What happens if you don’t look in any mirrors for a month?

// 9 June 2011

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Blogger Autumn Whitefield-Madrano spent the month of May assiduously avoiding looking at herself in the mirror, and recorded the effects in depth on her blog, cleverly titled The Beheld.

Her posts are thoughtful examinations about things like emotional beauty labour:

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.

The experiment is over now – but it’s definitely worth digging into the archive for posts on stuff like the etymology of the word mirror, the fact being pretty is not an obligation and how clothes shopping changed without the consideration of dressing-room mirrors.

Via The Hairpin, where Autumn guest posted an amusing summary of her findings.

Photo by Helga Weber, shared on Flickr under a Creative Commons license

Comments From You

Clara X // Posted 10 June 2011 at 9:58 am

I’m not certain that this is as much to do with beauty as the author appears to suggest.

Human beings are social animals. We define ourselves partly through “the look of the other” – that is, who we are is reflected back from the people we interact with. We spend all our time living through our bodies, and we’d not always aware that we are a flesh and blood objects. Often, we’re only conscious of our bodies when someone else looks at us. It’s like stubbing your toe – you were only aware of your toes, your feet and your legs in a vague sense as part of the way in which you were walking, but as soon as you stub your toe you’re instantly aware of that particular bit of your body.

(And yes, the default gaze is male. So women are encouraged to see things from a socially constructed norm which is male. But my point is that it’s first and foremost a human interaction thing.)

Interacting with someone else does involve a certain amount of subconscious performance. If I’m surprised, I automatically put on a surprised face, because I want my companion to know that I’m surprised. If I was alone, I probably wouldn’t make such a strong facial expression.

However, I hadn’t thought about the role played by mirrors. If you look in a mirror, are you acting out the role of the other person? Is looking in a mirror artificially creating the “look of the other”, and therefore reassuring yourself that actually, yes, you do still exist?

sohcahtoa // Posted 11 June 2011 at 11:24 am

I know that it’s not the point that is being made – and it is, to be fair, is touched on here: http://www.the-beheld.com/2011/05/month-without-mirrors-525-update-you.html. Still, it’s a shame that the Hairpin summary feels the need to present make-up (and a lot of it – ‘Foundation, blush, bronzer, powder’!) and clothes shopping (‘I bought three dresses during my mirror fast…’) as essential, while otherwise suggesting that sometimes it’s good not to know how you look. And then ‘You can also make your mirror shroud super-girly so you don’t feel like you’re sitting shiva’. Obviously if people choose to wear make up and decorate their bedrooms in a hyper-feminine way, that’s fine, but the implicit assumption that everyone wants to is a bit depressing.

Jess McCabe // Posted 11 June 2011 at 11:32 am

@sohcahtoa I think that those problems/interpretations arise because the Hairpin piece was in a rhetorical third person voice, which a lot of Hairpin posts use. I don;t think the implication is really that everyone will see makeup or clothes shopping as essential… When you read Autumn’s blog, I don’t think it comes across like that at all because it’s so clearly about her…

hanna // Posted 18 June 2011 at 2:51 pm

This has interested me since I spent 3 months without a mirror, not through any plan just chance, I was working on a campsite and living in a tent. I did see mirrors in the toilets, but it was overall a very mirror-free experience and afterwards I really noticed that I had been quite different. I was more preoccupied with just doing what I wanted and didn’t really consider what other people thought of my looks simply because I had forgotten about my looks myself. I think I was more confident. Dunno if it was coincidence or not, but I also had the best sex of my life there, wearing very ugly clothes, no make up and with hairy, bitten legs. Who knows if I’d have got together with the guy that night if I had been more aware of what I looked like? Or if I’d have enjoyed myself so much?

Interestingly, I also lost weight, had clearer skin, got a healthy tan and generally looked pretty good when I got back to the real world, maybe because of the healthy lifestyle, or maybe because I wasn’t layering make up on and worrying about food and exercise? Perhaps also proof that constantly worrying about appearances is not only a ridiculous burden, but also counter-productive.

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