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!

    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.

    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."

    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.

    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?

    Month Without Mirrors 5.9.11 Update: My Mirror Shroud, Hair Care, and Going to the Gym

    One of the cooler things that's happened as a result of this project is cyber-meeting a California academic who's also abstaining from mirrors—for a year. Not just any year: the year in which she's getting married. I love her description of plotting out mirror-avoidance with her fiance; she's also exaining mirror-themed poems and books. I'm looking forward to reading more on her blog, Mirror Mirror Off the Wall, and you should totally check it out! She's contemplating not even looking at her wedding photos until after the experiment is over; wonderful proof that the "bridezilla" phenomenon gets attention because it makes women look cray-cray. It's thoughtful, reflective stories like hers that are probably more representative of women on the eve of marriage.

    "I bought it.  I loved it.  It loved me.  Until... somehow... we fell out of love. Mirrors are to blame."
    —Mirror Mirror Off the Wall

    Her "rules" entry prompted me to clarify something that caused some eyebrows to raise; a couple of  commenters felt that my use of a hand mirror to apply makeup went against the whole point. (In fact, some felt that wearing makeup, period, went against the whole point. But this experiment isn't about my relationship to beauty standards; it's about my relationship with the mirror. Dig?) I am indeed using a hand mirror to apply makeup, but I'm using it at close range so that only the feature I'm able to see is the one being worked on. (In fact, the below shot is a broader scope than what I normally see, but anything closer made photographing this an impossibility.) And I quickly realized that I only need it for eyes and lips; the rest of my makeup, I apply blindly.

    My handy accomplice.

    A few people have also expressed quiet concern for the eeriness of having one's mirrors shrouded, as though I'm sitting shiva for myself. But look! My mirror veil is pink and froofy and adorable and makes use of my enormous collection of vintage slips that are far too synthetic to feel comfortable lounging around in! Betty Draper in da house!

    The biggest practical concern I've had thus far has been something I wish I'd put more thought into: That other beauty experiment of mine, the no-shampoo bit. It's not styling my hair that's problematic (I usually either wear it loose or in a purposefully disheveled updo anyway); it's dealing with the greasies. Because as much as I crow about how fantastic life is up here on my shampoo-free perch, the only reason it's fantastic is because I've made good use of dry shampoos and hair powders. I don't use them daily, but I do rely on them, and without those tools I'd look, well, terrible. And again: The point of this experiment is not to see what happens if I walk around in public with toothpaste on my shirt, lipstick on my chin, and hair like a particularly bedraggled Dean Martin. In fact, I need to look reasonably neat in order for this experiment to work: I want to not think about how I look, not be concerned about whether I look poorly groomed. So I present to you my workaround:

    If I feel my hair and it seems like it could use a touch-up, I lift up the white slip and find this cutout shaped to my face, which allows me to see where I need to apply some product to my hair, without seeing my face. My hair is rarely the concern when I look in the mirror anyway, so I'm satisfied with this solution. (My "bad face days" outnumber my "bad hair days" by probably a 12:1 margin—that is, assuming both of those are gauged internally, not by how your face or hair actually looks, which, in my case, is pretty much the same day-to-day.)

    It's been surprisingly easy to avoid mirrors: With only a handful of exceptions, I've been good about anticipating panes of glass and unexpected mirrors. (Why do so many elevators have mirrors? I've never noticed that before!) I was out and about plenty this week but was working from home; this week, I'm working in an office—a famously image-conscious office, at that. The company cafeteria features a funhouse-style mirror at its exit; of the architecture, the New York Times writes, "Gazelles and other svelte creatures pass along a wall of rippling mirrors. Their figures merge, contort, morph and liquefy. The panoramic image changes constantly, forming and reforming in the eye of the beholder. Why shouldn't beauty flow into the soul like a fresh scent strip?" This place will be home base for the next week, folks. I'll resist the temptation to peek (never fear!), but being in an environment where image-consciousness is turned up to 11 and having no clue how I look will be an exercise in self-restraint, that's for sure.

    As for other shared spaces: I admit to feeling slightly foolish at the gym when I turn away from the mirror to do my biceps curls, but the side benefit is that gym rats are less likely to gawk when you're facing them head-on. A more direct benefit is that without intending to, I've been able to do more reps, with both biceps curls and triceps extensions, which are the two exercises I usually perform directly in front of a mirror.

    Previously, I'd believed I felt inspired by looking in the mirror at my muscles as I'd pump iron. I'm not a fitness fiend, but I lift the heaviest weights I can when I work my arms, and it shows. Most of the time I feel pretty good about that. I grew up thinking my body was incapable of doing anything remotely athletic: I saw no problem with sitting down on the T-ball field to pick dandelions; I couldn't ride a bike until I was 31; I would invariably feign illness the day of The Mile, when all students had to run a timed mile in P.E. class. Before joining a neighborhood gym for the first time, at age 25, I actually spent the day at a gym in the Bronx—an hour subway ride away—so that there would be zero chance anyone I knew would witness my trial and humiliating errors. So for me to not only be lifting weights but having actual muscle to show for it is still a thrill for me, and I love seeing my (moderately sized) biceps bulge when I'm straining to complete my last few reps.

    But at some point in those minutes, probably once a session, I think of the time an ex-boyfriend called me a "bruiser," or the time we were watching the scene in Fargo where Shep beats up Steve Buscemi's character (NSFW) and he squeezed my arm and told me I was "built like Shep"—who, while undeniably powerful, doesn't exactly embody the look I'm after.  

    Or I simply see that the muscles I've worked so hard for are snuggled into the layer of fat that surrounds them, which doesn't particularly bother me unless I'm, say, intensely focusing on the way my arms look. Which is exactly what I do every time I do biceps curls.

    When I face away from the mirror, my workout becomes only about how I feel. I truly thought that it already was, mind you; but removing my self-observation cuts off one avenue for my thoughts to wander to appearance, not performance. Yes, I lift weights in part to look better. But my muscules will develop regardless of whether I'm observing the way I look during exercise, and my self-surveillance robs me of the opportunity to focus solely on the flexing and retracting of my muscle. In short: When I observe myself lifting weights, I'm impeding my flow, which is what I'm after. When I'm just lifting, however, I can harness resources that are stunted by my reflection.

    It's still too early to tell how I'll emerge from this project mentally and emotionally—but if this keeps up, I'll emerge stronger in at least one way.

    Little Girl in the Mirror, a Play in One Act

    The scene: Pret a Manger, 3rd Avenue, Manhattan
    The time: The present
    The players: 
    • Olivia, a girl of approximately five years old wearing a pink raincoat with small printed umbrellas, sparkly barrettes, and a backpack with purple shapes of indeterminate significance
    • Autumn, an amateur sociologist of 34 who is wearing a hunter-green shirtdress and has not washed her hair for several months nor looked in the mirror for five days; nonetheless, she has a vaguely professional air
    • Grandmother of Olivia, a sixtysomething woman with a silk handkerchief covering her hair

    Autumn is seated on a bench working furiously on her laptop. Olivia enters and stands next to Autumn. In front of Olivia is a mirrored column. Olivia stares at her reflection.

    Autumn: Are you looking at yourself?
    Olivia: Yeah.
    Autumn: Do you like doing that?
    Olivia: Yeah. My imaginary friends do too.
    Autumn: Do you see them in the mirror?
    Olivia: Yes. Molly is there [gestures to her right] and Hadley is here [gestures to her left].
    Autumn: So they look in the mirror when you do?
    Olivia: Yeah, but they wear different things. Molly has lots of coats to wear when it's raining and Hadley only puts on dresses at night.
    Autumn: But do Molly and Hadley both look like you in the face?
    Olivia: No. Molly's teeth sparkle.

    Enter Grandmother of Olivia.

    Grandmother of Olivia: Olivia, we've got to go.
    Olivia: Okay.*
    Autumn: But we're not done talking about the seeds of self-objectification in the young female mind, which are of particular note here as subject is in the phallic stage of Freudian psychosexual development, thus the triangular division of herself from Molly and Hadley, who signifies her wish to unite with her father.
    Grandmother of Olivia: Oh, go wash your fucking hair, lady.

    [End scene]

    *Everything to this point was real. This starts young, folks.

    Why I'm Not Looking in a Mirror for a Month

    As of 12:01 a.m. Sunday, May 1, 2011, I’ve embarked on a monthlong mirror fast. Thirty-one days of no mirrors, store windows, shiny pots, spoons, or the dark glass of the subway.

    My personal bathroom mirror is shrouded; my windows will either be open at night or be covered with drawn blinds so that I can’t sneak a peek. At public places and the homes of others, I will avert my eyes where I know there’s a mirror, and will look away as quickly as possible if I run into an unexpected reflection. The only exception to this will be the use of a handheld mirror to apply makeup—I will apply my skin products (serum, tinted moisturizer) without looking, but will use a small mirror for the color products (eyebrow pencil, eyeliner, mascara, and lipstick). I am also allowing a small hand mirror to be used to spot-check for spinach in my teeth. Deal? I’m doing it this way because not wearing makeup for a month is another sort of challenge, and I don’t want this experiment to be about not wearing makeup for a month; I specifically want it to be about the dozens—perhaps hundreds—of times each day that I look in the mirror for no practical reason. 


    *    *    *    *    *

    Marilyn, Annika Connor

    I purposefully say “no practical reason,” because there are plenty of reasons that I look in the mirror as frequently as I do, reasons that go beyond checking for lipstick smears or unreasonable hair. To be clear: I am not bound to my mirror. Some acquaintances reading this may be puzzled as to why I believe a mirror fast will be a challenge for me; I’m not prone to pulling out a hand mirror to check my makeup, and I don’t give off the vibe of someone who can’t be torn away from her own image. I don’t know how often the average woman looks in the mirror; I’m guessing I’m about on par, perhaps shying toward the more frequent end of the scale. So I’m not particularly concerned that the time I spend in front of the mirror is consuming me.

    What I am concerned about is the uncomfortable recognition I had when reading John Berger’s Ways of Seeing. He writes:

    A woman must continually watch herself. She is almost continually accompanied by her own image of herself. Whilst she is walking across a room or whilst she is weeping at the death of her father, she can scarcely avoid envisaging herself walking or weeping. … And so she comes to consider the surveyor and the surveyed within her as the two constituent yet always distinct elements of her identity as a woman. … Thus she turns herself into an object—and most particularly an object of vision: a sight.

    Reading this was the first time I’d understood that objectification does not mean sexualization. Because I don’t usually present myself in a particularly sexualized manner, I thought I’d done what I could to safeguard against my own objectification. But I haven’t, because in many ways it’s near-impossible: Women are constantly being looked at. Even when we’re not, we’re so hyperaware of the possibility of being looked at that it can rule even our most private lives. Including in front of our mirrors, alone.

    Sometimes I look in the mirror and see myself, or whatever I understand myself to be. Other times, I distinctly see an image of myself. 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.

    I may in truth be any of those, but I am relying upon a false reference point. It’s false because it is, by necessity, distorted—whether it’s distorted by the physics trick that shows us a reverse image of what our onlookers see, or by my own subjective opinion, or by my pucker-lipped “mirror face,” the fact remains the mirror will not only not be able to tell me whether I’m having a good time, it can’t ever really tell me whether I look like I’m having a good time. I know perfectly well what I look like; still, I use the mirror as a divination tool to repeatedly confirm both how I look and how I should feel about it.

    One of the symptoms of an eating disorder is what’s known as “body checking”: excessively feeling, measuring, or monitoring aspects of one’s body. The idea isn’t necessarily that an ED patient is checking her or his body and finding it unsuitable (though it can be that); it’s more that the chronic observation signals a preoccupation that bespeaks the larger concern. The act of monitoring becomes one of the touchstones through which an ED patient marks her day. I wouldn’t exactly say I’m “face checking” myself, but most of the time when I’m looking in the mirror, I’m not merely looking for stray eyelashes. I’m looking for confirmation that I look good enough that I needn’t be anxious about my appearance—not at any given moment, but in perpetuity. In other words: I am asking the mirror to free me from being absorbed with my looks. It’s like having an AA meeting at Tequila Willie’s.

    Please don’t mistake me: This experiment isn’t about improving my self-esteem, not exactly. I don’t stand in front of the mirror and pick myself apart, nor do I gaze tenderly upon this glorious visage. My response to my appearance fluctuates, as does everyone’s, I assume. Most of the time I like what I see just fine. Still, if one outcome of this project is emerging with a more consistent attitude toward my appearance, well, that’s just dandy.

    Yet my core concern here isn’t whether I like or don’t like what I see in the mirror. It’s about the overriding self-consciousness that’s taken up residence in my psyche. Self-consciousness is often taken to mean some combination of shy, uncomfortable, awkward, and not feeling particularly good about one’s self; it can indeed result in that. But there’s another application of heightened self-consciousness, aptly described in a chapter of Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex that's titled, of course, “The Narcissist”: 

    I recall another young woman I saw one morning in a café powder room; she had a rose in her hand and she seemed a little intoxicated; she put her lips to the mirror as if to drink her reflection, and she murmured with a smile: “Adorable, I find myself adorable!” … “I love myself, I am my God!” said Mme Mejerowsky. To become God is to accomplish the impossible synthesis of the en-soi and the pour-soi [that is, to be at once the changeless Fact, the Essence, and the mutable, questioning Consciousness]... The young girl who in her mirror has seen beauty, desire, love, happiness, in her own features—animated, she believes, with her own consciousness—will try all her life to exhaust the promises of that dazzling revelation.

    When I read that passage from The Second Sex, a trickle of dread ran through me—I felt like I’d been caught, as though Simone de Beauvoir had peered into my brain at my vainest and most delusional and written it down for posterity. But the real concern I have about self-consciousness—both the drunken-mirror-kissing kind and the painfully awkward kind—is that it is impossible to be in a state of flow when you are your own #1 concern.  

    In a flow state, a person is so actively engaged with a task that there is simply no room for awareness of one’s self. That’s not because you’re outside of yourself as you might be when, say, watching an engrossing action film; rather, it’s because you are so wholly present in the moment that you and the moment merge so as to engulf your consciousness. Forgive the New Agey woo-woo, but: In a state of flow, there is no self-consciousness, only consciousness.

    Mirror Me, Annika Connor

    Times I have experienced a flow state: hiking the White Mountains, writing this blog, attending a figure drawing class, creating a magnificent dessert, moonlight swimming in the Gulf of Thailand. Times I have not experienced a flow state: necking with a man who murmured that my body was “amazing,” buying a great pair of jeans, seeing a candid photo of myself and thinking I looked quite pretty, being told by an appealing man that he’d been “spending the whole night trying to not stare at your beauty.” I felt good about my appearance in each of those latter moments, and I’m not diminishing the importance of being able to recognize one’s own beauty. But those moments had no transcendence. I emerged from each of those windows of time feeling beautiful, but the moments were myopic in their focus on my appearance.

    When I look at the flow moments, though, beauty takes on a different tint. It’s not that beauty becomes secondary or unimportant; it’s more that I’m fulfulling the false craving I have for feeling beautiful with something more substantial. You can get vitamin C from a pill—hell, you can get it through enough Skittles—but there’s nothing like getting it from a perfectly ripe orange. In both cases, you get the vitamin C, but with the whole food you get things like fiber, folate, and potassium. It’s the same with flow states versus moments of appreciating my looks, or having them appreciated: With both, I still wind up pleased with my appearance. But one is the orange, and the other is a grab bag of candy.

    There’s nothing wrong with looking in the mirror. There’s nothing wrong with sometimes looking to your reflection—even when it is impossibly subjective, and backward at that—for a breath of fortitude, centeredness, and assurance. I just want to see what life is like when I’m not using that image as my anchor; I want to see how it affects the way I move through the world, the way I regard myself and others. I want to know what it’s like to sever a primary tie to one of my greatest personal flaws—extraordinary self-consciousness—and I want to discover what will fill the space that the mirror has occupied until now.

    I want to eat the orange.