Narcissus gazed into a pool of water falling in love with his own image thus beginning a life of deep suffering. A dog looked into his reflection over a bridge and dropped his bone in order to grab the illusion of a better offer. The evil queen asked the mirror who was the fairest every day receiving assurance until she heard a new message that derailed her.
There are warnings throughout mythology, fables, and fairytales of the dangers of the mirror. The mirror is a formidable thing. I thought about this during my extremely twerky Zumba class at the local YMCA. I rarely look in the mirror when I exercise, and when I do, it’s a furtive uncomfortable glance. The question is why?
Mirrors are proof that we matter, that we are matter, that we take up space.
We have a strange relationship with mirrors. In public bathrooms, we wear a business-like expression when we reapply lipstick giving the cold shoulder to the person staring back at us. We frown at ourselves as we wash our hands.
Looking into a mirror is mostly a private act. We don’t want anyone to see us see ourselves. To get the comparison with selfies out of the way, selfies are not mirrors. They are performances. The small soulless lens is a pretend eye we give pretend warmth too. It’s funny how we can smile at a little black glass circle but not our own reflection. You don’t mind doing a selfie in public because we’ve come to accept this idiotic notion that life is not local and that our audience is ‘out there.’ It’s not. We are among the living and we are alive.
There was a time when I spent more time in the mirror and the experience grounded me and kept life in perspective. The mirror, often maligned as the place where we scrutinize ourselves and beat ourselves up for not being perfect, is also the place where we can actually see ourselves and remind ourselves that we are alive, unique, and literally of substance.
The mirror of our formative years
When I was younger, I did a lot in front of a mirror. I talked on the phone. I gave myself pep talks. I cried. I sang, sometimes with friends. and hairbrushes. For hours. Later, I drew myself in mirrors for art classes.
I have a memory traveling alone in Europe right after college. I was in Rome staying with an Italian girl I’d met in New York. There was a lot of tension. She was surprised I didn’t shop for my basics at stores like Max Mara and Missoni. She lived with her parents. They made her dinner every night. She didn’t have to work. I didn’t understand her, and she didn’t understand me. I was happy to finally leave and told her I was taking a train to Switzerland, but stayed another night in a hotel near the train station and listened to Fiona Apple and sang into the mirror. That memory is strong because I remember feeling free and happy and real.
The mirror can remind us of many things. That we are rich in detail. That we are guardians of our memories.
The mirror always told me I existed when things outside myself were frightening. The mirror was also fun because there was someone, me!, who got my sense of humor. Even if I didn’t like the way I looked that day, I felt a connection to myself and was an advocate for myself. You could tell the mirror, screw everyone, and the mirror would be the only one to understand and not judge.
So why did I stop looking in the mirror?
Somewhere along the line, I stopped looking in the mirror for any length of time. Maybe I thought I’d signed off on all the metaphorical forms that said ‘I know who I am, I can stop examining.’
I think that’s a mistake now. When we are in our 30s, 40s, 50s and upward, we should return to the mirror. Looking at yourself is a way of checking in with who you are in the world and to yourself. And as that self evolves over the years, why not stay friends with that new, possibly wiser person and all of her layers of time and experience. But I didn’t think of it that way.
It’s funny how we can smile at a little black glass circle but not our own reflection.
As I got older, I thought less about my appearance and being a witness to my selfhood and became more focused on my intellectual and spiritual growth, my survival, my kids, my career, and getting the dishes done.
I stopped being the skinny little thing I’d been when I was younger — but even then, I didn’t want to be such a skinny little thing and only had intermittent feelings of self-appreciation for my youthful looks. I was hypercritical then and now as we all are. I pretended I wasn’t, dressing mostly in jeans and throwing my hair in a bun, but I still cared how I looked, even if I didn’t sacrifice myself to 6-inch heels.
I also wasn’t thrilled by seeing how tired or puffy I looked as I got older and I started to prefer to get the mirror stuff over quickly. When I was pregnant, that definitely changed. I was in awe of my changing body and definitely stared in the mirror at my belly holding not one but two growing lives and two placentas. My belly protruded past my fingertips if I put my elbow alongside my waist. I was huge. I couldn’t help but stare. And I loved what I saw.
I went back to feeling puffy and tired after kids but now that I’m exercising very regularly, I don’t see myself that way. Now that I’m writing regularly, I also feel better about the mirror too. Funny that.
Resting Bitch Face became a meme for a reason. This morning I passed a woman walking briskly in her yoga pants wearing an expression like she was nose deep in sewage. Maybe she didn’t give “any f’s” but I’m pretty sure she had no idea that she looked like that. (I’m guilty of this too!) This is not to say women should smile or be bubbly all the time but it’s still okay to be aware and give intentional communication your best shot.
The mirror as lifelong guide
The mirror can remind us of many things. That we are rich in detail. That we are guardians of our memories. That we evolve. That we have scars and flaws. Mirrors are evidence that we are living. That we belong to a long lineage of people who walked the earth before us leading up to this moment. That we woke up another day and kept going. That we are not ghosts or performative, evaporating Instagram stories.
Mirrors are proof that we matter, that we are matter, that we take up space. We see ourselves and other people see us too. We are significant. We belong to something bigger. And at the same time, nobody is quite like us.
Mirrors are an important way to check in with ourselves. To keep us acquainted with our place in the world. So next time you happen to pass a mirror, give that mirror — and you, by extension — your attention. Witness yourself and see yourself while you are still here.