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?