Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Month Without Mirrors Update 5.31: Recognition

I haven’t looked at my reflection for 31 days. No mirrors, no windows, no darkened subway glass. No shadows. The goal, which I went into in greater detail at the project’s beginning, was to loosen the grip that self-consciousness has had on me for much of my life, and to allow that lightened load to grant me better access to a state of flow. Here’s how it turned out.

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You, like me, probably have a mirror face. My mirror face is this:


It’s close to my “photo face,” but it’s a separate beast. My face contorts itself not because it will be recorded for Facebook posterity, but because I desperately need to believe certain things about my appearance. My mirror face is an attempt to correct things about my visage I don’t like: The pout makes my lips fuller. The tipped chin minimizes the broad planes of my face. The widened eyes and softened gaze call attention to my best feature. You may even find me ever so slightly sucking in my cheeks. A friend of mine—whose womanly charm lies in her mix of acerbic wit and casual grace—turns into a bright-eyed, prepubescent pixie when she looks in the mirror. Like me, she has no idea she’s doing it, and when she tries to stop, it only gets worse.

So in my mind, I’m fuller-lipped, slimmer-faced, wider-eyed than any of you would actually find me. And my adjustments are virtually uncontrollable. Which is to say: After 35 years of seeing myself in the mirror, it’s possible I still don’t really know what I look like.

Certainly, I don’t know what my face shape is. When I was 25, I decided to find out once and for all. (Round? Oval? Heart? What kind of haircut could I possibly get?!) I used a classic ladymag tip: I took a tube of lipstick and traced the outline of my face onto the mirror. And then I got angry.

I took the lipstick and scribbled over the circle/oval/whatever (I still don’t know what my face shape is). I covered an entire pane of my mirror, and then another, and then I went to the walls. And then I was out of lipstick so I took another, and another, and another. I coated, smeared, dragged, drew, until I had no more lipstick, no more walls, and no more mirrors.

At the time I thought my rage was a combination of struggling with the beauty myth and generalized “quarterlife crisis” anxiety, which also saw me doing things like hacking off a foot of hair with kitchen shears and trading my magazine career for a $10-an-hour gig as a pastry cook. It was an unhappy, confusing time, and my gonzo paint job gave me some anarchic respite from the pressures of that era.

I’m now wondering if my rage was actually stemming from what, if I were a 19th-century German philosopher, I might christen the master-mirror dialectic. G.W.F. Hegel cooked up what he calls the master-slave dialectic, which states that we’re incapable of self-consciousness without being conscious of others, and that once we become conscious of others we’re alerted to our lack of control over our lives. “A struggle to the death” ensues, in Hegel’s grandiose words, and we either become master (which later finds us needing the slave’s services, ultimately giving them control) or slave, which eventually gives us some control over the “master.” In the 1950s, grad-school rock-star psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan introduced the idea of the “mirror stage,” positing that we have this master-slave dynamic with ourselves via the mirror. Lacan compares it to being permanently trapped in a stadium of onlookers composed solely of ourselves, captivated by our own image.

When I traced my face shape onto my mirror with lipstick, I—presumably the master—was bowing to my slave’s needs. I was reaching toward the looking-glass and willing the world contained therein to reveal great gifts: Tell me my face shape so I may never have an inappropriate haircut again, ye mirror. By using her to guide my actions, I was giving her a measure of control over me. The moment incensed me because of its overt supplication to my built-in alter ego. But it was only one of many acts that ceded control to the mirror.

Ten years later: I went a month without looking in the mirror, initially thinking that my constant self-surveillance constituted self-objectification. Now that I’ve abandoned my mirror for a month, though, I see that my image is far too vital to have been an object. I didn’t objectify myself; rather, I treated my mirror image as a grounding strategy, as a divination tool to tell me how I should respond in any given situation, as a part of myself I can control. I treat her as both slave and master, and as someone both more beautiful and less appealing than myself.
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The mirror is a quest for control. Control over the image we present to the world, sure; control over fitting the beauty standard, to a degree. Mostly, though, surveillance is an effort to carefully control our ideas about ourselves. When I pulled the plug from the mirror image, she exacted revenge by radically shifting some of those ideas. For example, about a week into this experiment, I had a nagging sensation that my head had become very, very pointy, à la Saturday Night Live's Coneheads.

Less absurdist moments simply found me sort of forgetting what I looked like: How wide is my smile? Do I have freckles? That woman on the street with the dark eyes and high cheekbones—do I look like her? Do I even have high cheekbones? And, most important: Am I pretty?

Except, this month, that question wasn’t particularly important. In addition to realizing that I don’t have to strive to look pretty every minute, I thought far less about looks this month than I normally do. I didn’t feel better or worse about my appearance; I rarely felt pretty or unpretty. I just didn’t care as much.

Makeup held less appeal. I wore my glasses more. My love affair with lipstick dwindled; I wore my hair in a bun instead of the French twist I usually favor. I presented myself to the world reasonably groomed, sure. But pretty? The physical labor of prettiness took a backseat. I always believed I wore makeup for others—not for their benefit, but as a tool to help me feel more comfortable with them. After all, I don’t wear makeup at home alone, so it must have something to do with other people, right? This month I learned how much my makeup use is for my own pleasure. If I can’t reap the joys of seeing my lips turn a bright, puckery red, I simply don’t want to do it at all. If I’m my own harshest critic, I’m also my own most ardent observer—and fan.

Some readers have picked up on this, commenting how nice it must be to look in the mirror and adore my own image so much that I need to take a month off in order to get around to things other than admiring my own visage. Rest assured, I’m not quite that enthralled with my looks. In fact, in The Second Sex Simone De Beauvoir makes it clear that enchantment with one’s image needn’t solely be a reflection of thinking we’re beautiful:

It is not astonishing if even the less fortunate can sometimes share in the ecstasies of the mirror, for they feel emotion at the mere fact of being a thing of flesh...and since they feel themselves to be individual subjects, they can, with a little self-deception, embue their specific qualities with an individual attractiveness; they will discover in face or body some graceful, odd, or piquant trait. They believe they are beautiful simply because they are women.

Okay, so yay us, right? Down with the tyranny of the beauty standard! Every woman is beautiful, or at least has some part of herself that’s beautiful. You’ve just got to find it, sister, and what better way to do that than the mirror? Rock on with your gorgeous self!

Here’s the problem with that: When we look in the mirror, we rarely see ourselves. We are forever seeing a projection—what we wish to see, what we fear seeing, what we used to see. “The ego [as accessed through the mirror] is a product of misunderstanding, a false recognition,” Lacan writes. (And unless you’re the rare creature who doesn’t have a “mirror face,” how could what we see be anything but a misunderstanding?) I’ve heard some women say mirror abstinence would rob them of a hard-won acceptance of their appearance, and I don't wish to diminish that. It's hard enough to make peace with our bodies without some writer yakking at you about Lacan. But if what the mirror gives us is imagined, I wonder how far its affirmation can take any of us.

Case in point: Try as I did to avoid it, I caught a few glimpses of myself in unanticipated mirrors. And people: I am 35, and I learned that I look it. There is nothing wrong with looking 35, or any age. But, like the majority of women, I believed I looked younger. Mathematically, the majority cannot look younger than our age. We just think we do, because we see our ego, not our selves. When I caught unexpected glimpses of myself, I saw bags under the eyes, flaccid skin. I didn’t feel bad about this per se—35 can look good, yo!—but it revealed how much I’m subtly controlling what I see when I purposefully look in the mirror as opposed to when I stumble upon myself accidentally. I am preparing, however slightly, to see the face I’m presenting. And that face—the imaginary one—looked about 28 years old until now.

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I’ve had a couple of friends tell me they’re surprised, reading my blog, to find I think as intensely as I do about beauty. “You’re not one of those beauty-robot girls,” said one. She’s correct: My physical beauty labor is pretty minimal. My emotional beauty labor is another story.

Don’t get me wrong: I’m not thinking every second about positioning myself so that my “good side” is showing, or whatever. By emotional beauty labor—a term borrowed from writer and licensed esthetician Virginia Sole-Smith’s "beauty labor" and sociologist Arlie Hochschild’s "emotional labor"I mean a sort of low-level, frequent, and unconscious acting that might, every so often, land me a plum role as a nice-looking woman. You know how when you’re wearing a nice outfit, you’ll carry yourself differently? You’re aware of being looked at, you’re aware of how your body might appear in this piece of clothing that is signaling a certain occasion. You’re not lying, but you’re acting, in a small, naturalistic way. That’s the sort of labor I’m talking about: When you are conscious of the potential of being looked at, and when your behavior is altered as a result, even if you don’t intend to do so, you—I—are working.

When beginning the mirror fast, I kept turning to de Beauvoir’s 1953 work The Second Sex, particularly the chapter called “The Narcissist.” But throughout the month, another section of the book called to me: “The Independent Woman,” or the woman who creates her own living. That is, most of us today.

[The independent woman] knows that she is offering herself, she knows that she is a conscious being, a subject; one can hardly...change one’s eyes into sky-blue pools at will; one does not infallibly stop the surge of a body that is straining toward the world and change it into a statue animated by vague tremors. [The independent woman] will try all the more zealously because she fears failure; but her conscious zeal is still an activity... In all this she resembles those actors who fail to feel the emotion that would relax certain muscles and so by an effort of will contract the opposing ones, forcing down their eyes or the corners of their mouth instead of letting them fall. Thus in imitating abandon the independent woman becomes tense. She realizes this, and it irritates her; over her blankly naive face, there suddenly passes a flash of all too sharp intelligence; lips soft with promise suddenly tighten. ...The desire to seduce, lively as it may be, has not penetrated to the marrow of her bones.

Sounds exhausting, right? It is.

Ridding myself of the mirror didn’t cure me of the push-pull of emotional beauty labor. (Not that I would know, because much of this labor is unconscious. Measuring physical beauty labor, like time spent on a manicure or money spent on tanning cream, is simpler.) But the mirror is key to its recognition: What film profiling a female performer neglects the ubiquitous shot of our heroine, in front of a mirror, looking herself squarely in the eye as she prepares to play her part?

Clockwise, from top left: All About Eve, A Star Is Born, Les Enfants du Paradis, Black Swan.

Taking away the mirror took away my mirror face, which is, in essence, privately performed beauty labor. So when I found myself approximating the labors of my mirror face in the presence of others—be still, chin down, be pretty—I was acutely aware of my efforts. Times I recognized I was performing emotional beauty labor: volunteering with an ESL student who has confessed a small crush on me and who looks to me for affirmation of his language skills; having drinks with someone who talked over every word I tried to utter; meeting with an acquaintance who is extraordinarily self-conscious herself and kept adjusting her makeup. In each of those situations, I was “performing”: attempting to grant the other person some comfort, or struggling to maintain some presence when my other forms of power were being ignored. I did this by appearing attentive, widening my eyes, fixing a smile that’s probably close to my ever-false mirror face, cocking my head to make a small show of my quizzical nature. This was all unconscious. The only reason I was able to detect my actions was because I hadn’t had my usual warm-up with myself in the mirror. My privately emotional beauty labor, in other words, is a hamstring stretch that gets me ready for the sprint of uncomfortable interactions in which I feel I must “perform”; without the warm-up, the effort of the race became illustrated in sharp relief.

One of the harshest, and truest, criticisms I’ve received from people who know me well is that I’m not always as emotionally present as I should be. My response is usually that I feel so drained by other people’s needs that I have little energy to expend on being as present as I’d like. What I didn’t realize until I was unburdened from some of my self-imposed (and likely invented) expectations was exactly how much of my energy was going into appearing. Appearing to be interested, appearing to be womanly, appearing to be a professional lady, appearing to be pretty.

No wonder I’m exhausted.

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My goal was to liberate myself from self-surveillance, allowing me to better access a flow state. So, was I able to enter a flow state more freely?

I did not waltz through the month writing Great Literature, or having shamanistic visions, or even organizing my bookcase. What did happen was that I was more in tune with myself. I felt more aware of my needs, and I took steps to allow myself to do what I needed to access flow, even if I didn’t get there often. I’m guessing this would have happened regardless; setting a goal of engaging more fully with the world prompted me to create opportunities for that to happen, mirror aside. I was on alert for blockages to flow, and some of those were mirror-related—like the emotional beauty labor I recognized in uneasy moments, or the phantom “flinches” I had about reprimanding myself for having looked in a mirror when I hadn’t.

A greater victory was my diminished self-consciousness. Yet we need self-consciousness, and its accompanying ability to shift our persona, in order to function in the world. I fall into the trap of thinking that there’s some “authentic self” I have a responsibility to, and that any manipulation of it constitutes a betrayal. But there is no one “authentic self.” It shifts according to time, place, and company; indeed, we all rely on one another’s signals to let us know what to do with this mess of humanity.

When I’m performing emotional beauty work, I’m letting you in on how I’d like to be seen: as a thirtysomething woman who, every so often, might want to be viewed as a pretty lady. If I make total removal of that labor my goal, I sign away certain expectations. Not expectations of human decency; expectations of, say, you understanding via my low-level obsequiousness that I want you to feel valued, or that you’ll treat a transaction with a bit more humor than you might otherwise because clearly I’m here for a good time. Or—why not?—an expectation that, every so often, you’ll hold the door for me. There’s a lady coming through. If I want to experience a certain form of femininity, with all its rituals and fleeting rewards—well, that’s what the persona and its accompanying labors are for. I’m giving you permission to respond to my portrayed self in an appropriate manner. If that sounds presumptuous, take it from sociologist Erving Goffman in The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life: “Information about the individual helps define the situation, enabling others to know in advance what he will expect of them and what they may expect of him. Informed in these ways, the others will know how best to act in order to call forth a desired response from him.”

I missed the private joy of observing myself in a certain light. I missed the pleasure of, just before I leave the house, giving myself a final once-over, smile—yes, with my mirror face—and confirming all is well. My flowered dress that makes me feel like a gracious 1950s hostess, my hot pink number with orange piping and oversized collar that makes me feel like a creature from Alice in Wonderland—I took less pleasure than usual in wearing these, because I couldn’t observe myself partaking in the ritual of playing dress-up. I missed witnessing myself slip into a persona. Liberating myself from personae was also a relief—a big one at times. And it’s not like this past month was drudgery; far from it. Still, the sense of play I normally carry with me was muted.

"How nice it would be if we could only get through into Looking-glass House! I'm sure it's got, oh! such beautiful things in it! Let's pretend there's a way of getting through into it somehow. // Oh, what fun it'll be, when they see me through the glass in here, and can't get at me!" —Through the Looking Glass, Lewis Carroll, illustration by John Tenniel

Which brings me back to being master, or slave, to the mirror. Hegel’s theory that we’re forever wresting control from each other—or, in the case of the mirror, our own image—indicates that the way out is for each party to recognize that they need one another, and from there, dissolve their differences. In the case of the mirror, that could be interpreted to mean unification—a genuine recognition of the mirror as solely a handy tool for making sure we don’t have stray ink on our cheek. Not an oracle, not someone with control over us, not something to turn to as an emotional divination rod.

Yet I’m under no illusion that I can somehow unite with my mirror image to become whole. (And—shall I state the obvious?—there’s nobody there to unite with. Coneheads trickery aside, I’m the only one who actually exists. Twist ending!) I’ve tried to rid myself of my mirror face and failed; I understand that I can never be an objective viewer of myself. But I can recognize differences between myself and my image, the first step toward dissolution.

I can recognize that my mirror face is not how I appear to the rest of the world, and honor that perhaps my mild self-delusion is the adult version of the child who wonders what she’ll look like when she grows up—fanciful, woefully inaccurate, but bringing minimal harm as long as its falsity is understood. I can recognize that my beauty labor—emotional and physical—is largely for myself, and evaluate what purpose it’s serving, allowing me to see what I can keep and what I should discard. I can recognize that the mirror allows me access to a part of my femininity that’s tucked away otherwise, and be thankful for that key. And maybe, with practice, I’ll come closer to recognizing myself.


  1. "My face contorts itself not because it will be recorded for Facebook posterity, but because I desperately need to believe certain things about my appearance."

    Oy, I cringed reading this paragraph. SUCH honesty. I DO have a mirror face; an old boyfriend alerted me to the fact. Mortifying! You're so good at pinpointing normal human behaviors and magnifying them.

    "...they can, with a little self-deception, embue their specific qualities with an individual attractiveness; they will discover in face or body some graceful, odd, or piquant trait."

    Daaaaamn, I'm getting called out by EVERYONE today.

    "My physical beauty labor is pretty minimal. My emotional beauty labor is another story."

    If we got paid by the hour spent fretting over our looks....

    "I did this by appearing attentive, widening my eyes, fixing a smile that’s probably close to my ever-false mirror face, cocking my head to make a small show of my quizzical nature."

    Again, a perfect description of how real humans behave.

    I got a fairly dramatic haircut today, and needed to visit a mirror every five minutes to see "Who am I now? Do I look alright? Am I still an acceptable female?" Seriously, I couldn't stop looking at myself. Naturally, I thought of you.

  2. Hurrah for you! I have often thought that looking in the mirror is a form of self induced slavery. If I am so busy trying to make myself look better, I don't/won't have time/energy for doing the important things in life, having a self affirming internal life, etc. Making myself busy with things like that also prevents me from "growing up" into a woman who knows her own mind, self, purpose, gifts. All these things are too precious to forfeit in a lifetime. I recently watched a movie just out at the Seattle International Film Festival about an artist named Emily Carr (Canadian, turn of the 20th century). In the documentary, she moves from being a 20 something tight, English, beautiful in the
    world's eyes to a "hag" at the end of her life. The movie was healing to me because as she began to choose to loosen the chains given to her by being "over civilized", she began to love herself more and moved out of being depressed to being free. A lovely, healing experience to watch this. Women who have lived life, often look as though they have. Not a bad thing. Let's be our own judges.

  3. I think it's amazing that you did this. I could never do it; I have too many random chin hairs that need plucking.


  4. I heart Autumn, in all of your presentations and transformations, known and unknown.

  5. GREAT post, Autumn! Arlie Hochschild is one of my favorite sociologists of all time, and I love the way you envisioned her concept of emotion work as extending into the more personal realm of beauty. I'm going to have to think about this more for my own project... is looking into the mirror work if you're enjoying it?? Is it work if you're not getting paid (although we ALL know you get paid in subtle and not-so-subtle ways for looking "beautiful").... Hrmmm....

  6. Rebekah, I TOTALLY felt called-out by that Simone de Beauvoir bit. (Actually, that whole chapter made me sort of want to curl up and die, so on-point it was...) And thank you--I'm glad that my honesty is supporting a shared point instead of just being about my own weird vanity.

    Mary Ann, thank you for reading! That film does indeed sound healing. I'm so glad that this resonated with you.

    Michelle, you can always let Nair be your muse?

    Rachel, I heart Rachel.

    Kjerstin, thank you! I figured you'd be into Hochschild! (I'm fairly new to her, though I'm really enjoying "The Managed Heart"). As far as enjoying it: I do indeed consciously enjoy looking into the mirror sometimes. But I do think that the toll it takes also outweighs those moments of pleasure--so it becomes, if not work, labor, you know what I mean? Or at the very least, a strain. I do wonder how the relationship to the mirror is different for people who have to survey themselves for their literal work (say, actresses or models), or even for people who witness others looking into mirrors (hairstylists, makeup artists).

  7. thank you! so much that you say resonates with this philosophizing, mirror-addicted 19 year old girl-woman.

  8. Evencowgirls, thank you for saying that! I think we philosophizing, mirror-addicted women probably have similar, albeit different, experiences. Thank you for reading.

  9. Just came to your blog via the F-word - this is one of the most intriguing essays on the relationship between appearance and the self I've read in ages. I particularly liked your point about the need for some self-consciousness, that there is no one authentic self. The self is a construct generated by our interactions with the rest of the world because, as an object, it's only visible to us as reflected in the world - trying to identify yourself, or your Self, is like trying to look at your own retinas. It's really interesting to hear how rejecting your reflection to some extent has affected your identity - thank you for sharing this process.
    I suppose this blog, to an extent, must also function as a kind of mirror. Do you ever find that disconcerting?

  10. Hi Aliceunderground--Wow, thank you! It feels wonderful to know that those who have given thought to the idea of the construction of the self are getting something from what I'm doing here. I feel like our relationship with the mirror is a weird mix of the sociological, philosophical, and psychological, which takes something that initially seems straightforward and makes it much more complex.

    That's an astute point about the blog functioning as mirror. Yes, it can be disconcerting; in fact, this entire experiment, to some degree, was different than it would have been were I only doing it for personal enrichment, because I still had to sort of monitor my thoughts and feelings if I was going to have anything to report. But the larger question is the idea of social media as a place for recognition--and, indeed, the fragmented self. Rob Horning at Marginal Utility wrote this re: this project--"Social-media sites seem to me to be self-consciousness machines, encouraging that one maintain a directorial distance from one’s own life experience in order to strategize how to present it in update broadcasts." (His full post is here: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/post/142268-/ and he frequently writes on social media.)

  11. I stumbled upon this blog via a chain of linked blogs, and at first glance was put off by your mirror photos... the self-infatuated mirror poses littered throughout various social networking sites bring about for me a knee-jerk 'disgust' feeling (reading your post shifted this disgust to compassion, as I realize now that we all have a mirror face).

    I've been a slave to the woman in the mirror for as long as I can remember. In my early teens I developed a skin-picking habit which is still with me today. I can't look in the mirror without wanting to fix so much of that woman - the fat arms, belly fat, fat inner thighs (coined 'FITs' by a friend), numerous skin imperfections, pasty skin color, etc. And yet, she is beautiful to me, too. I see her eyes, big and blue. How she ever so slightly purses her lips when she looks back at me... and smiles at me as if to say "we're doing OK today."

    What I wouldn't give to stop all the persistent underlying vanity thoughts. I look at other woman and I can't help but pick them apart. I want her legs. Why was she blessed with small arms? What I wouldn't give for her hair. It's exhausting and overwhelming. Perhaps a mirror fast would help re-arrange some of this inner dialog.

    You've given me much to ponder on. I look forward to reading your other entries. Thanks for writing!

    And oh yeah, have you seen this: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=M6wJl37N9C0
    It just popped into my head, so I figure I'm supposed to share it.

  12. Hi Shauna--Yes, that's just it, that duality--the fact that you may be literally picking apart one part of yourself and then also finding your own image beautiful. I think sometimes we forget that the duality exists and is just as important in working toward a sense of wholeness as simply giving props to the stuff that's flat-out positive.

    Thank you for reading--and thank you for pointing me toward Katie Makkai! I just watched it--powerful, powerful stuff.

  13. The mirror places a great deal of emphasis on the body-dimension of self; not the feeling, moving, breathing body, but the body as a visual. It can be an energy-suck. Especially for people who work in fields which require a highly-developed sense of aesthetics. Our own bodies may not line up with our elevated vision of physical beauty. Woe be to the aesthete who turns a cold, hard, critical eye onto the mirror!

  14. Monsieur, it's a pleasure to see you here. I think there's a lot to be said about the idea of the body as a static visual versus the body as a natural, fluid visual. I mean, we do move in the mirror, but it's more akin to a photograph, so we do evaluate our reflection specifically *as an image.* You know, I hadn't considered what it might be like for people who have that highly developed sense of aesthetics--my background is more in feminism so I tend to look at body-as-art through the lens of body image, but it makes sense that the same would apply to other fields. Hmm. Know a good architect?