and let the cameras witness what body parts they looked at first. It's also interesting to see how various women respond to being approached; we only really know our own experiences, so it's a nifty insight into how others handle stranger interactions. (Basically, we're really really nice.)

    How to be bold:
    Ashe at Dramatic Personae on fashion and self-consciousness—and here I thought I was the only one who owned amazing pieces she never wore because she felt self-conscious in them!

    "The point of all this" fitness jazz: A group of bystanders to a car/motorcycle crash lifted the burning car to free the motorcyclist underneath, and (naturally!) it's caught on video. That's not what impressed Caitlin of Fit and Feminist, though: "What struck me was the presence of a young woman in the crowd. She didn’t hang back and watch.... Instead, she jumped right in. I’m not a betting woman, but I’d be willing to wager that woman is physically active... Maybe she plays sports or she does a bootcamp or she takes a Pilates class. I don’t know. All I know is that confidence in her body and her physical abilities is tightly woven into the tapestry of her self-image.... She doesn’t recite it as a mantra in hopes of one day actually believing it."

    Watching You Watching Me

    I went shopping for eyeglasses last weekend with my friend Lisa Ferber, as I'm following my readers’ advice about taking along a trusted friend in order to find a pair that suits me. She patiently watched and advised as I tried on dozens of pairs of glasses throughout the afternoon. The routine was: I'd try on a pair, look at her, look at the glasses clerk, and then look in the mirror. And every time I’d look in the mirror, Lisa would say, “No pouting.” This went on for about an hour, until finally she forbade me to stop making my “mirror face” for the rest of the day—not that her directive helped, because it’s utterly beyond my control.

    I’ve written about my mirror face before (unsurprisingly, when I was doing my mirror fast). But this was different, and it took me a while to realize why. When I looked in the mirror at my bespectacled self, I thought I was giving myself the same look that I’d just given my friend. I was able to believe that because the face I saw reflected back at me wasn’t my usual, and private, mirror face—another expression I can’t control, but that I can easily spot as ridiculous. This was less pouty (Lisa’s protest notwithstanding), a little more grim, a little harder, the jaw a little more set. Unlike my mirror face, which is a subconscious attempt to control how I see myself, this face was an attempt to not look as though I knew I was being observed. This face was supposed to be natural.

    It wasn’t natural, of course—far from it. But it might be innate. I saw my public mirror face crop on on the faces of total strangers in this project by Swedish photojournalist Moa Karlberg, who set up a camera behind a one-way mirror and photographed subjects looking at themselves, unaware they were being photographed. (Thanks to Caperton at Feministe for the link.) Karlberg’s written intention for the series indicated that she wanted it to be a comment on privacy rights in public spaces. But the takeaway is something quite different.

    From Watching You Watching Me, Moa Karlberg

    We think we’re seeing people’s private moments exploited for our viewing pleasure, lending an edge of voyeurism above and beyond normal portraiture. Here’s the thing, though: These photographs were not taken in private homes or even in restrooms or other spaces with an expectation of privacy; they were taken in public. The subjects all believed they were having a semi-private moment, true, but they also knew they might be observed by passersby. They couldn’t have known that Karlberg was on the other side of the mirror, of course, but in some ways that doesn't matter. The law of physics that states that observation changes that which is being observed applies double to the mirror: We change when we look into the mirror, and we change yet again when we know someone else might observe us doing so. (Certainly I can't be the only person who has ever dawdled in a work bathroom in hopes that the other people present will leave so I can observe myself in peace. Um, if I am the only person who has done this I will be officially embarrassed.)

    What’s striking about the photographs is how most of the people in them are wearing a nearly identical expression—across ages, across genders, across cultural types. Examining that expression, I’m drawn to the pensive defiance on the subjects’ faces. The mouth is slightly open, a steely expression in the eyes. To me, what this says is: I am not actually looking at myself; I merely happened to catch a glimpse of myself while walking by. (And, after a month of avoiding mirrors, I can tell you that the unaware glimpse does occasionally happen—and that most of the time there’s a reflective surface around, you damn well know it.) The feigned nonchalance is a part of how we make our way through the world; it’s how we avoid seeming to think that we’re overimportant, or self-absorbed. It’s the equivalent of a big, surprised “Oh, hi!” we give an acquaintance we’d spotted earlier in a crowd but delayed saying hello to for whatever reason. It’s the face we wear when we’re walking down an long hallway toward a coworker but aren’t yet close enough to acknowledge their presence without creating awkwardness. It’s neither private nor public; it’s a performance that you hope nobody sees but are certain to perfect in the event that they do.

    10 Pieces of Mirror Media

    When I initially embarked on my mirror fast, I hadn't really given thought to the ways that media has treated mirrors. Throughout the month, though, friends kept referring me to songs, films, and stories that explore mirrors. Here they are, along with others that I either love or that this month has shed new light on:

    Anna Massey learns the creepmaster's secrets. Peeping Tom, 1960.

    1) Peeping Tom, 1960: There's a reason slumber-party favorite "Bloody Mary" persisted from my mother's generation to mine: Mirrors can be creepy! And films don't hesitate to take advantage: Candyman, Poltergeist, Black Swan, The Shining, and, of course, Mirrors, all feature mirrors as either a central plot point or motif. Even some of the best moments in my beloved Twin Peaks involve mirrors. But Peeping Tom takes the cake. Michael Powell's story of a young man/serial killer whose life is ruled by surveillance features a terrifying mirrored climax. Overall it's more of a comment on the role of documentation (we learn along the way that our villain is the way he is because his father constantly filmed him growing up—now seen as not intrusive, but expected), but mirrors wind up being an essential part of his hijinx.

    2) "Mirrors," Carol Shields: A short story about a couple who spends every summer without a mirror. We see how over the lifetime of  a marriage, this gesture's significance shifts, from accidental to a meditative delight to a clever cover-up for shame, to, of course, the way we function as mirrors for one another. " 'You remind me of someone,' she said the first time they met. He knew she meant that he reminded her of herself." (Thanks to Terri at Rags Against the Machine for the tipoff!)

    No message could have been any clearer.

    3) "Man in the Mirror," Michael Jackson. Bear with me here, people! Cheesy, simplistic, overwrought, sure. But it's a perfect example of the ways in which the mirror deludes us. Were the singer any other pop star, it wouldn't haunt me so. With this singer with this history, though, the lyrics become poignant, painful. The man in the mirror is supposed to reflect back a potentially better self. But it's impossible for me not to think of the allegations of pedophilia against Jackson when hearing: "I see the kids in the street / With not enough to eat / Who am I, to be blind / Pretending not to see their needs." I have no doubt in my mind that whatever Michael Jackson did to children, he did not because he was a monster but because he was so damaged as to see himself a child as well—a rich, famous, otherworldly child who on some level probably believed the bizarre Neverland he set up was, indeed, fulfilling children's needs. The mirror didn't reflect back what the rest of us saw. And it was a tragedy for everyone.

    4) Mirror Mirror Off the Wall: So how awesome was it when, two days into my mirror fast, I hear from Kjerstin Gruys, a sociology Ph.D. candidate at UCLA who is abstaining from mirrors for a year? She taught herself to apply makeup without a mirror; she's not looking at photos of herself—oh, and she's getting married in October. With her thoughtful mix of personal stories, sociology background, and wholeheartedly lady-positive approach (she's also a volunteer with the amazing About-Face), Mirror Mirror Off the Wall is an engaging, amusing, sincere blog, and I look forward to continuing to read about Kjerstin's insights.

    5) Radiolab's "Mirror Mirror": Entertaining look at the science behind reflection, from the molecular level to the arena of psychology (including a story of a man who claims changing his hair part to match his mirror self wound up changing his life). (Thanks to Andréa at Remembering Self for sending this my way!)

    6) "Funny Is Never Forever," Richard Melo: This short story is actually one of many connected super-short stories collected at fiction-social-networking site Red Lemonade; it's about an American nursing hospital in Haiti in the 1950s. It's the second story here that particularly interests me, the intimacy of having both a personal double and a mirror double; Melo's work consistently has a tender, gentle pulse (as evidenced by his novel Jokerman 8), and this collection is no different.

    "I am silver and exact": Sylvia Plath

    7) "Mirror," Sylvia Plath: Says the mirror-narrator of Plath's poem, "In me she has drowned a young girl, and in me an old woman / Rises toward her day after day, like a terrible fish." The divided self shows up repeatedly in her work; even her thesis at Smith was titled "The Magic Mirror: A Study of the Double in Two of Dostoevsky's Novels." One of her last poems, "Contusion," even ends with the double's retreat after its initial rush: "The heart shuts / The sea slides back / The mirrors are sheeted."

    8) Mirror Mirror: a History of the Human Love Affair With Reflection, by Mark Pendergrast: From the Venetian mirror-makers who enjoyed cultural prestige but who were kept prisoner on Murano island, to divination using mirrors, to the 1928 sample room at Macy's that featured entirely mirrored surfaces and led to a near-frenzy, this complete history of mirrors is interesting on a technical level, though I longed to know more about who was doing all that looking during the eras he describes at length.

    9) "Snow White", the Brothers Grimm, translated by D.L. Ashliman: From the poisoned comb to the too-tight corset that the evil queen uses in her homicide attempts, this story is an incredible comment on the trappings of femininity. (I'd forgotten that the original ending has the queen dancing herself to death in heated iron shoes. Yowza!) But it's the mirror that began it all: The queen was fine and dandy being superlatively gorgeous until the mirror told her that someone out there (a seven-year-old!) could do her a thousand times better. It makes a fine ending for Anne Sexton's retelling as well: "Meanwhile Snow White held court / rolling her china-blue doll eyes open and shut / and sometimes referring to her mirror / as women do."

    Nico and Lou Reed are cool. Cool! So cool. 

    10) "I'll Be Your Mirror," The Velvet Underground: Early in my mirror fast I had dinner with my friend Lindsay, who covers the beauty beat at The Daily News, bringing things like makeup ad falsities to New Yorkers. She told me that she'd be my mirror, "as Nico sang," and because both Lindsay and The Velvet Underground are extraordinarily cool and I want to be extraordinarily cool too, I pretended that I knew the reference. Luckily, I didn't have to pretend for long, because on the morning of my birthday I awoke to "I'll Be Your Mirror" waiting for me in my inbox from another friend. Aww, you guys! "When you think the night has seen your mind / That inside you're twisted and unkind / Let me stand to show that you are blind / ... 'Cause I see you." Short, plaintive, and, of course, extraordinarily cool.

    Beauty Blogosphere 6.3.11

    What's going on in the latest beauty news, from head to toe and everything in between. 

    From Head...
    An oldie but a goodie: A fantastic post from fashion blog Dress a day on why you don't always have to be pretty. "Prettiness is not a rent you pay for occupying a space marked 'female.'" Sing it, sister! (Thanks to Rebekah at Jaunty Dame, who also has a fun "this is the picture I took to the stylist, and this is the haircut I got" post here, for the tipoff.)

    Counterfeit beauty: Roughly 85% of cosmetics in Nepal are fakes. They might be sold for cheaper than the real brands, sure—but counterfeit Oil of Olay is a helluva lot likelier to give unwitting consumers a skin rash.

    Okay, but sometimes you don't want yellow nails, dig?

    To Toe...
    DIY beauty: Okay, I'll cover a "product", but only because it's homemade and because switching my pedicure polish from crimson to raspberry did indeed leave me with yellowed nails: Abuela's Yellow Nail Stain Remover.  

    ...And Everything in Between
    "Exercise was my mirror": When blogger Cameo Morningstar was diagnosed with glycogen storage disease a few years ago, she was forced to give up—and, later, scrutinize the motivations behind—her intense workout regimen. Verging on Serious focuses on health, particularly mind-body and the struggle to be as healthy as possible without sliding into obsession; this thoughtful post springs off the control issues that came up in my mirror fast, making the link between the control of the mirror and the control over one's body. "If a mirror is a device one uses to assess and manipulate one’s appearance, then exercise was my mirror." 

    Is Facebook a mirror too?: Rob Horning at Marginal Utility suggests that our ability to constantly monitor ourselves through our online presence functions in the same way I was indicating mirrors do for me: "Social-media sites seem to me to be self-consciousness machines."

    Clothes shopping without mirrors: Kjerstin Gruys of Mirror Mirror Off the Wall gives it a whirl! Kjerstin, if only we lived on the same coast, we could totally take each other clothes shopping. (I still haven't seen myself in the dresses I bought.) 

    We all loved Dove's "Evolution." Why are we still referencing it five years later?

    Is knowledge enough?: Social work student Valerie Kusler looks at whether knowing that media images are heavily manipulated can change our perception of them. The answer: sorta. This just means we need more of those counter messages (here's looking at you, Beauty Redefined!)

    Enough with the "real women": Tea and Feathers on why applauding body-diverse models by calling them "real" is unhelpful to all of us. (Via Mrs. Bossa)

    Sartorialist SERVED: Threadbare's fantastic takedown of The Sartorialist's treatment of service workers, alongside the scrutiny from always excellent Of Another Fashion, will make your eyes roll even farther back into your head as far as the Sartorialist is concerned.   

    How racist is the beauty industry?: Um, pretty racist sometimes! Great ads slideshow. I'd argue that skin whitening creams aren't necessarily as racist as they may appear; from women I talked to in Vietnam (which, admittedly, is one country among many), the goal was to look like a woman of leisure, not a white woman. (And sure enough, the compliments random people gave me on the whiteness of my skin decreased exponentially the more tanned I became.) They're still toxic and upsetting, to be sure, and we can't completely extricate race from the equation, but I do think it's more complex than it seems. (Via Beauty Schooled) That said... 

    Asian skin development: Estee Lauder is opening an "Asian Innovation Center" in Shanghai to develop products specific to the skin of Chinese and other Asian women. Let's hope it goes beyond whitening, shall we?

    More global Estée: New Estee Lauder head of global corporate marketing could be interesting to watch: She's planning on focusing on "global travelers" in megacities, directly anticipating desire instead of following the "customer is boss" approach.

    Wow, Darren, way to break type with your female lead opposite Vincent Cassel.

    Requiem for a Cologne: I sort of hate Darren Aronofsky (though I did like Black Swan), mainly because Requiem for a Dream was one of the most overwrought, ham-fisted pieces of filmmaking I've ever witnessed. Second only to his commercial for YSL's La Nuit de Homme fragrance, that is! But coming in at two minutes instead of two godforsaking hours makes this totally awesome in its ridiculousness. Vincent Cassel at his sleaziest! (Via Scented Salamander)

    Nailed It: Fantastic, well-researched history of nail polish at Beautifully Invisible, focusing on classic red but hitting plenty of intervening trends.

    Nurse Jackee: Silly but fun spoof of Nurse Jackie (btw, major girl crush on Merritt Wever!), starring Jackee as a beauty-products-addicted nurse. "Stop primping, start nursing. We're here to save lives," goes her inner monologue after her false eyelashes fall into a patient's spleen.

    It might really be all in your head:
    I don't know enough about science to comment, but this news about the role of visual processing in body dysmorphia, and this piece on researchers who play with visual processing by making people think they're giants or dwarves (!), seem potentially related. I sort of want to build a center for people with body dysmorphia to go in and lay next to mannequins sized to their bodies and see what happens.

    Digital plastic surgery: Beauty Redefined doing what they do, as excellently as ever. This time they examine how we're "Photoshopping ourselves out of existence."

    Thoughts on a Word: Mirror

    Mirror comes comes Old French mireor (“reflecting glass”), which sprang from earlier French miradoir (exact translation lost) mirer (“look at”) and Latin mirare, miror, and mirari (“to wonder at, admire”). Certainly mirer is the most direct ancestor here; it also gave birth to admire. But let's take it a step further and look at miror, which takes the gentlemanly mirer and proclaims him anemic. Mirer may admire, but miror? To astonish, to marvel at, to be amazed.

    For comparison, window springs from the Old Norse for “wind eye”; bowl comes from proto-Germanic “a round vessel”; we get desk from medieval Latin’s version of “table to write on”; table itself is from Latin’s tabula, a board or plank; dresser is from...you get the picture. Terms for other common furnishings and items stem from utility or purpose. So either mirror is the exception because of its extraordinary powers—or it’s in the same boat as the prosaic desk, and those old French folk knew that we can’t help but be astonished and amazed by our own reflection.

    Actually, those old French folk could have just taken the perfectly good Latin word that already existed for mirror: speculum. (Imagine the comedic potential had that happened.) The Italians did just that (specchio), as did the Spanish, Portuguese, and even the Germans (espejo, espelho, and Spiegel, respectively). Speculum also has no-nonsense, utilitarian credentials, springing from specere, or “to look at,” with none of this “astonishment” business coming into play. So why didn’t the French just go with speculum?

    Some posit that the Egyptians beat the Romans to France, bringing along mirrors—and their word for them, roughly mau-her—before speculum-waving Romans had a chance to introduce mirrors to the country that would later become known for manufacturing them. That’s one possibility, certainly.

    But I prefer to think that France was being a tad more intentional than that. It’s a country that mothered such mirror minds as King Louie XIV and Marie Antoinette (not to mention Jacques Lacan with his mirror stage, and Simone de Beauvoir with her keen eye toward us self-admiring women); its citizens, to the American mind, embody some concepts we associate with mirror-gazing. We American lay-deez adore our French women, not only because we see them as beautiful—plenty of countries are famed for their beautiful women—but because they appear to both blatantly spend time, energy, and money on their appearance, and also appear utterly nonchalant, as though their reputed grace is theirs by birthright. But don’t take the French study of mirrors on my word alone:

    It stands to reason that the French, more than other countries, might have understood that the mirror is not solely for looking. Whether admiration and wonderment is an elevated form of looking at ourselves, or a trap that keeps us eternally monitoring our actions even in private moments, to proclaim the mirror to be only a tool for looking—a speculum—would be a tad disingenuous.

    Perhaps I haven’t been too far off in referring to the mirror as a divination tool. Historically, alternate uses of mirror include “a crystal used in magic”; indeed, there’s an entire practice of divination via mirrors, catoptromancy (and if anyone knows a practicing catoptromantic, let me know, stat). And, of course, there’s always the verb form of mirror: to mimic, to imitate. We didn’t actually use it to mean to reflect until the 19th century, when Keats put it to use in “Lamia”: He answer’d, bending to her open eyes / Where he was mirror’d small in paradise. In other words, the first time we used mirror to mean reflect, there was not an object, but a human’s eyes, doing the reflecting.

    Which, truly, makes sense—especially for those of us who have lopped off those “eyes” by averting our gaze from the mirror. But it also might make sense etymologically: One middle form of mirror is old French miradoir, which, as I mentioned earlier, has been lost. Nobody knows exactly what miradoir means. But in this scholarly debate about the full origin of mirror, a linguist broke down the word into verb forms, “Latin agentive suffixes,” etc., and determined that there’s a good chance that miradoir means not just a thing you look at, but a thing that looks back at you.

    Month Without Mirrors Update 5.31: Recognition

    I haven’t looked at my reflection for 31 days. No mirrors, no windows, no darkened subway glass. No shadows. The goal, which I went into in greater detail at the project’s beginning, was to loosen the grip that self-consciousness has had on me for much of my life, and to allow that lightened load to grant me better access to a state of flow. Here’s how it turned out.

    *     *     *     *     *

    You, like me, probably have a mirror face. My mirror face is this:


    It’s close to my “photo face,” but it’s a separate beast. My face contorts itself not because it will be recorded for Facebook posterity, but because I desperately need to believe certain things about my appearance. My mirror face is an attempt to correct things about my visage I don’t like: The pout makes my lips fuller. The tipped chin minimizes the broad planes of my face. The widened eyes and softened gaze call attention to my best feature. You may even find me ever so slightly sucking in my cheeks. A friend of mine—whose womanly charm lies in her mix of acerbic wit and casual grace—turns into a bright-eyed, prepubescent pixie when she looks in the mirror. Like me, she has no idea she’s doing it, and when she tries to stop, it only gets worse.

    So in my mind, I’m fuller-lipped, slimmer-faced, wider-eyed than any of you would actually find me. And my adjustments are virtually uncontrollable. Which is to say: After 35 years of seeing myself in the mirror, it’s possible I still don’t really know what I look like.

    Certainly, I don’t know what my face shape is. When I was 25, I decided to find out once and for all. (Round? Oval? Heart? What kind of haircut could I possibly get?!) I used a classic ladymag tip: I took a tube of lipstick and traced the outline of my face onto the mirror. And then I got angry.

    I took the lipstick and scribbled over the circle/oval/whatever (I still don’t know what my face shape is). I covered an entire pane of my mirror, and then another, and then I went to the walls. And then I was out of lipstick so I took another, and another, and another. I coated, smeared, dragged, drew, until I had no more lipstick, no more walls, and no more mirrors.

    At the time I thought my rage was a combination of struggling with the beauty myth and generalized “quarterlife crisis” anxiety, which also saw me doing things like hacking off a foot of hair with kitchen shears and trading my magazine career for a $10-an-hour gig as a pastry cook. It was an unhappy, confusing time, and my gonzo paint job gave me some anarchic respite from the pressures of that era.

    I’m now wondering if my rage was actually stemming from what, if I were a 19th-century German philosopher, I might christen the master-mirror dialectic. G.W.F. Hegel cooked up what he calls the master-slave dialectic, which states that we’re incapable of self-consciousness without being conscious of others, and that once we become conscious of others we’re alerted to our lack of control over our lives. “A struggle to the death” ensues, in Hegel’s grandiose words, and we either become master (which later finds us needing the slave’s services, ultimately giving them control) or slave, which eventually gives us some control over the “master.” In the 1950s, grad-school rock-star psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan introduced the idea of the “mirror stage,” positing that we have this master-slave dynamic with ourselves via the mirror. Lacan compares it to being permanently trapped in a stadium of onlookers composed solely of ourselves, captivated by our own image.

    When I traced my face shape onto my mirror with lipstick, I—presumably the master—was bowing to my slave’s needs. I was reaching toward the looking-glass and willing the world contained therein to reveal great gifts: Tell me my face shape so I may never have an inappropriate haircut again, ye mirror. By using her to guide my actions, I was giving her a measure of control over me. The moment incensed me because of its overt supplication to my built-in alter ego. But it was only one of many acts that ceded control to the mirror.

    Ten years later: I went a month without looking in the mirror, initially thinking that my constant self-surveillance constituted self-objectification. Now that I’ve abandoned my mirror for a month, though, I see that my image is far too vital to have been an object. I didn’t objectify myself; rather, I treated my mirror image as a grounding strategy, as a divination tool to tell me how I should respond in any given situation, as a part of myself I can control. I treat her as both slave and master, and as someone both more beautiful and less appealing than myself.
    *     *     *     *     *

    The mirror is a quest for control. Control over the image we present to the world, sure; control over fitting the beauty standard, to a degree. Mostly, though, surveillance is an effort to carefully control our ideas about ourselves. When I pulled the plug from the mirror image, she exacted revenge by radically shifting some of those ideas. For example, about a week into this experiment, I had a nagging sensation that my head had become very, very pointy, à la Saturday Night Live's Coneheads.

    Less absurdist moments simply found me sort of forgetting what I looked like: How wide is my smile? Do I have freckles? That woman on the street with the dark eyes and high cheekbones—do I look like her? Do I even have high cheekbones? And, most important: Am I pretty?

    Except, this month, that question wasn’t particularly important. In addition to realizing that I don’t have to strive to look pretty every minute, I thought far less about looks this month than I normally do. I didn’t feel better or worse about my appearance; I rarely felt pretty or unpretty. I just didn’t care as much.

    Makeup held less appeal. I wore my glasses more. My love affair with lipstick dwindled; I wore my hair in a bun instead of the French twist I usually favor. I presented myself to the world reasonably groomed, sure. But pretty? The physical labor of prettiness took a backseat. I always believed I wore makeup for others—not for their benefit, but as a tool to help me feel more comfortable with them. After all, I don’t wear makeup at home alone, so it must have something to do with other people, right? This month I learned how much my makeup use is for my own pleasure. If I can’t reap the joys of seeing my lips turn a bright, puckery red, I simply don’t want to do it at all. If I’m my own harshest critic, I’m also my own most ardent observer—and fan.

    Some readers have picked up on this, commenting how nice it must be to look in the mirror and adore my own image so much that I need to take a month off in order to get around to things other than admiring my own visage. Rest assured, I’m not quite that enthralled with my looks. In fact, in The Second Sex Simone De Beauvoir makes it clear that enchantment with one’s image needn’t solely be a reflection of thinking we’re beautiful:

    It is not astonishing if even the less fortunate can sometimes share in the ecstasies of the mirror, for they feel emotion at the mere fact of being a thing of flesh...and since they feel themselves to be individual subjects, they can, with a little self-deception, embue their specific qualities with an individual attractiveness; they will discover in face or body some graceful, odd, or piquant trait. They believe they are beautiful simply because they are women.

    Okay, so yay us, right? Down with the tyranny of the beauty standard! Every woman is beautiful, or at least has some part of herself that’s beautiful. You’ve just got to find it, sister, and what better way to do that than the mirror? Rock on with your gorgeous self!

    Here’s the problem with that: When we look in the mirror, we rarely see ourselves. We are forever seeing a projection—what we wish to see, what we fear seeing, what we used to see. “The ego [as accessed through the mirror] is a product of misunderstanding, a false recognition,” Lacan writes. (And unless you’re the rare creature who doesn’t have a “mirror face,” how could what we see be anything but a misunderstanding?) I’ve heard some women say mirror abstinence would rob them of a hard-won acceptance of their appearance, and I don't wish to diminish that. It's hard enough to make peace with our bodies without some writer yakking at you about Lacan. But if what the mirror gives us is imagined, I wonder how far its affirmation can take any of us.

    Case in point: Try as I did to avoid it, I caught a few glimpses of myself in unanticipated mirrors. And people: I am 35, and I learned that I look it. There is nothing wrong with looking 35, or any age. But, like the majority of women, I believed I looked younger. Mathematically, the majority cannot look younger than our age. We just think we do, because we see our ego, not our selves. When I caught unexpected glimpses of myself, I saw bags under the eyes, flaccid skin. I didn’t feel bad about this per se—35 can look good, yo!—but it revealed how much I’m subtly controlling what I see when I purposefully look in the mirror as opposed to when I stumble upon myself accidentally. I am preparing, however slightly, to see the face I’m presenting. And that face—the imaginary one—looked about 28 years old until now.

    *     *     *     *     *

    I’ve had a couple of friends tell me they’re surprised, reading my blog, to find I think as intensely as I do about beauty. “You’re not one of those beauty-robot girls,” said one. She’s correct: My physical beauty labor is pretty minimal. My emotional beauty labor is another story.

    Don’t get me wrong: I’m not thinking every second about positioning myself so that my “good side” is showing, or whatever. By emotional beauty labor—a term borrowed from writer and licensed esthetician Virginia Sole-Smith’s "beauty labor" and sociologist Arlie Hochschild’s "emotional labor"I mean a sort of low-level, frequent, and unconscious acting that might, every so often, land me a plum role as a nice-looking woman. You know how when you’re wearing a nice outfit, you’ll carry yourself differently? You’re aware of being looked at, you’re aware of how your body might appear in this piece of clothing that is signaling a certain occasion. You’re not lying, but you’re acting, in a small, naturalistic way. That’s the sort of labor I’m talking about: When you are conscious of the potential of being looked at, and when your behavior is altered as a result, even if you don’t intend to do so, you—I—are working.

    When beginning the mirror fast, I kept turning to de Beauvoir’s 1953 work The Second Sex, particularly the chapter called “The Narcissist.” But throughout the month, another section of the book called to me: “The Independent Woman,” or the woman who creates her own living. That is, most of us today.

    [The independent woman] knows that she is offering herself, she knows that she is a conscious being, a subject; one can hardly...change one’s eyes into sky-blue pools at will; one does not infallibly stop the surge of a body that is straining toward the world and change it into a statue animated by vague tremors. [The independent woman] will try all the more zealously because she fears failure; but her conscious zeal is still an activity... In all this she resembles those actors who fail to feel the emotion that would relax certain muscles and so by an effort of will contract the opposing ones, forcing down their eyes or the corners of their mouth instead of letting them fall. Thus in imitating abandon the independent woman becomes tense. She realizes this, and it irritates her; over her blankly naive face, there suddenly passes a flash of all too sharp intelligence; lips soft with promise suddenly tighten. ...The desire to seduce, lively as it may be, has not penetrated to the marrow of her bones.

    Sounds exhausting, right? It is.

    Ridding myself of the mirror didn’t cure me of the push-pull of emotional beauty labor. (Not that I would know, because much of this labor is unconscious. Measuring physical beauty labor, like time spent on a manicure or money spent on tanning cream, is simpler.) But the mirror is key to its recognition: What film profiling a female performer neglects the ubiquitous shot of our heroine, in front of a mirror, looking herself squarely in the eye as she prepares to play her part?

    Clockwise, from top left: All About Eve, A Star Is Born, Les Enfants du Paradis, Black Swan.

    Taking away the mirror took away my mirror face, which is, in essence, privately performed beauty labor. So when I found myself approximating the labors of my mirror face in the presence of others—be still, chin down, be pretty—I was acutely aware of my efforts. Times I recognized I was performing emotional beauty labor: volunteering with an ESL student who has confessed a small crush on me and who looks to me for affirmation of his language skills; having drinks with someone who talked over every word I tried to utter; meeting with an acquaintance who is extraordinarily self-conscious herself and kept adjusting her makeup. In each of those situations, I was “performing”: attempting to grant the other person some comfort, or struggling to maintain some presence when my other forms of power were being ignored. I did this by appearing attentive, widening my eyes, fixing a smile that’s probably close to my ever-false mirror face, cocking my head to make a small show of my quizzical nature. This was all unconscious. The only reason I was able to detect my actions was because I hadn’t had my usual warm-up with myself in the mirror. My privately emotional beauty labor, in other words, is a hamstring stretch that gets me ready for the sprint of uncomfortable interactions in which I feel I must “perform”; without the warm-up, the effort of the race became illustrated in sharp relief.

    One of the harshest, and truest, criticisms I’ve received from people who know me well is that I’m not always as emotionally present as I should be. My response is usually that I feel so drained by other people’s needs that I have little energy to expend on being as present as I’d like. What I didn’t realize until I was unburdened from some of my self-imposed (and likely invented) expectations was exactly how much of my energy was going into appearing. Appearing to be interested, appearing to be womanly, appearing to be a professional lady, appearing to be pretty.

    No wonder I’m exhausted.

    *     *     *     *     *

    My goal was to liberate myself from self-surveillance, allowing me to better access a flow state. So, was I able to enter a flow state more freely?

    I did not waltz through the month writing Great Literature, or having shamanistic visions, or even organizing my bookcase. What did happen was that I was more in tune with myself. I felt more aware of my needs, and I took steps to allow myself to do what I needed to access flow, even if I didn’t get there often. I’m guessing this would have happened regardless; setting a goal of engaging more fully with the world prompted me to create opportunities for that to happen, mirror aside. I was on alert for blockages to flow, and some of those were mirror-related—like the emotional beauty labor I recognized in uneasy moments, or the phantom “flinches” I had about reprimanding myself for having looked in a mirror when I hadn’t.

    A greater victory was my diminished self-consciousness. Yet we need self-consciousness, and its accompanying ability to shift our persona, in order to function in the world. I fall into the trap of thinking that there’s some “authentic self” I have a responsibility to, and that any manipulation of it constitutes a betrayal. But there is no one “authentic self.” It shifts according to time, place, and company; indeed, we all rely on one another’s signals to let us know what to do with this mess of humanity.

    When I’m performing emotional beauty work, I’m letting you in on how I’d like to be seen: as a thirtysomething woman who, every so often, might want to be viewed as a pretty lady. If I make total removal of that labor my goal, I sign away certain expectations. Not expectations of human decency; expectations of, say, you understanding via my low-level obsequiousness that I want you to feel valued, or that you’ll treat a transaction with a bit more humor than you might otherwise because clearly I’m here for a good time. Or—why not?—an expectation that, every so often, you’ll hold the door for me. There’s a lady coming through. If I want to experience a certain form of femininity, with all its rituals and fleeting rewards—well, that’s what the persona and its accompanying labors are for. I’m giving you permission to respond to my portrayed self in an appropriate manner. If that sounds presumptuous, take it from sociologist Erving Goffman in The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life: “Information about the individual helps define the situation, enabling others to know in advance what he will expect of them and what they may expect of him. Informed in these ways, the others will know how best to act in order to call forth a desired response from him.”

    I missed the private joy of observing myself in a certain light. I missed the pleasure of, just before I leave the house, giving myself a final once-over, smile—yes, with my mirror face—and confirming all is well. My flowered dress that makes me feel like a gracious 1950s hostess, my hot pink number with orange piping and oversized collar that makes me feel like a creature from Alice in Wonderland—I took less pleasure than usual in wearing these, because I couldn’t observe myself partaking in the ritual of playing dress-up. I missed witnessing myself slip into a persona. Liberating myself from personae was also a relief—a big one at times. And it’s not like this past month was drudgery; far from it. Still, the sense of play I normally carry with me was muted.

    "How nice it would be if we could only get through into Looking-glass House! I'm sure it's got, oh! such beautiful things in it! Let's pretend there's a way of getting through into it somehow. // Oh, what fun it'll be, when they see me through the glass in here, and can't get at me!" —Through the Looking Glass, Lewis Carroll, illustration by John Tenniel

    Which brings me back to being master, or slave, to the mirror. Hegel’s theory that we’re forever wresting control from each other—or, in the case of the mirror, our own image—indicates that the way out is for each party to recognize that they need one another, and from there, dissolve their differences. In the case of the mirror, that could be interpreted to mean unification—a genuine recognition of the mirror as solely a handy tool for making sure we don’t have stray ink on our cheek. Not an oracle, not someone with control over us, not something to turn to as an emotional divination rod.

    Yet I’m under no illusion that I can somehow unite with my mirror image to become whole. (And—shall I state the obvious?—there’s nobody there to unite with. Coneheads trickery aside, I’m the only one who actually exists. Twist ending!) I’ve tried to rid myself of my mirror face and failed; I understand that I can never be an objective viewer of myself. But I can recognize differences between myself and my image, the first step toward dissolution.

    I can recognize that my mirror face is not how I appear to the rest of the world, and honor that perhaps my mild self-delusion is the adult version of the child who wonders what she’ll look like when she grows up—fanciful, woefully inaccurate, but bringing minimal harm as long as its falsity is understood. I can recognize that my beauty labor—emotional and physical—is largely for myself, and evaluate what purpose it’s serving, allowing me to see what I can keep and what I should discard. I can recognize that the mirror allows me access to a part of my femininity that’s tucked away otherwise, and be thankful for that key. And maybe, with practice, I’ll come closer to recognizing myself.

    Month Without Mirrors 5.26 Update: Clothes Shopping!

    Clothes shopping when you've banned yourself from mirrors requires a different sort of trust than the sort you'd normally put in a total stranger. I'm loath to ask sales staff what they think of any particular garment on me—the worst of all possible shopping worlds being when the saleslady bullies me into coming out of the dressing room (I'll come out of the dressing room at will, but trust me, if you push me to model a piece that looks hideous I will only be embarrassed, and you will lose a sale); the mirror is the saving grace. I don't even like to take friends shopping with me for that reason: I don't want to saddle them with the responsibility of telling me what works and what doesn't.

    But! In the name of research (of course) I gave blind clothes shopping a whirl recently. I was turned on to a Dutch line, King Louie, which creates feminine, made-to-move clothes appropriate for a city that breathes bicycling. I'm trying to revamp my wardrobe to include dresses that don't require heels or sucking in the beer gut I acquired last year during a three-month stint in Prague, and this seemed like a good opportunity. I generally know what colors and cuts suit me, so I walked into the store confident that maybe I wouldn't even need help—only to find that the cuts of the dresses I found most appealing weren't the type I normally wear (the type I normally wear being the sort that requires...heels and gut-sucking). They didn't have any of my personal no-nos (pleats, for example), but they were out of my safety zone of fitted scoop-neck sheaths. But this raspberry dress with a blousy top and sash looked so...comfortable! No gut-sucking! Flat sandals! Mobility!

    I tried it on, then stood in the dressing room unsure of what to do. I could tell that it fit right just by looking down and by how it felt, but as far as how it looked? No idea. Plus, I'm not great with draping and sashes and stuff, but damn if I didn't feel relaxed in this thing. I had to ask the sales staff, and I just sort of crossed my fingers that the famous Dutch nonchalant frankness would mean that the hard sell would lose out over honesty.

    In fact, that's just what happened—I hope. I had to ask her what she thought instead of simply wait for her to proffer her opinion. She looked me up and down and said it worked on me, and that it was the dress that every single staffer had purchased. Then she looked at my face and saw what I imagine looked like worry: I was comfortable in the store, but clearly a foreigner, and clearly anxious. "You can always ask what we think," she said, and smiled. "It's what we're here for."

    I think of myself as a pretty trusting person, but it hadn't ever occurred to me that, in fact, that is what a salesperson is there for. I mean, of course they're also there to make a sale, and the emotional labor of the salesperson means that they have to flatter and fawn in order to do so. But a good salesperson knows better than to do that falsely.

    Um, that's what I'm banking on, anyway.

    The exchange got me on a no-mirror high, and I purchased not only that dress, but two others (I did take a quick peek at my butt to make sure a knit dress didn't reveal a terrible panty line). At another shop, I purchased a vintage early 20th-century linen nightgown that makes me feel like I'm on Downton Abbey. The nightgown was, well, a nightgown, so sizing wasn't an issue; in fact, I didn't try it on. But I wonder if I'd have purchased it were I not doing the mirror experiment. One thing I've missed during this experiment is the pleasure of briefly feeling like I've stepped into a sort of fantasy life, even when it's really just my own. I wrote in my initial mirror post of catching a glimpse of myself with pencils in my hair and thinking, My, don't I look like a writer?; this experiment was meant, in part, to turn such notions inward. But sometimes it's just fun to feel like I'm inviting another world into my private sphere. I am not pre-WWI nobility, but wearing a loose linen nightgown with delicate stitching on top with my hair loose over my shoulders certainly makes me feel like pre-WWI nobility. My longing for play can take a precarious turn into a sort of semi-permanent acting, in which I'm so aware of appearing that I lose the focus on being. But play needn't be sacrificed for self.

    I figured this photo doesn't show anything except my chin that I can't already see,
    so even though I'm abstaining from looking at photos of myself, I can look at this. And so can you!

    The last time I did a conscious "play" experience with my bombshell makeover, I felt unmoored from the experience. It revealed myths I've told myself over the years, and showed me exactly how much I fear putting myself out there. But there are different sorts of play, some of which are private, others of which are public. Becoming comfortable with private forms of persona might open up the doors for me to feel more fluid—more authentic—in allowing myself the public forms of play. One of my favorite outfits—khaki shirtdress with neckerchief and Mary Jane heels—was dubbed "stewardess chic" by a coworker, a description that fills me with a 1970s glamour glee whenever I think of her term. It's stewardess chic, but it's still me, and I suppose that's the difference. I'd like to learn how to experiment more with that sort of playful attitude toward my appearance in public. This mirror fast is helping me develop the core that I'll need in order to do that without feeling like I'm merely acting, and poorly at that. I'm not there yet. For now, I've just got my nightgown. You may call me Lady Whitefield.

    Month Without Mirrors 5.25 Update: You Don't Always Have to Look Pretty

    When I was walking around wearing my glasses the other day (in public! gasp!) and not caring a whit about how I looked, I had a thought I'd never had before. It is so elementary that it's embarrassing to let you know that this thought had literally never, ever crossed my mind before, but here goes: You don't always have to be pretty.

    Mind you, I don't walk through life always believing that I am pretty. But I do walk through life believing that I should be, always, without exception. I'm not talking well-groomed and hygienic; I'm talking pretty. Every day, to some degree, involves considering how close to my standard of personal prettiness I get. Some days I hit it; others I don't, and on those days I  have to reconcile myself with knowing that I don't look the way I'd like to. I'm thankful that I have the ability to make that reconciliation most of the time, for it's certainly better on the brain than a negative cycle of berating myself. Still, it is effort. It's a state of unease: I am reconciling, not being.

    But then, there it was, that little kernel of a thought just popping into my mind: You don't always have to be pretty. On this particular day, I was makeup-free, with my hair tied back into a bun, wearing loose, comfortable clothing. I looked perfectly normal, but I didn't look how I normally do—which is hardly glammed to the max, but I'm nearly always wearing light makeup and contact lenses, and with my hair either down (which gives me a vaguely bohemian look, I fancy) or in an updo (which, the other day, elicited the best compliment ever: "You look so French"). On my glasses day, I imagine I appeared as someone who just didn't give a second thought to how she looked—I was sporting all the signals of, say, the frumpy friend on a sitcom.

    Well, here I look more like the unhinged/sweaty sitcom friend, but since I can't view new photos of myself this month and this is one of exactly two glasses photos I have, you'll just have to trust me.

    That's just the thing, though: I imagine I appeared in such a way, because without looking in a mirror, I really have no idea. I've seen myself plenty of times without makeup and wearing my glasses, but it's happened so rarely in public that I had no idea of how I looked on that particular day. I could only go on feel. As for that: I felt...comfortable. I felt an ease in my movement, a looseness in my joints. I felt frumpy, yes, and a little clunky, a little adolescent (my recent seventh-grade snapshot on Before You Were Hot can let you know what my adolescence looked like). I was freed from the ever-so-slight but constant irritation my contact lenses bring this time of year due to seasonal allergies. I was freed from wondering if I was observed: I was pretty sure I looked unremarkable, veering on invisible, and instead of feeling slighted, I felt open. I noticed people noticing one another, and in my observations of their sly looks I realized I was removing myself from the equation altogether. People may have looked at me, but since it was harder for me to form any notions of what they were thinking, I felt a distance from social interactions—a freedom from the quiet, constant social game we all play.

    The feeling was new (and fleeting, I might add), and for people who struggle to feel visible in this world, the sensation might be unwelcome. But traditionally I haven't feared feeling invisible; I fear being seen in a way I don't wish to be seen. That is: I fear a loss of control over how others see me—a control that none of us has to begin with.

    Letting go of the imaginary control the mirror gives forces me to not only replace that control with trust—in myself and in the world around me—it forces me to lift the controls I believed I have over my physical allure. I thought I always had to look pretty because I thought it was something that was within my control, when it isn't. Yes, I take various measures to meet a certain standard of attractiveness. But I can't do a damn thing to ensure that you think I'm pretty; none of us can, really. Clean, groomed, and reasonable, yes. Beyond that? It's up to you, not me.

    I've learned that lesson, somewhat harshly on occasion, in the course of publishing beauty pieces elsewhere. Previously, I've attributed people's occasionally negative comments about my looks as being a reaction not to my relatively inoffensive face, but to the audacity of a woman talking about how she looks without apologizing for her myriad flaws. Truthfully, though, that's only part of it. The other part is that some people are just going to think I'm un-pretty, and that is completely beyond my control. When I relinquished that imaginary control by giving up the mirror, I also slowly began to relinquish what I had come to believe was my responsibility as a woman to be pretty at all times. I can't control it to begin with, so saddling myself with that responsibility is like studying for the craps table. You can learn how to maneuver the odds, but at its heart, it's a game of luck.

    The second of two glasses photos in my possession. (Here, I am sporting my
    outrageously terrible attempt at a fishtail braid, hence the expression of forlorn defeat.)

    Make no mistake: I'm not saying I don't want to look pretty. I do. But in that sliver of a moment when I heard my head whisper You don't always have to be pretty, I saw a momentary respite from the self-imposed duty that doesn't cease. I saw a way that maybe I can treat the performance of femininity as a mantle I can ease into when I wish, and shrug off when I desire, turning my small, constant efforts into a tool box instead of a rote daily checklist that keeps me occasionally pleased, occasionally disappointed, and never satisfied. I saw that just as much as none of us ever have to choose between smart and pretty, that there can be power in opting out from pretty at will, just as there can be a power in opting into it at times.

    I saw that glimmer of possibility, felt it slither through my brain. And just as quickly as it came, it left again.

    Thoughts on a Word: Vainglorious

    Sarah Frye Valencius creates clothes that serve as a uniform for the creative mind: “I want to design unfussy, non-body-conscious clothing for women who care about fashion but can’t afford to be distracted by it all day,” she says. Minimizing fuss and maximizing concentration, her work incorporates features like playful pocket and closures, always with an eye toward clean, elegant lines. (You can follow one strain of her style inspiration at French Spy Movie.) Given that one of the goals of my mirror fast is increasing opportunities for reaching a flow state, is it any wonder I’m eager for her work to hit New York? Her ready-to-wear line will debut this fall—but it’s the name of her just-launched custom clothing website, Vainglorious, that prompted me to ask her to do a guest word post.

    It’s rare you happen upon the word vainglorious anymore. A tantalizing word, even if its meaning isn’t readily apparent.  There is something in all those vowels, the exotic v, the sexy s, the righteous glory tucked in the middle, that elicits an emotional understanding. The first time I read the word vainglorious  I was compelled to say it aloud. I wanted to feel all those shapes in my mouth—archaic, ornamental, indulgent.

    Vainglory is derived from the medieval Latin words vāna (empty) and glōria (boasting).The entry for vainglory in my dusty, trusty, 1936 Webster’s Unabridged reads as follows:
    noun. glory, pride or boastfulness that is vain; vanity that is excited by one’s own performances; empty pride; undue elation of mind
    Originally, vainglory was part of the Eight Deadly Sins (which were, by the way, gluttony, lust, avarice, sadness, anger, acedia, vainglory, and pride) but Pope Gregory the Great found the list a bit redundant, and in the 6th century vainglory got folded into pride. This same pope also shook up the sins’ traditional order of severity, naming the new pride-combo-sin as offense numero uno, for being the greatest crime against love.

    So if vainglory is such a dangerous thing, what happened to it? Why isn’t vainglory a word hissed in girls’ locker rooms, or thrown at crowing politicians? It’s as though getting bumped off The Deadlies was the equivalent of becoming a Hollywood has-been, and vainglory went the way of avarice and acedia—so last century.

    But that little Latin vāna soldiered on, becoming vain and finding favor with English speakers via Old French.  It maintained its meaning of “empty” until the late 13th century, when it started also being used to describe “conceit”. Did the ostentatious finery of the Baroque period prompt this expansion of vain’s applicability? I wouldn’t be surprised.

    The use of vain to describe self-obsession has had impressive staying power over the past 700 years, and it maintains the stigma of sin, even if unofficially. Vain characters rarely go unpunished in western tradition. It’s the driving motivation behind many a storybook villain, most blatantly the Wicked Queen in Snow White.  It was also Madame Bovery’s vanity that had her questing for the fine clothing and jewelry which would be her downfall. My favorite childhood film, Death Becomes Her, features Meryl Streep and Goldie Hawn’s comic efforts to stay young and beautiful that leave them literately shattered by movie’s end.

    Perhaps the most memorable appearance of vanity in the past fifty years is Carly Simon’s infectious tune “You’re So Vain”, a '70s slander song whose subject's identity has been much speculated on over the years. Simon’s refusal to name names may speak to the staying power of vanity as a slur. It also made it a hit. Pop music has been singing about “you” since its inception, a neat trick that offers the listener a choice of identifying as the singer or the song’s subject. When the Beatles howl “I Wanna Hold Your Hand,” you could just as easily imagine singing the lines to your crush, as you could John Lennon singing directly to you, wanting to hold your hand. That’s part of the appeal and discomfort of “You’re So Vain”—if you don’t have a narcissistic someone in mind as you sing along with the radio, it starts to feel like she might be singing about you. An ingenious lyrical maneuver on Simon’s part—she bends the accusation back on itself, trapping you with the line: You probably think this song is about you, don’t you? (Don’t you?)

    Maybe Pope Gregory was onto something when he said vainglory and pride were the deadliest of sins. A vain woman is easily more scorned than a lusty Lothario, an angry bus driver, or a slothy college student. It just rubs us the wrong way. When we tease apart those twin sins of pride and vanity, pride is obviously the more forgivable (the proud papa, proud employee, or proud fiancé). The vain are rarely humored like the proud are.

    I’d go as far to say that we have a fear of vanity. What else could send our words stumbling when we receive a compliment on our appearance after we put so much effort into it? One of the first feminine acts we teach our girls is how to demure...right after we’ve instructed them on the value of being beautiful. Why are we guarding ourselves so closely against vanity accusations? I think there’s guilt that lies deep in our puritanical bones, for all the hours we spend primping and all the dollars we lay down at the cosmetics counter. We feel guilt for wanting to be beautiful, trying to be beautiful, and the audacity for thinking our efforts might work.

    The mind is a clever thing and has no trouble justifying our labors of beauty as “fixing imperfections” rather than conceiving of them as acts of vanity. The latter is a sin but the former is expected of us. It’s perfect pro-American-consumer-Calvinistic behavior—fed by advertisers, reinforced by magazines, handed down from mother to daughter, and passed around like a gossipy note from girl to girl. The scorn of vanity and the contempt of ugliness form a double-edged sword that cuts us however it falls. 

    All Is Vanity, C. Allan Gilbert, 1892

    It’s fascinating that we live in a culture that expects us to worship the mirror, but not (god forbid) what it reflects. We line up like doomed queens and await the mirror’s judgement. But we aren’t asking “Who’s the fairest?” We are asking “What’s wrong with me?”  And the mirror answers so readily: dark circles, fine lines, large pores, furry brows, zits, yellow teeth, thin lashes, sagging jowls. We know what to look for and we know the correcting products available.  It’s not considered vanity to work on these crimes against beauty; self-hate is your saving grace. But if you dare admire what you see, you are surely damned as Dorian Grey. The only vanity allowed is the table and mirror you sit at. 
    Walk the walk, don’t talk the talk. Put on heels, swing your hips, and pucker those lips. Celebrities, the current standard of beauty, are well trained in this dance. When stopped on the red carpet they know exactly how to slide out of questions about their beauty. Just once I want Angelina Jolie to say: “Yeah, I am beautiful and it’s fucking awesome.” And then I want Brad Pitt to say: “Damn straight.” Wouldn’t that be refreshing? I think that’s why I find characters like Amanda from Ugly Betty or Santana from Glee so delicious. I can’t get enough of them. It’s not just their vanity I love, it’s their vainglory.

    Of course vainglory extends beyond proclaiming one’s hotness. Its boasting and folly applies to all types of inflated ego and self-promotion or, really, any pursuit of grandeur. Considering we are neck deep in the Internet Age—masters of Facebook, Twitter, Tumblrs, blogs, and experts in self-branding—I think we are ripe for a return of vainglorious to our lexicon.  I also think it’s time we stop beating ourselves up in front of the mirror. If you are going to spend so much time and money on beauty, you might as well take a little pride in it.

    And so we are at the beginning again. I saw that beautiful word, vainglorious, boastfully bursting off the page. And I thought: Yes. Perfect. Glorious. This will be the name of my fashion endeavors. Even though my dresses were conceived in the most humble manner, my effort and doubts puncturing the fabric with every stitch, I am proud of the finished product. I’m getting better with each thing I make and I am going for it—going for the glory. And when a woman puts on one of my designs, I hope she is too.

    Month Without Mirrors 5.23 Update: Amsterdam

    I've been in Amsterdam for the past week, and since this is not a travel blog I will not go on about bicycles and tulips and the best rijsttafel you could ever wish to have (Cilubang on Runstraat, for the record). What I will tell you is that in early April, when I decided I'd do a month-long mirror fast sometime soon and the month of May presented itself as the obvious choice, I thought, No, wait, I can't do it in May, because I'll be going to Amsterdam for a week.

    This wasn't the kind of glitch thinking that got me confusing graham crackers and anonymous Adonises (Adonii?) with my reflection. I put thought into this. Obviously I couldn't go to Amsterdam without looking in a mirror, because in an unfamiliar environment I'd need the assurance that I look okay in order to get through the day and feel okay. I remember a whirlwind party night in Spain 10 years ago; the first thing I did upon stumbling back to my hotel room was take a photo of myself in the bathroom mirror. I was having the time of my life but needed an anchor after the frenzy of nightclubbing in an exotic locale. Looking in the mirror wasn't enough; knowing that I'd taken photos of me and my new amigos throughout the night wasn't enough. I needed tangible proof that I was still me, that I still had a center amid all the unfamiliarity. The photo wound up being not of me in the mirror but of the floor tile—this was before digital cameras, and after plenty of cuba libres—but I kept it anyway, because I knew what it meant at the moment I snapped it.

    So I'm a reasonably seasoned traveler, but I still crave the security blanket the mirror provides. Knowing that the incidence of confusion and disorientation will be higher than usual when visiting a country I haven't been to before, I don't think it's illogical that I wanted to stick with one aspect of my usual routine in order to maximize my comfort. But I couldn't stop thinking about the mirror project, and impatience won out over unease. I told myself that being in a foreign city while under the mirror restriction would be an interesting experience; how would I function without this particular touchstone, this crutch of self in the midst of the unfamiliar?

    Here is how I functioned: I drank beer. I went to the flower market. I ate aged gouda, and strolled along canals, and watched Dutch people in ponchos ride their bikes in the rain. I slept in and lazed about, I got swept along in the hordes of Amsterdammers who were celebrating the city's triumph in a football rivalry, I spent long nights in bruin cafes with my gentleman friend. I saw the works of Rembrandt and Vermeer, and saw the streets they painted. I stood very still in the hidden quarters of a teenaged girl whose diary I read long ago. I watched the city wake up on a Sunday morning, ate a stroopwaffel smothered in coffee caramel, and got the thrilled shiver I always get when I hear European police sirens.

    In short, I was gezellig, the untranslatable Dutch state of sharing a warm, relaxed conviviality. You might say that in some ways, I was experiencing a level of flow.

    Things I was not experiencing: anxiety over whether I looked "too American." Worry over whether the misty air was making my hair frizzy. The search for the perfect canal with the perfect light to take the perfect picture of myself with my traveling companion, as looking at photos of myself is also verboten this month. Primping before dinner: a dusting of powder is all I could do without bringing out the hand mirror, which, when there's a whole Golden Age city to be explored, suddenly seemed like a waste of time.

    The Netherlands were a particularly good place for me to be traveling during a mirror fast. I talked with a sociologist there about how Dutch women on the whole experience less appearance-related anxiety than American women; certainly the women there were dressed much more low-key than they are in New York. The constant bicycling, the rainy weather, the Calvinist tradition, the practical nature of the Dutch, the social equality of women: All these add up to a culture in which getting dolled up isn't exactly a national pastime. So I didn't feel dumpy in my travel uniform: sensible rubber-soled shoes, jeans, hoodie and raincoat, hair pulled back into a bun. (I did, however, feel dwarfish.)

    But I can't attribute my relaxed state to Amsterdam alone. Something shifted before I set foot on the plane. In fact, something concrete shifted that very morning: I wore glasses for the flight. I never wear my glasses out of the house, and have convinced myself it's because I'm light-sensitive (which I am), but really it's because I'm so self-conscious in them that I'm miserable the second I walk out the door. But on a long flight glasses are definitely preferable, as I prefer to nap away my time—so I wore glasses. And when it turned out that the world does not stop, point, and laugh when I did so, I wore them again to a nice dinner.

    In fact, I wore them to the rijsttafel dinner I mentioned. Rijsttafel is the Dutch Indonesian traditional dinner of a bevy of small plates; the entire affair takes hours, and every single dish was a delight. It was a celebration dinner—part early birthday celebration (me, 35), part toast to a successful talk at an academic conference (my gentleman friend). He, too, is bespectacled. After hours of nibbling on curried cauliflower, soy beef, coconut pork, saté vegetables, and fried banana, I leaned in for a kiss. Our spectacles clinked. We laughed.

    It would be a nice ending here if I could say that in that moment I felt more beautiful than I ever had. That wasn't the case; I felt dorky (do couples with glasses practice?), but sincere, and happy. I felt open and tender, like I did the first time I ever kissed a boy and didn't know what I should be doing. I felt intimate, cozy—gezellig, if you will. I felt warm and satisfied. I felt present, and quiet, existing in the eyes of someone I care for, and he existing in mine. I did not feel beautiful. It did not matter.

    Month Without Mirrors 5.12 Update: Who, and What, I See in the Mirror Other Than Myself

    Note: This is a reposting of an entry that was deleted by Blogger during their recent malfunction. Apologies to those wonderfully loyal readers who may have this show up in their RSS feeds twice.

    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.

    Month Without Mirrors 5.11 Update: Using Mirrors and Strangers as Emotional Divinity Rods

    Three days into my mirror fast, I had an appointment at which I wanted to look nice. I put on my favorite dress, applied makeup with my little hand mirror, and marched to the subway. I had no idea whether my face possessed the bright-eyed sparkle that makes me feel pretty when I see it in the mirror, or whether it was one of those days when my skin looked haggard, exposed, tired. I knew I looked presentable, but that was all I could be reasonably certain of.

    On the subway, I busied myself with reading, a handy activity especially now that adjusting my hair in the window glass is verboten. At one point, though, I looked up and saw the man sitting across from me looking squarely at my face. I held his gaze for a moment, then looked away.

    In other words, I had a thoroughly unremarkable silent exchange with a stranger. Happens a dozen times a day in this city.

    Louis Stettner, Subway Series, 1946

    Here's what made this different for me: I found myself utterly clueless as to what he was thinking, and therefore how to feel about it. Was he checking me out with approval, or was he thinking I looked jowly? Did he find my lipstick too bright, or believe I resembled an old friend of his, or decide that I'd be prettier if I wore my hair down—or were his eyes simply roaming the car and settling on me for a moment? Did I need to avoid his eyes for the rest of the ride; should I offer a friendly smile?

    Had I looked in the mirror earlier that day and formed a self-assessment of how I looked, I'd have chosen one of these options without even considering the others. I'd have done it so quickly I wouldn't have realized there were other reasons someone's eyes might have landed on mine. When I stripped away the mirror, though, I had to see that I'm rarely reacting to other people's actual appraisal of me. I'm not even reacting to my interpretation of their appraisal. I'm reacting to my appraisal of myself, using perfect strangers as my proxy.

    If I look in the mirror and assess that I'm particularly fetching one day and I later see a stranger looking at me, I assume he's looking at me with approval. If I'm having a "bad face day" and I see someone looking at me, I feel defensive, like, Why are you looking at me? Essentially, my perception of what strangers see becomes a barometer—not of how I actually look, which doesn't change significantly from day to day, but how I feel I look. In other words, I'm farming out responsibility for how I feel to total strangers, when in truth it's been decided before I've even left the house.

    I wouldn't have ever thought I did that, but my unmoored reaction on the subway (and other times this week) showed me that I've been assigning a lot to these small, otherwise meaningless interactions. Not feeling like I had an accurate reading of whether that fellow was looking at me with approval, disdain, lust, curiosity, attraction, or repulsion left me feeling adrift. I had no anchor to hold onto, no private feeling of, "Well, I do look nice today" or "I wish he would stop staring at the enormous pimple on my chin." Without having any idea what he might be seeing, I had no idea how I should feel about him looking at me.

    No wonder I have complex reactions to street encounters.

    *   *   *   *   *

    Reclining Bacchante, Trutat, 1824–1848

    You may at this point be wondering if I am truly so narcissistic as to believe that any stranger who looks at me not only has thoughts about me, but has extensive reactions to my appearance. No, I'm not that narcissistic, I hope; I know full well that chances are they are thinking about fantasy baseball, or whether Boston Rob will win Survivor, or what's for dinner. I'm also not so delusional as to think that under normal circumstances I can accurately detect what, if anything, strangers are thinking about the way I look. In fact, that's the whole point: Even when I make a snap decision about what a stranger's glance—or lingering stare—might mean, in truth I have no idea. My interpretation is what matters here, not their actual thoughts (or, more likely, their lack thereof).

    Some might say that this signals a healthy internal barometer—that instead of relying upon reactions of others to feel beautiful, I rely upon my own assessment. That might hold weight if my self-assessment didn't fluctuate so wildly from day to day—which it does, far out of proportion from the minute ways in which my actual appearance varies. Hell, it might hold weight if that self-assessment were tied to how I actually look instead of some other combination of factors. One of the biggest surprises I had upon losing nearly 20% of my body weight several years ago was that my number of "fat days" didn't significantly change. A little bit, yes—but I wouldn't even say that they went down 20% along with my body mass. A common refrain among body-image and eating disorder experts is "fat is not a feeling"; nothing drove this home for me more than looking in the mirror, seeing that I didn't have any weight to comfortably lose, and still having a "fat day." No, fat isn't a feeling. It just plays one in your mind.

    What I see in the mirror serves as either a confirmation or refutation of how I'm feeling. If I'm feeling pretty, with rare exception I'm going to look in the mirror and see a matching image. If I'm feeling lousy, I might look in the mirror and see only flaws, or I'll exhale a tiny sigh of relief that at least nothing on my face has rearranged itself without my consent. But it doesn't actually reassure me; it can't, because the feelings I'm looking to soothe or affirm aren't on my face or body to begin with.

    I'm using the mirror as a divining rod of my emotional and mental state. To be sure, not every encounter on the subway requires use of a more reliable instrument; in fact, most don't. Certainly this one didn't. But until I develop a better tool than the mirror to deduce how I'm feeling—and, when necessary, how to act upon it—I'll feel adrift when I needn't. What will happen when the waters are rockier?