Sunday, August 21, 2011

Stepping away from the mirror and into the self

I have a dirty little morning ritual of looking through the yahoo news headlines while drinking my coffee. This morning, I was intrigued by a on Shine article about a bride who has sworn off mirrors for a year, which got me to thinking: Why do we look at mirrors so frequently? According to the article, recent studies show that the average number of times a woman looks in the mirror is over 70 times in just one day and Renee Engeln-Maddox, Ph.D., psychology professor and body image expert at Northwestern University, says that "constantly checking ourselves out in the mirror can be bad for our mental health". So what gives?

Having sworn off scales myself after the hard work of untangling some serious eating and body issues in college, I can relate to this bride's desire to rewrite the script of self-examination. In an effort to focus on how I felt rather than what I weighed, I made the conscious and strangely terrifying choice eight years ago to no longer weigh myself. Never. That means no scale in my house, the awkwardness of turning my back at the doctor's office and exercising tremendous restraint at friends' houses. (Although I admit to the weakness of secretly weighing myself in the aisle of a Walmart bathroom section at least two times.) It was a somewhat drastic move but a necessary step towards healing and making friends with my body. When weighing yourself becomes a ritual that has the power to change the course of your day, your mood and your self-opinion, it's simply time to step away from the scale.

When I first attempted to break the scale habit, terror and uncertainty ensued. Seriously. How would I know how I was doing without a scale? How would I know what to eat? How would I know how to feel? Yes, these are odd questions to direct at an electronic box that sits next to my toilet. But upon reflection, they were precisely the questions I was seeking to answer through the morning (and sometimes afternoon and evening and post-meal) race to the scale. If the number was slightly lower, then it was a good day. I was accomplished, proud. But oh, if that number was disappointing, I was devastated and filled with a self-loathing so powerful that it would inevitably lead me right back to food, perpetuating the dysfunctional cycle. The numbers, quite effectively, were dictating my day. In the absence of the scale's daily prophecy, however, I was left with the perplexing task of turning inwards to determine how I felt, relying on my brain and stomach to help me decide what to eat. Turning away from the scale forced me to step into myself to examine why the scale mattered so much and to begin the daunting task of determining alternate paths to appraise my self-worth. 

Mirrors have also proven particularly deceitful, an untrustworthy and fickle friend who turns faces from one moment to the next. But alas, mirrors are more difficult to swear off. They surround us in our homes, workplaces, cars, even in the tinted glass that lines our walks home. We look to mirrors for assurance that there's nothing in our teeth, that we're fully clothed and sometimes, for confirmation that we still exist. But why? Why do we need to look at the self so frequently? Is there reassurance in a glance at the self? After all, as our selves, we are in the strange predicament of being the only person in our lives who actually can't see what we look like. In this sense, we exist in a perpetual state of vulnerability, having to rely on the kindness of others to signal us if we are somehow alarmingly disheveled or embarrassingly exposed. And trusting others, well, that's a whole other mess.

And so we look to mirrors. But have you ever really watched someone looking at themselves? Next time you see someone looking at the mirror, look at their face. You will see that in their search into the reflection, there lingers a question. I don't know what this question is and perhaps it's different for everyone but I would be willing to hedge my bets that "Who am I?", "Where do I fit?" and "Do I like me?" are top contenders. And this leads me to wonder, like my experience with the scale---is the mirror best suited to answer these questions? Or is the mirror just the ultimate red herring, distracting us from true self-knowing through the bewitchment of self-appraisal?

I'm curious. . .what do you all think? Why do we use mirrors so much? And could you live without them?

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Anonymous said...

This resonates, Jess. I got rid of my scale for a long time and full length mirrors as well. Frequenting either one usually triggered negative self talk that was really damaging for me. Women are assaulted with the media's version of "the ideal" beauty, and it is a catalyst for so much resistance and denial of what is: a unique body that enables you to love, live your life fully, and be loved.

Two things that help me are hooping and affirmations stuck to my bathroom mirror. Hooping got me out of my head and into my body again, breeding a fascination with something positive that I could do in harmony with my body, rather than contributing to the ongoing war I had with it. Hooping gave me a reason to appreciate my body again. Affirmations taped to my mirror like "You are beautiful", "I love you", and so on became a reminder for me to tell myself kind things in the mirror, rather than always searching for a flaw. The two things combined still help when I start feeling overly critical about my physical self.


Jessica DeMink-Carthew said...

Lauren, thanks for sharing your techniques and lady, those pics of you hooping are phenomenal! You shine with self-awareness. I think you raise a great point about finding something you can do in harmony WITH your body instead of fighting it.

Denise said...

This really resonated with me, too. Weighing in has a lot of power over my day and a 'bad' number triggers a lot of negative self talk. I think I may try to step away from the scale for a little bit and see what life is like without it. It feels kind of scary but it also needs to be done. Thanks for this post! It gave me a lot to think about.

Jessica DeMink-Carthew said...

Denise, I am so happy to be inspiring someone else to let go of the scale habit! Isn't it strange how scary it feels? I take this as an indication that there's something dysfunctional about the attachment. Let us know how it goes! :)

Anonymous said...

I loved this post- it was so thoughful and introspective. It made me think a lot about when I look in the mirror, and how I feel when I do. My mirror experiences can be broken into two categories: when I'm at work, and when I'm at home.

At work I think I am more critical of myself--I'm very aware of my clothes (do I look professional enough?), my hair (I really need a hair cut), and my general appearance (why do I never wear makup?) And those experiences are probably heavily influenced by what's happening at work that particular day.

However, when I'm at home my experiences with the mirror are completely different, because they almost always involve Owen--before and after his bath, washing his hands after he eats, etc. Sometimes I look at both of us, and I search out features that are the same on my face and his. I think about how much he looks like Drew, or how adorable his chin is (just like my dad's) or how much he's grown. And sometimes I am just in awe that I created this little perfect being, who likes to watch in the mirror too while I comb his hair and brush his teeth. I think looking at our reflections together doing daily tasks is like pinching myself that it's all real and he exists and it's amazing.

So, to answer your question: living without a mirror at work might make me less obsessed with my own lack of makeup, but I wouldn't want to give up the bits of the day when I can look at myself with my son and feel totally blown away by life.


Anonymous said...

The mirror was not a friend of Sylvia Plath. It served to reflect her depression, desperation and fear of aging with dreams left unfulfilled. We know how that ended.

by Sylvia Plath

I am silver and exact. I have no preconceptions.
Whatever I see, I swallow immediately.
Just as it is, unmisted by love or dislike
I am not cruel, only truthful –
The eye of a little god, four-cornered.
Most of the time I meditate on the opposite wall.
It is pink, with speckles. I have looked at it so long
I think it is a part of my heart. But it flickers.
Faces and darkness separate us over and over.

Now I am a lake. A woman bends over me.
Searching my reaches for what she really is.
Then she turns to those liars, the candles or the moon.
I see her back, and reflect it faithfully
She rewards me with tears and an agitation of hands.
I am important to her. She comes and goes.
Each morning it is her face that replaces the darkness.
In me she has drowned a young girl, and in me an old woman
Rises toward her day after day, like a terrible fish.


Jessica DeMink-Carthew said...

Erin, you make excellent points about the ability for a mirror to allow us to see ourselves and others. I love the idea of you capturing moments with Owen throughout your day. If only all interactions with mirrors could be so positive! I also think it's interesting that you feel that looking at you and Owen makes you feel like it is somehow more real. I totally get that.

Jessica DeMink-Carthew said...

Laura, oh my goodness! That is an excellent connection. :) What strikes me most is that Sylvia Plath's poem seems to remind us that it has nothing to do with the mirror itself, who is "faithful" but the value and purpose that we give to its reflection. Love it!
Erin, maybe this is the difference between your interactions with the mirror when you are with Owen as opposed to at work?

Anonymous said...

Really thinking about this topic tonight and so many thoughts going on in a fragmented way - which is usually the path to deeper understanding. In terms of the personification and symbolism of the poem I've read hundreds of personal interpretations. Every time I read it I see something new especially now as a post-menopausal middle-aged woman (just you guys wait, this issue of physical change as reflected in the mirror is forefront and takes time, and in my case some depression and finally that good acceptance stage to reconcile.) After decades of living in my body that looked and felt pretty much the same, the changes my body had gone through felt like a betrayal. The poem speaks to me in that with the juxtoposition between the the silver, exact image of self in youth to the contrasting blurry image one would see in a lake. Instead of reconciling these two changing images of self in acceptance of a life full of love and one well lived, Plath succumbs to her depression and dissappointment in life as illustrated by the ugly, scaled fish coming to the surface of that murky lake.

OK. Did I completely over analyze that or what?

Erin. I was thinking that your different sense of self between work and home is that at home, looking in the mirror with your son you are at peace; there is nothing to reconcile nothing judging you outside of yourself - that image is authentic and real.

Anonymous said...

Interesting post Jessica. I have had a very strange relationship with both scales and mirrors, that is until high school. I have always been the 'fat kid' or the 'big girl', so the number on the scale always seemed a little abstract. So eventually, after going through a very dangerous anorexic period in 7th grade, then gaining it all back, I stopped paying attention. Then I was offered the very best advice I have ever heard. I was in 8th grade and commenting to a relative that I was unhappy with my looks. She was a very smart sales person and told me how much she sold and how important she was in her company. She also, happened to be very large, but so confident it didn't matter. She said "if you don't believe that you are great and beautiful, who will?" It has stuck all these years and she is probably the reason I am now a sales person with a high ranking job, grossing over $12M for my company.

Strangely I am now on a new path. I recently underwent gastic bypass surgery. Let me reassure you, this is not for vanity. I refuse to die young and be unhealthy my whole life and make my kid upset or nervous as my. Parents did - or worse, miss out on half of her life like my father did by passing away when I was 22 and my sister was still too young to drive.

But now I am slightly nervous that this grand ability of personability and empathy that has helped me in life and work may be different when I loose the weight and for the first time in my life am not obese. Strange,huh? - hollyweasel

Jessica DeMink-Carthew said...

Wow Holly, thanks so much for sharing your story. What strikes me is that somehow, no matter what size we are, appearance (and weight) somehow become linked with our identity, as evidenced by your anxiety over impending physical changes. I wonder if this is just inevitable or if this link between self and size is something that is socially constructed. I am also curious to hear about the hard work you must have done to shift the dialogue with yourself as a teenager into one of self-acceptance. What worked for you?

Jessica DeMink-Carthew said...

Thought of this discussion we had here as I was writing my new post "Lessons in Accidental Smut" today. When exactly do we learn to view our body as enemy, as project, as currency?