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.
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.
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.
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.
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