Wednesday, May 11, 2011

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.

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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?


  1. I love this: "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." Intriguing concept, A. Reminds me of the day that I accidentally wore 2 different shoes (mismatched boots) and was feeling SO confident from my good-hair/face day, that I didn't notice until 3pm. I assumed everyone was staring at my hottness, not my shoes....

  2. "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."

    Nah, I think you're just admitting to what most of us experience regularly.

  3. Cameo: Ha! That's a perfect illustration of what I'm talking about. I also happen to think it's awesome...

    Rebekah: Whew! You know, it's hard to tell, because I think people are hesitant to say how much we think about this stuff, so that self-conscious people like me think that everyone else isn't self-conscious (and certainly there are plenty of people who are blessed with being less intensely aware of this stuff). Reading "Relations in Public" by Erving Goffman was a mind-opener because it's largely about the sort of delicate dance we do in public out of what we anticipate others are thinking--totally hysterical to see this written out in a scholarly fashion, like when you're walking down the street and decide to make eye contact with someone. To see that written out with footnotes is cool!

  4. Great post, Autumn. I hope you don't mind that I pulled a piece of it for Mirror, Mirror, OFF the Wall... :) My latest post is nerdy, but your reflections help make it a bit more real-life.

  5. Cameo and Rebekah, I thought I'd replied to your comments but I don't see it here (I think because Blogger was down, annoyingly). Cameo, I think it's cool that you did that! And you were so confident about it that, who knows, you created a new style!

    Rebekah, I hope that's the case--it's been interesting to me to hear people's own thoughts on the mirror. Plenty of folks have fessed up to being total mirror hounds but others say that they find themselves avoiding them--and now I want everyone to do mirror projects of their own (either avoiding like I am or looking more frequently) to see their reactions!

    Kjerstin, it's nerdy in the best kind of way! And no, I don't mind; it's an honor (and really, how could we not reference each other? Ha, from afar we're mirrors for each other!)

  6. this post made me think about one afternoon in New York when i left the apartment in an outfit i felt less-than-confident about, but had forced myself to wear because one of the items (a skirt) had been sitting in my closet, unworn, for over a year. as soon as i walked out of my building, i became intensely aware of every person on the street whose eyes passed over me, even the ones that appeared not to notice or see me. convinced that every single person without exception was wondering to themselves, "WHAT ON EARTH IS SHE WEARING??", i worked myself up into such a state that instead of walking to the subway station, i simply circled the block (trying to maintain a nonchalant expression as if this had been my intention the whole time), returned to my apartment, and promptly changed clothes.

  7. Patricia, that sensation is exactly what I'm talking about (and it's a relief to know I'm not alone!). Even though we KNOW better, that doesn't matter in the moment, does it? It feels so real that it becomes fact, and at that point it ceases to be about "believing in yourself!" and "don't care what anyone else thinks!" and more about sheer mental comfort...