How To Control Your Life

Part 27

What do you see when you look in the mirror?

Perhaps you see yourself as you were five years ago? Or perhaps ten or twenty years ago? Or as you’d like to be? Or as your mother sees you or saw you? Or as your partner sees you or likes to see you?

How many times a day do you look in a mirror? When you get up and go to the bathroom to see how well - or otherwise - you look after a good or bad night? When you’re getting dressed? Just before you leave home? Every time you go to the loo? When you pass a mirror in a shop? Do you have a mirror in your desk drawer? Perhaps you’ve got one of those apps or programs which convert your smartphone or computer screen temporarily into a mirror?

Can you imagine yourself in a world without mirrors? A world where you could only see yourself dimly, fuzzily in a pool or a polished pan or shield? Would you ‘see’ yourself differently?

Seeing ourselves as others see us, and comparing ourselves with (enhanced and embellished) images of others is a very modern phenomenon. Before magazines, photographs, films, and the like, and before the invention and near-perfection of mirrors as we know them, humans only compared themselves with the other people they saw, in real life, around them. So, in the Middle Ages for example, you might have compared yourself with at most six or seven other people of the same age and sex as yourself - the self you saw only fuzzily staring back at you from roughly mirrored surfaces or natural mirrors such as water. There might have been no one at all of the same age and gender as yourself in your village or hamlet; maybe your sight was too poor to see even a fuzzy image of yourself.

How would not seeing yourself, clearly or at all, affect the way you perceive yourself?

In the Sixties, in what was then termed a ‘mental home’ for long-term patients, make-up was given to some of the inmates and they were encouraged to apply it and were then shown the results in hand mirrors. All the patients showed animation and response to some degree, and nurses and carers noted a far livelier atmosphere than was usually the case. One seriously disturbed woman who had not spoken or responded to people for years, when helped to make up her face and then shown the results in a mirror, smiled and then looked directly at the person helping her.

If you’re female you’re more likely to practise smiling when you look at yourself in a mirror (it’s one of the reasons women are seen as vain creatures…) - girls are actively encouraged to smile at everyone from when they’re very young babies. If you’re male, you’re more likely to practise a look of ‘gravitas’ of some sort (anything ranging from a superhero to the current Hollywood hero) because boy babies (even in these strenuously enlightened days) are encouraged to look tough. If you’re young you might spend a considerable time - alone or with a friend or two - pulling faces and seeing the effect in the mirror; if you’re old you’ll be checking the wrinkles and the greying hairs. Is there lipstick on your teeth? A smudge on your cheek? Is your five o’clock shadow too much? Do your eyes show just how much you drank last night?

Take a walk down Harley Street these days and look at the plaques. There are more than a few professionals practising in areas to do with personal appearance. Look at the glossy magazines, both at the advertisements and the articles, and see how much of it all is to do with personal appearance. Follow the money (how many impoverished plastic surgeons are there?).

If you want to control your life, you have to come to terms with the way you look. You can’t stride or ride into battle with the world if you’re worrying about the shine on your nose or your receding hairline, but on the other hand if you look completely unkempt all the time the world won’t grant you many favours. People who look good get ahead and are more welcome than those who look bad (but if you’re too good-looking you might get the odd stab in the back - and it only takes one of those to kill you…). Middling is, everything taken into consideration, best. Look presentable, take reasonable care of your hygiene, and you’ll be OK.

But is that enough? Perhaps you wanted more, in that halcyon time when you had immortal longings, your salad days? Perhaps you wanted to be the centre of things, to be noticed and welcomed wherever you went? Perhaps you wanted to look like a star, a superhero/model, someone famous?

Perhaps you did look like that someone? Perhaps you designed your beard, your make-up, the way you smile, that flirty look with your head down but your eyes up, with that person in mind - and perhaps you’re still doing it now? And perhaps it doesn’t look so good, thirty years on?

What about how you look from the back? What about how you look quarter-face on? Are the soles of your feet cute enough? Do you look sufficiently manly when you’re crouching down and someone asks you a question which you have to stop and consider? Do you look angelic when you’re angry?

How do you look to other people? Can you ever really know?

A friend of mine, let’s call her Margaret, on a rather sentimental occasion with her husband asked him (she was looking extremely good, this being a special night and she having pushed the boat out in terms of grooming) what he liked most about her appearance. He replied, instantly and with obvious sincerity: “The way you look when you’re ironing, all flushed and shiny and with your hair a bit damp at the front”. She did, ultimately, forgive him.

Make-up is all about looking healthy. Rosy cheeks, bright eyes, white teeth and so on are signs of health, so cosmetics mimic that look. On a date someone who’s well made up (and this includes both genders) has an advantage - and this advantage means a lot for the first few minutes. All the rest is about presentation, but it’s not the clothes (also the first few minutes) and accessories (another story, frequently about status) but confidence and the more subtle linkages between one person and another. The other person is really asking ‘Who are you?’, and there are myriad ways of answering and they’re not about appearance.

If you’re asked who you are, what do you answer? How much of that answer is to do with your appearance?

If you were on a desert island, without a mirror or any shiny surfaces and you could only see yourself in the odd pool of water, would your attitude to yourself change? Would you pay more attention to other parts of your body (“I’m not looking good today, my shins look yellow”)? Would you feel freer? Younger?

When you’re alone you feel more confident than when you have to go out and meet a group of strangers. A lot of the natural insecurity you feel in the latter situation is fixed on your appearance. If you look good, you feel more confident - so you take more pains with your appearance when you’re going to be meeting those strangers, and certainly if you’re going to be the centre of attention for some reason, than when you’re popping down to your local corner store for a packet of biscuits.

When someone I know first visited a Northern city centre (some time back when fashions were different) she was amazed to see women walking around in the early afternoon with their hair in curlers. “Where” she asked “are they going later that’s so much more important than where they are now?”.

If you had a look that was ‘you’, with which you felt completely confident, which fitted you like your own skin, it would put you far more in control of your life. If every move you made was unhampered by the clothes you wore, if every step you took was unfettered by your footwear, if your look had no reference to the current fashion but instead to your internal idea of yourself and who you are, you would be freer.

When you look in the mirror, what do you see?

Someone in control of their life?

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