Do you remember the first time you saw yourself in a mirror? Highly unlikely. You probably can’t remember the first time you saw a photograph of yourself either. If you were born after Fisher Price invented crib toys, you probably had a mirror before you could walk or talk. Knowing what we look like is integral and essential to the way we live in the early 21st century. With digital cameras in every phone, not only can we capture our image whenever we want to, we can practice poses, check out angles, smudge over the blemishes, and create an image that presents to the world the face we want, even if it isn’t necessarily the face we have. I know – I’ve done it.
We aren’t the first of course. The curious used polished obsidian as early as 6000 years ago, then silver and copper mirrors, glass backed with mercury and then silver – these were possible, but available only to the wealthy. For everyone else, a still pool or a black bowl filled with water were the best options.
Not only did many millions of humans spend their entire lives never knowing what they looked like, gazing at one’s reflection was not always considered wise. Consider poor Narcissus who, seeing his own face reflected in a still pool, fell so in love with himself he drowned. Witches used reflective water in scrying bowls and forest pools to see into other worlds. Nostradamus used hydromancy, peering into pools of water, to predict the future. Perhaps looking at yourself is a gateway activity that leads to foretelling omens of the future, seeing and even participating in far away battles and messing with other people’s lives!
Some faiths cover mirrors after a death because it is not seemly to be concerned with vanity during mourning. Others fear the reflection of the dead in a mirror will turn the deceased into a vampire (they have to come from somewhere after all). Since mirrors reflect our “selves,” our solidity, witches and vampires cast no reflection.
Little girls know, early in life, that it is the mirror that decides who is most beautiful. And we also know that, unfortunately for Snow White, mirrors don’t lie. (And it’s okay to cook and clean for seven men as long as you’re safe from the brutality of jealous queens – but that’s another post).
When we go Through the Looking Glass however, we are in a backwards world.
In Heraklion, we visited a museum that had a mind bending exhibit of optical illusions. One of these was a “true” mirror; a mirror that showed you the face others see. Not the reverse image you see in an ordinary mirror. That’s right. The face you see every morning in the bathroom is the reverse of what others see. When you see your face in a “true” mirror – it’s quite confusing. You hair seems parted on the wrong side, your lazy eye has moved, your crooked smile looks a lot more crooked.
And yet, when you see yourself in a photograph, you see the same “true” image. Why does it seem so odd in real time? And why does your brain not impose its intellectual understanding on your emotional reaction to the mirror? Questions for another researcher.
Mirrors are useful, hateful things.
For two weeks while we were in southern Italy, I woke up every morning, sat up and turned to the side of the bed, and saw myself in a mirror two feet from where I was sitting. No matter what I thought about myself, that confrontation with my aging body was brutal. No amount of body positivity could override the immediate reaction (something like – holy fuck! – really??) For a month in Italy, we were in an apartment with no full-length mirrors – and a bedroom mirror that makes everyone look thin. So I got up, saw myself from the waist up only, and I looked great.
It made no difference at all that I knew my clothes still fit the same way, that my body hadn’t, in reality, changed. What matters was what I saw in the mirror. It was a fabulous month.
Mirrors do not tell us the truth about how others see us. They show us a backwards, two dimensional version of the world which we must interpret using our own eyes. And our eyes are not objective observers of our image; our brain is not an objective observer of our life. Looking to a mirror to discover how you look, is more or less like asking your brain if you are sane. The organ cannot diagnose itself.
And yet, we turn to the mirror for confirmation of our hopes and fears as though what we see there really is the truth. Whether the relationship is mostly confirmation or confrontation, the mirror is an inescapable part of life. Which is too bad. I think we’d all be better off if we didn’t worry so much about how we appear to others. It blocks us from understanding who we really are, in three dimensions, the right way around.
To see that version of me- there are no pictures – get in touch. We’ll have coffee.
Hours after I put this piece to bed – I went to buy clothes. That’s right – the worst mirrors of them all. After an hour of sweaty, humiliating pulling on and wrenching off pants, shorts, skirts, t-shirts, hoodies and leggings I found myself on the verge of tears in front of a mirror in a coffin-sized fitting room. No amount of radical self-love can defeat this circumstance. A different approach, however, can. I headed off to the “plus” size store, where the sales women know their stuff, tell you what looks good and forbid you to buy baggy sweaters! I did not look in the mirror once – and I came away happy. There’s a lesson in here for people who peddle clothing to those of us who would rather not enjoy the 360 degree view. I think it’s time for an optional, mirror-free change room. You heard it here first.