Monday, May 23, 2011

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.


  1. Thank you so much for your honesty! So nuanced and sensitive...

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  2. I love that you carried this experiment through to an international holiday. I find that when (and this is rare as most get-aways involve visiting family) I get away with my beau I feel the most beautiful and it usually has nothing to do with how I look - it's getting lost in a moment - finding flow. Somehow when you are in a new space your observation skills go on overdrive and you are forced to step outside yourself. What a perfect time for a vacation - you can just let your senses run wild! I think you are on to something. I think we should all banish the mirror for a month. OR, perhaps just a day.

  3. I do hope you're planning to publish these experiences, Autumn. So, so many of us need to know about them. I'm taking inspiration from every post I read.

  4. Nice post Autumn! We are living weirdly parallel lives... I was also out of town in the past week (though MUCH less glamourous.... South Dakota), and enjoyed seeing how the experiment travelled.

    I'm especially impressed that you seem to have started accomplishing my ultimate goal: to really experience life with eyes looking greedily outward, not reflected back. Take care, and I can't wait to read your next post!

  5. As usual, I love this post. I got back from a resort in the Bahamas yesterday and am currently lounging on a beach in Florida before heading back to Salt Lake City tomorrow. Your vacation experience echoes my own, but far more eloquently! I so agree that vacations, if done mindfully, can be the perfect opportunity to step outside ourselves and work on living instead of being looked at. I'm on the sand, on my iPhone, in a tube top and board shorts NOT being stared out for my "unsightly" cellulite or makeup-free face. I'm smiling with my best friends and smiling as I read this post where you so articulately capture these moments of BEing, not just being looked at. It's beautiful, Autumn! Thank you so much for your always thoughtful words and experiences!!

  6. Rosehips, thank you! Both for the compliment and just for reading.

    Cameo, that's a great point about vacation being the perfect opportunity to really just experience the flow state. It's like there's a built-in mechanism we can access--we're already observing so much--that it sort of edges out the self-consciousness that the mirror invites. (And I encourage you to give it a go for a while! It's been fascinating.)

    Allyson, thank you! I love it when inspiration is mutual...

    Kjerstin, it gets more parallel--I'm from South Dakota originally! I think there's something to be said for it not being terribly glamorous, though; like you said, it ain't L.A., which can allow us to sort of experience the no-mirror thing from a different perspective. (I'm glad I was in the Netherlands and not in, say, Paris, where people are probably much more image-conscious, I must admit.)

    Lexie, in retrospect doing this experiment on vacation was really the perfect time. I love how much you're describing your smiling in what you wrote just here about your vacation, because it shows that the focus is on the feeling and the experience, not just the particular zone of being looked at and the anxieties that brings. Enjoy the rest of your beach time! Aaahhh!

  7. Other than your story about the hordes of 020 fans swarming the streets after their victory (over I'm assuming Feyenoord) this was the greatest piece of writing I have gotten the pleasure to read in quite some time.

    Your tales of stroopwaffles and strolling the canals makes me miss Holland and my family (Both american and dutch sides). The taste of the wonderful pilsners and gouda is already lingering on my tongue.

    And as far as your question goes about couples with glasses, no we don't practice, we just make jokes about the sword fighting sounds, haha.

    -James W.

  8. I feel self-conscious when I wear my glasses too, and I think it's because when I look in the mirror my eyesight is better and my pores/zits/imperfections look HUGE and HORRIBLE. I know that I look the same whether I'm wearing glasses or not, and I don't care if my boyfriend wears his glasses (when, presumably, he'd see my huge and horrible pores/zits/imperfections). It's a funny phenomenon.

  9. James, a treat to see you on here! (Yes, it was Feyenoord--we'd just arrived that very day and it was surreal to be jet-lagged and be surrounded by hordes of singing Dutchmen...) I was thinking of you a lot while I was there, and it was funny to keep seeing a steady stream of tall, lanky strawberry blond men who vaguely resembled you! And thank you for the compliment on my writing.

    Alex, that's funny--I'd never considered that I feel more self-conscious in glasses because my eyesight is better. In my case it's only marginally better (I'm fine with my contact lenses) but I do see fine lines/pores/etc. more clearly. And that's interesting re: your boyfriend. One of the biggest things this experiment has taught me is that I am really the only one expecting me to look a certain way. Nobody else cares, really!

  10. I am so inspired by this piece! I'm going to ignore mirrors for at least a month, too. I doubt anyone will notice anyway...which isn't the point...but the whole self-conscious thing needs to go. Yay! Thanks for writing this!

  11. Ali, for real? That is awesome--if you do this please let me know how it goes--I'd love to hear more about it!

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