Monday, May 9, 2011

Month Without Mirrors 5.9.11 Update: My Mirror Shroud, Hair Care, and Going to the Gym

One of the cooler things that's happened as a result of this project is cyber-meeting a California academic who's also abstaining from mirrors—for a year. Not just any year: the year in which she's getting married. I love her description of plotting out mirror-avoidance with her fiance; she's also exaining mirror-themed poems and books. I'm looking forward to reading more on her blog, Mirror Mirror Off the Wall, and you should totally check it out! She's contemplating not even looking at her wedding photos until after the experiment is over; wonderful proof that the "bridezilla" phenomenon gets attention because it makes women look cray-cray. It's thoughtful, reflective stories like hers that are probably more representative of women on the eve of marriage.

"I bought it.  I loved it.  It loved me.  Until... somehow... we fell out of love. Mirrors are to blame."
—Mirror Mirror Off the Wall

Her "rules" entry prompted me to clarify something that caused some eyebrows to raise; a couple of  commenters felt that my use of a hand mirror to apply makeup went against the whole point. (In fact, some felt that wearing makeup, period, went against the whole point. But this experiment isn't about my relationship to beauty standards; it's about my relationship with the mirror. Dig?) I am indeed using a hand mirror to apply makeup, but I'm using it at close range so that only the feature I'm able to see is the one being worked on. (In fact, the below shot is a broader scope than what I normally see, but anything closer made photographing this an impossibility.) And I quickly realized that I only need it for eyes and lips; the rest of my makeup, I apply blindly.

My handy accomplice.

A few people have also expressed quiet concern for the eeriness of having one's mirrors shrouded, as though I'm sitting shiva for myself. But look! My mirror veil is pink and froofy and adorable and makes use of my enormous collection of vintage slips that are far too synthetic to feel comfortable lounging around in! Betty Draper in da house!

The biggest practical concern I've had thus far has been something I wish I'd put more thought into: That other beauty experiment of mine, the no-shampoo bit. It's not styling my hair that's problematic (I usually either wear it loose or in a purposefully disheveled updo anyway); it's dealing with the greasies. Because as much as I crow about how fantastic life is up here on my shampoo-free perch, the only reason it's fantastic is because I've made good use of dry shampoos and hair powders. I don't use them daily, but I do rely on them, and without those tools I'd look, well, terrible. And again: The point of this experiment is not to see what happens if I walk around in public with toothpaste on my shirt, lipstick on my chin, and hair like a particularly bedraggled Dean Martin. In fact, I need to look reasonably neat in order for this experiment to work: I want to not think about how I look, not be concerned about whether I look poorly groomed. So I present to you my workaround:

If I feel my hair and it seems like it could use a touch-up, I lift up the white slip and find this cutout shaped to my face, which allows me to see where I need to apply some product to my hair, without seeing my face. My hair is rarely the concern when I look in the mirror anyway, so I'm satisfied with this solution. (My "bad face days" outnumber my "bad hair days" by probably a 12:1 margin—that is, assuming both of those are gauged internally, not by how your face or hair actually looks, which, in my case, is pretty much the same day-to-day.)

It's been surprisingly easy to avoid mirrors: With only a handful of exceptions, I've been good about anticipating panes of glass and unexpected mirrors. (Why do so many elevators have mirrors? I've never noticed that before!) I was out and about plenty this week but was working from home; this week, I'm working in an office—a famously image-conscious office, at that. The company cafeteria features a funhouse-style mirror at its exit; of the architecture, the New York Times writes, "Gazelles and other svelte creatures pass along a wall of rippling mirrors. Their figures merge, contort, morph and liquefy. The panoramic image changes constantly, forming and reforming in the eye of the beholder. Why shouldn't beauty flow into the soul like a fresh scent strip?" This place will be home base for the next week, folks. I'll resist the temptation to peek (never fear!), but being in an environment where image-consciousness is turned up to 11 and having no clue how I look will be an exercise in self-restraint, that's for sure.

As for other shared spaces: I admit to feeling slightly foolish at the gym when I turn away from the mirror to do my biceps curls, but the side benefit is that gym rats are less likely to gawk when you're facing them head-on. A more direct benefit is that without intending to, I've been able to do more reps, with both biceps curls and triceps extensions, which are the two exercises I usually perform directly in front of a mirror.

Previously, I'd believed I felt inspired by looking in the mirror at my muscles as I'd pump iron. I'm not a fitness fiend, but I lift the heaviest weights I can when I work my arms, and it shows. Most of the time I feel pretty good about that. I grew up thinking my body was incapable of doing anything remotely athletic: I saw no problem with sitting down on the T-ball field to pick dandelions; I couldn't ride a bike until I was 31; I would invariably feign illness the day of The Mile, when all students had to run a timed mile in P.E. class. Before joining a neighborhood gym for the first time, at age 25, I actually spent the day at a gym in the Bronx—an hour subway ride away—so that there would be zero chance anyone I knew would witness my trial and humiliating errors. So for me to not only be lifting weights but having actual muscle to show for it is still a thrill for me, and I love seeing my (moderately sized) biceps bulge when I'm straining to complete my last few reps.

But at some point in those minutes, probably once a session, I think of the time an ex-boyfriend called me a "bruiser," or the time we were watching the scene in Fargo where Shep beats up Steve Buscemi's character (NSFW) and he squeezed my arm and told me I was "built like Shep"—who, while undeniably powerful, doesn't exactly embody the look I'm after.  

Or I simply see that the muscles I've worked so hard for are snuggled into the layer of fat that surrounds them, which doesn't particularly bother me unless I'm, say, intensely focusing on the way my arms look. Which is exactly what I do every time I do biceps curls.

When I face away from the mirror, my workout becomes only about how I feel. I truly thought that it already was, mind you; but removing my self-observation cuts off one avenue for my thoughts to wander to appearance, not performance. Yes, I lift weights in part to look better. But my muscules will develop regardless of whether I'm observing the way I look during exercise, and my self-surveillance robs me of the opportunity to focus solely on the flexing and retracting of my muscle. In short: When I observe myself lifting weights, I'm impeding my flow, which is what I'm after. When I'm just lifting, however, I can harness resources that are stunted by my reflection.

It's still too early to tell how I'll emerge from this project mentally and emotionally—but if this keeps up, I'll emerge stronger in at least one way.


  1. I get it - you are removing mirrors, not grooming (aside from the shampoo). I applaud you, girl. Are you at the Conde Naste building? If so, wowza. Everything in the building is mirrored, if my memory serves me. I do have a question, do you think that - aside from the blog - you are thinking about your appearance less from this experiment?

  2. Love love LOVE this. And you, Autumn. What awesome work you're doing here! Your ideas about self-surveillance getting in the way of focusing on how your body works (or anything else for that matter) echo what a lot of quantitative researchers have been saying. It's so true. In some of my own posts and guest posts for other sites, people fight HARD when I say write about how research tells us girls and women who learn from media to pay extra attention to the way they look have fewer mental resources available in their brains for other mental and physical activities, including mathematics, logical reasoning and athletic performance - just to name a few (ex: Fredrickson & Harrison, 2004; Gapinski, Brownell, & LaFrance, 2003). For whatever reason, people get defensive about the idea that paying so much attention to your reflection might just get in the way of anything/everything else. I love your experiment and will be linking this to our Beauty Redefined Facebook pg. Thank you, Autumn!

  3. Prettiest shroud I ever did see. That white head-shaped cutout is both ridiculous and brilliant.

    Do you have any reviews/recommendations for dry shampoos or hair powders? I'm using cornstarch mixed with dark brown powder eyeliner, and it's quite effective. Also quite messy.

  4. Cameo, Lexie, and Rebekah--thank you for reading!

    Cameo: Yep, Conde. And yep, mirrors everywhere! Thus far I am indeed thinking about my appearance less, though I can't say that my self-consciousness has really gone down; but that's to be expected, given that I'm currently monitoring my state of mind in order to be able to report my findings. I suspect this will wear off and I'm hoping that flow states will be easier to achieve then.

    Lexie, I was totally thinking of you when I was writing about self-objectification! I fully understand people being defensive about it, because women have fought long and hard to be taken seriously no matter what we look like--and also, it's not a conscious sort of thing. The whole point is that our self-monitoring is such a part of our lives that we don't realize we're doing it until it's taken away. I'd never have consciously thought that my brain couldn't handle looking at myself and, say, reading Simone de Beauvoir...but I have gotten a lot more reading done this past week, I'll say!

    Rebekah, heh, that cutout is indeed ridiculous! As far as dry shampoos: I'm a big fan of Bumble and Bumble hair powder because it both matches my dark brown hair (almost) and adds a nice texture. That said, I've tried a couple of dry shampoo sprays lately and have been impressed that they really don't leave a white residue. Last time I bought a commercial dry spray (Pssst, Klorane) they both did leave a white residue, though it wasn't bad. LOVE the starch mixed with eyeliner! I'm going to try it! (The Bumble and Bumble powder is messy too, though at least it comes in a bottle so you can direct it better.)

  5. This is a fantastic idea. Also, I like the handheld mirror approach because when I read your summary post on this project, I immediately wanted to do it but thought, "But what about my tinted sunscreen??!!!" Also, this gives me something to do with my innumerable pretty Afghan scarfs and shawls I have lying around the house.

    1. Onely, I tell everyone who seems interested in this project to try it for themselves, if only for a couple of days. Very revealing!

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