Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Mirror Mirror Challenge—and Giveaway

I'm terrifically excited for Kjerstin Gruys' literary debut, Mirror, Mirror Off the Wall: How I Learned to Love My Body After Not Looking at It for a Year—which, for the record, is fantastic (and which you have a chance to win; scroll down)—so when she did a shoutout for bloggers to follow in her footsteps and go a day without looking in the mirror, of course I wanted to participate. But as longtime readers of this blog may remember, I've already taken a month-long break from mirrors—twice—and honestly, I didn't think I'd get much more out of abstaining from my reflection for a day.

So instead, I took a different route: Instead of refusing my reflection, I'd take it in mindfully. Every time I looked in the mirror on the chosen day, I took note of my first reaction to what I saw, and snapped a photograph, the idea being I could later compare my reaction with the "reality" of the photograph. Stripped of the context of my mood, would I actually see any difference in how I looked? Obviously this is full of flaws as an actual experiment: Each time I approached the mirror, I knew I'd be recording whatever crossed my mind, which naturally colored my reaction. Plus, overlaying my mirror-face with my photo-face means that the static photographs aren't necessarily representative of what I initially witnessed (though to be sure, I still have my mirror face, despite my best efforts to rid myself of it). Still, it was an interesting exercise. The results:

7:24 a.m., wake-up call: So fucking metal. (I don't normally sleep in my earrings but as my "so fucking metal" initial reaction implies, it was quite a night.)

8:07 a.m.: When did I get dark circles between my eyes?

11:05 a.m.: Have my eyes gotten closer together? Is that even possible?

11:38 a.m., post-makeup: Much better.

2:40 p.m., with Kjerstin: Happiness! (I actually didn't plan it this way, but my "mirror diary" day happened to be on the same day Kjerstin was in New York for her Good Morning America appearance. Obviously we couldn't resist taking a mirror photo of the two of us together, given our mutual abstinence. As Kjerstin pointed out later, isn't it sort of poetic that the photo is blurry?)

5:18 p.m.: Healthy. Why do sunglasses perched atop one's head make one look both brimming with good health and a tad glamorous?

6:34 p.m.: I look hungry, but I'm actually not. Do I look this way when I really am hungry? Eyes look big.

6:39 p.m., pre-workout: Maybe I just look pale, not hungry. Take your iron pills. 

8:52 p.m., post-workout: Girlish! Not like girly like feminine, just girlish like young.

10:11 p.m.: Tired, look it. Face looks rounder than it did earlier today? Round but pleasant.

11:38 p.m., pre-bedtime: I look like a compassionate librarian.

A few thoughts:

    1) There might be a daily cycle of how I feel about my looks.
    I'm surprised to see that there was an arc to how I felt on this day—beginning in a self-critical mode, then switching to more appreciative, neutral, or merely observant as the day went on. My suspicion had been that every time I looked in the mirror it was actually reflective of my mood—feel bad, "look" bad; feel good, "look" good, even though my face doesn't actually change all that much. But I was actually in a neutral-to-moderate mood all day long, including the morning, when I was particularly critical of my looks.

    2) The things I notice now in these photographs aren't the things I noticed when I was taking the photograph. Again, part of this is just the nature of how being observed—even just by ourselves, or by a camera—changes us. But still: There seems to be zero connection between what I saw then and what I see now. I think I look worse in the nighttime photos than I do in the morning snapshots (and I look older than usual in my "girlish" photo), but my thoughts toward the end of the day weren't nearly as self-critical. I don't actually look any more pale in the pre-workout photo than I do in the others. (I maintain, however, that I indeed looked so fucking metal in the morning.)

    3) My activities, more than my mood, influenced what I saw. I didn't smile in these photos because I don't usually smile at myself in the mirror, and obviously it would have been a little weird if I'd not been smiling in the joint photo of Kjerstin and me. But beyond the smile or lack thereof, it's clear that I'm joyful in Kjerstin's company—a feeling that lasted upon my return home, even though I was groggy and disconnected (I'd fallen asleep on the subway ride home). 

    4) I "appear," even to myself. About a third of my thoughts had something to do with putting on a persona, even though I didn't consciously approach the mirror with play-acting in mind. Metal chick, sunny glamourpuss, youthful girl, compassionate librarian (no idea where that came from, but I share it with you in the name of dutiful reporting): None of these are how I would identify myself, but I saw each of these types in the mirror at various points. 

    At the end of my first mirror fast, I wrote about how I found that I was more aware of my emotional labor in regards to other people because I hadn't had the "warm-up" of appearing—if only to myself—in the mirror. I'd forgotten about that finding of the experiment until I saw how much play-acting I was unconsciously doing in the mirror with this experiment. What's interesting, though, is that I'm seeing that there's a whimsy to it that I hadn't previously seen. I wasn't trying to be any of the momentary personae that I spotted (okay maybe I like to play glamouspuss every so often); they just appeared. There was no comparison to some standard I'd dreamed up, because there was no standard in my mind. Instead I was just having a little moment of fun—which I hadn't recognized until I recorded my thoughts for this exercise.

  • 5) The mirror is more tied to my eating patterns than I'd like to believe. I don't write about this much on here for a variety of reasons, but I have a history of disordered eating. (If you're interested, you can read my ladymag version of it here.) And one of the reasons I don't write about it here is because I'm firm in my belief that we as a culture have overconnected eating disorders to a wish to be thinner or better-looking—and that doing so masks the deeper, murkier reasons some of us develop eating disorders and some of us don't, even though we're all subject to the same cultural pressures surrounding thinness. So when it first became apparent to me during my mirror fast that there was a connection between the mirror and my eating, I was reluctant to admit any connection between the mirror and my eating history. But just as eating disorders don't neatly fit inside the frame of beauty, neither do they neatly exist outside of it.

  • So when I looked in the mirror and thought, I look hungry, even though I wasn't hungry, I knew it signaled something. What, I'm not quite sure. But here is what I notice now: That photo is rather flattering. It was a time of evening when the light becomes honeyed and soft; my hair was loose, the way I prefer it; the slight below-the-eyes puff that springtime allergies give me had receded, making my eyes look larger than they had. And yes, what I see in the photo now may not be what I saw then (see item #2). But I have to wonder how much I still connect looking pretty with being hungry. And if I happen to not be hungry, as was the case when I took the photo? I can still look hungry. Which means, in the mind of a disordered eater, I just might look thin

    Consciously, I know better. I know that hunger does not equal thinness, and that thinness does not equal prettiness, and that therefore hunger cannot equal prettiness, and that absent other physical signs there's really no such thing as "looking hungry." And perhaps I'm overanalyzing this, or misanalyzing it—maybe I was conscious of not wanting to be hungry since I was about to hit the gym and wanted to make sure I was fueled up, or maybe part of my brain had been planning dinner and the messages just got jumbled up in that moment, or maybe it was just as random as the "compassionate librarian" thought that entered my mind at bedtime. (Which, really, random.) But once a part of your brain connects disordered eating to beauty—which mine definitely did, for some time—I'm not sure the two can ever be wholly unharnessed. Unearthed, examined, monitored—yes, of course. Yet for me, in some small way, as much as I consciously reject it, the two remain in tandem.

    *     *     *

    But! The purpose here is to examine how mirrors affect the way we walk through the world, and I'm looking forward to seeing how other bloggers participating in Kjerstin's challenge handle it. (Get a head start with Meli Pennington, whose musings at Wild Beauty World on her weeklong mirror abstinence are consistently intriguing.) If you're interested in the least in exploring our connection with mirrors, Mirror, Mirror Off the Wall is a must-read, and lucky you, I'll be giving away a copy. 

    To enter, leave a comment (karma points if you share your thoughts on mirror abstinence—or mirror diaries, but not necessary to enter/win) on this post by 11:59 p.m. EST Sunday, May 12. I'll select a winner via a random number generator (comments assigned number in chronological order, beginning with comments at the-beheld.com, followed by comments left at The New Inquiry). Enjoy!


    1. It is an interesting idea. I am keen to read the book.

      I often avoid mirrors. But mostly because of a lot of deep down negative feelings about myself. It is easier not to look. Sometimes I force myself to actually look at myself and REALLY look. To find little bits of beauty.

      I will be looking at other bloggers experience with this.

    2. I like your internal dialogue. I think am going to adopt "so fucking metal" as a daily affirmation. My gut reaction to the no mirror project is always "but I LIKE my face in the mirror -- why would I not want to see it for a year?" Which I suppose is how it should be. Giving up weighing myself OTOH, that would probably be a beneficial challenge.

    3. Sleeping in earrings is totally metal. I do it more often than I'd like to admit. :)

      I used to hate looking into mirrors in any public place because I was teased a lot as a kid and the girls bathroom mirror was one I could always expect to look into and catch a nasty look/mocking face from someone behind me. At the time I felt ugly which of course made it even worse. Sometimes I still have to force myself to check my appearance in public restrooms before I leave. I mention this because although I find this experiment and mirror fasting fascinating, I know it's not for me. Avoiding OR analyzing my reflection is not going to be helpful for me and very likely to bring up old issues I've worked really hard to get through. I wonder if this is the case for others as well? Especially those who dismiss mirror fasts and claim they "just don't get it". Maybe thy do get it and just can't be honest with themselves.

    4. I feel more relaxed, the less I look in the mirror. Recently I've been unwell and didn't have the energy to do make up or wear jewellery, hence I looked less in the mirror. But whenever I did, I would usually feel down about how I looked...

    5. I don't think I could I abstain from looking in a mirror for an entire day. Kudos to those who can!

    6. I am going to try this project on a much smaller scale, and go a day without looking at myself in the mirror AND make it a day that I actually have to go out of my apartment. Kjerstin's experience gives a great perspective into what we find soooo important (but probably shouldn't).

    7. I have not looked in the mirror for most of my adult life...and I like the challenge of recording my thoughts when I DO look in the mirror. That may be a great way to return to blogging later this month.

    8. Oh I love your hair down. It's so lovely.

      Typically, I avoid mirrors. It's only really recently where I've begun to spend a second or two gazing purposefully at myself. It's frustrating because I notice how awful my skin it, and the giant whiteheads that keep popping up, and the bags under my eyes I never normally notice (since I avoid my reflection). In a way, staring at myself is (re)traumatizing, so I opt not to do it. Even if I'm looking in the mirror to check my hair or while I brush my teeth, there's a type of dissociation taking place where I don't really look at myself.

      So I'm fascinated by self ID'd women taking mirror fasts. For pretty much the entirety of my youth (and into college and after) I avoided mirrors. It never occurred to me that there would be people who willfully sought out mirrors and other reflective surfaces just so that they could look at themselves. Nor did it ever occur to me that people struggled with NOT looking at themselves.

      I hate looking at myself, and I loathe photos of me even more. The only photos I have of myself were taken by other people or for familial purposes : all situations in which I unhappily complied. The only recent photo of me (from several months ago) only exists because you need photos for applications to teach abroad.

      I guess I never understood how so many self ID'd women seem to dislike their bodies or faces and yet can't stop looking at them. Or maybe I'm just misinterpreting how people feel with their actions (??). But, I find myself ugly and refuse to look at my reflection. And that works for me.

      1. I had a couple of thoughts in response to your words. I have limited time to reply, so please excuse my rushed wordiness (I'm always worried I sound like I'm preaching!).

        1) "...seem to dislike their bodies or faces and yet can't stop looking at them".
        I've never felt it out of control, but I've often felt like if I just look closely enough, I'll figure out what is on my face and learn how to manage it to make it more attractive. How to hold my face, where to put what makeup, etc. I wonder if this is true for others? that more attention might 'fix' it?

        2) Photos. I have issues with photography in general (it seems to lie more than represent), but ignoring that... I despised photos of myself and my family (hurrah projection!) for a long time. We all claim that we're not photogenic. However, the more photos you take, the more likely you are to get a chance good one, and the better each one will seem. I'm convinced that acting in front of a camera is a skill and therefore possible to improve.
        Why bother? I started to when people in my family started passing away. Photo collages and memory books started to become more important, and I realized how few we had -- for example, I have only one picture of my parents in the same frame together in the past 3 years, and it's not even a good picture (in that they're not looking at the camera, etc.). I don't care what my great aunt looked like, I care that I have a picture of her. Beauty is not the only aspect of a person, nor the only one that is captured in a photo.

        So, I'm glad you cooperated with the familial photos you mentioned.

    9. You look awesome, was my first thought, and my second is that the awesome part was seeing all these sides of you. You're a whole, rounded, complete person in only one day! Thanks for waking me up to the diversity. Your comments and the sense of play in them really connected for me.

      [If I'm being terribly honest, my first thought at seeing the second picture was "oh hey, it's not just me whose hair looks a little bit less awesome from first getting up to a little later in the day". Not that your hair isn't lovely, but that we don't all exist only in one still frame, shot from the good side with nice lighting, after a heavy filter, sort of thing. And c'mon, you do look really hardcore in the first shot. :) ]

      I usually do not recognize myself in the mirror. My internal thought of myself has never matched my image (and don't get me started on photos).
      However, a funny thing happened this past year. I cut off my hair (33 inches of it), went through the usual hatred of it (why don't I look like the cute young things on Tumblr with pixie cuts? is 25 too old for everything? I am insane), etc., etc. BUT. One day I realized that my hair was long enough to put into a ponytail. I realized this after finding a stray elastic in the living room. A short while later, I went into the bathroom and glanced at the mirror. I discovered that I looked like "myself" in a way that I hadn't for months because finally my hair was up and pulled away from my face.

      I find the mirror fast intriguing, but for me, it's important to go the other way. My husband actually started telling me to get off the internet and go look in the mirror. I can let a bad mental picture of myself become even more distorted, whereas when I look in a mirror, I can find a good thing about myself, as has been mentioned in previous discussion on your site.

    10. I'm glad this idea is now on my radar. It usually takes me a few days or weeks of ruminating on something to actually implement it. Also, I notice that I see this as the potential "magic cure" to all this beauty stuff I'm constantly looking for...

    11. I really liked this post.

      I have always hated mirrors. Ever since I was a tiny. I've also always hated my photographs, this as well, from a very very young age.

      I don't know where I picked it up, or if it was just ingrained in me somehow. I tend to avoid mirrors in public places/certain lighting. I can't stand looking at photos of myself.

      However, I've become more receptive to both. I'll look at myself, just to see what I really do look like. I'll look at photos just to see if someone caught me looking like how I felt(which I don't think has ever happened). I read something that said most people dislike how they look in photos because they are so used to seeing things flipped in the mirror, so any asymmetries or "flaws" are more apparent when looking at a photo. Now, I don't know if this is true, but it makes me think!

      I have a bad relationship with mirrors and cameras, but I've been working on the relationship I have with myself and coming to accept "me" for me!

      When I was younger, I would catch myself in public mirrors, wondering who the heck that crazy girl was looking at! It always scared me to realize it was me. Sometimes it still does!

      Thank you for sharing. You are so enlightening.

    12. I believe most of us women have this fear. It is a challenge for us to look in the mirror during the stressful times or when we don't have any makeup on. Looking in the mirror is such a good exercise, emotionally and mentally. I love your advice. I think this will help in our confidence and for us to embrace ourselves, in both the good times and the bad times.

    13. It's so intimidating to think about giving up the mirror. I think I'll give it a try this weekend and see how it goes!

    14. I don't know that I could completely give up the mirror since I teach and have a pre-work check list (skirt too short? top too low cut? Hair not crazy?) that I run through before I walk out the door. Rarely do I get into picking apart how I look in the morning, that comes later when I catch a glimpse of myself in the mirror during my one bathroom break during the day. Of course it doesn't help that the light in the bathroom is extremely unflattering. Maybe I'll try it over the summer...

    15. I think it would very difficult not to look in the mirror, even for a day! I grew up in a household that had a mirror in every room and one right by the front door so, "you can make sure you look presentable before leaving the house." And, I've adopted that same thing in my own home. I'd be interested in giving it a try though...

    16. Fascinating project! I never considered that looking in the mirror would be tied to what I ate. Maybe I could use a mini mirror fast or at least some introspection on the matter.

    17. I stumbled upon this site -- I'm not a blog reader. But I just wanted to say thanks. I can relate on many levels. I had 3 children in 4.5 years, post eating disorder. I dealt with it by avoiding the mirror for about 5 years. I looked only enough to make sure I didn't have anything on my face before I left the house. That was the healthiest I'd ever been. Reintroducing the mirror reintroduced the scale, and you know where that went.

      I also was EDNOS, and felt that failure to be successful as an anoretic or sick enough to be bulimic. It was another example, thematic in my life, of how I was successful enough to achieve a goal, but not quite reaching my full potential.

      Thanks for speaking out. Best wishes.

    18. I had never heard of a mirror fast until I stumbled across your blog, and I think it's a great idea! As soon as I saw the part where you thought you looked good in the hungry photo, an eating disorder came to mind, so I found it interesting that later you reflected on this. I'm not sure I could do a mirror fast in my everyday life, but I'm going to keep it in mind for someday. It makes me think of camping and how liberating it can be to not think about or deal with getting ready (with make-up and such). Anyway, I think you look beautiful in all the pictures, and I'm glad I just found your blog!

    19. Awesome post! I will keep an on eye on your blog.

    20. Several pictures with the same person on them. The most coolest show ever.
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    21. this is really nice to read..informative post is very good to read..thanks a lot!