21. 1. 2021

English Version | The tyranny of the mirror

by Mathilde Misciagna


It is in it that we see reflected the projection we make of ourselves - what we want to see, what we fear to see, what we used to see. We seek his approval as much as we fear what (it) may have to tell us. But would we be able to live without this object, only apparently discreet, which we call a mirror?

Fotography Evelyn Bencicova; Model Ela Tolstov

When I discussed with my mother, a Portuguese teacher, that for January I had to write about mirrors (or the lack of them), she told me the story of The Mirror or the Living Portrait, by Sophia de Mello Breyner Andresen, and I liked it so much that I'm going to tell you succinctly, here, with a purpose. In very ancient times, a couple with a young daughter lived in a Japanese village. One day the father, who was a tea dealer, had to go to Kyoto to do some business. When he returned, he brought with him an unknown object in those places, but much appreciated in the capital of Japan - where each woman had one. And the man opened a cardboard box delivering his wife a piece of glass surrounded by wood. The woman went silent, looking in the mirror. "Tell me what you see," asked her husband. "I see a young and beautiful woman in a blue kimono just like mine," she replied. "Goofy," he said, "You see your own image because the mirror, like lake water, reflects things perfectly." And she was so amazed that for many days she thought of nothing else. Whenever she was alone she contemplated her image in the mirror. She did not get tired of admiring her own almond-shaped eyes, oval face, coral-colored mouth and shiny black hair. Then, in distress, she put the mirror in the box very quickly, kept it in a safe place and never saw herself again. The years passed, and as the daughter grew up she became more and more like her mother. One day, her mother fell ill and, before she died, she remembered the box with the mirror. Fearing that her daughter would find it and become a vain and futile fool after the confrontation with her image, she called her and handed her the box saying: “After my death you will see me again whenever you want. See, inside this box is my living portrait. It's called a mirror. When you want to see me, smile at it and I will smile back at you.” After her mother's death, the girl fetched the box and took it to her room. She opened it and, looking into the mirror, her mother's face appeared in front of her just as she had promised. But she was not the pale, tired mother of recent times: she was the young and beautiful mother of her childhood, with transparent skin, coral mouth and shiny black hair. She smiled, her mother smiled back at her, and they let it be together for a long time. I liked this story and I consider it the perfect allegory for the role that the mirror can play in our existence: a small obsession, with all that it brings, good and bad, or a simple object - that if we smile at, it smiles back at us. Living in a world full of reflections helped us to get to know each other better, superficially, but it also generated dissociation. By transforming our faces into images of scrutiny, the mirror has made us more careful with ourselves as objects, at the expense of taking care of ourselves as whole beings. 

That said, when we look in the mirror we rarely see ourselves. We see a projection - what we want to see, what we fear to see, what we used to see. The ego that we have access to through the mirror is the product of misunderstandings, a false recognition. But it is in the mirror that lyes the key to this recognition, and it also represents a constant search for control. Control over the image we present to the world, of course; and control over whether we fall within a certain standard of beauty or not. But this vigilance is, above all, an effort to carefully control our ideas about ourselves. Because if we are our most severe critic, we are also our most fervent, yet subjective, observer, and so looking in the mirror can be a form of self-inflicted slavery. And yet, we humans created this system, we wrote the rules. We empowered clothes, we empowered makeup, and ... we empowered the mirror. What would a world be like without it? Freer? Boring? More or less complicated? It is much easier to ask these questions than to actually test them in a world that overestimates aesthetics - in harmful and unavoidable ways - and choosing to stand on the sidelines requires a sacrifice that goes beyond simply reaching the conclusion that we are whole beings. It means enduring judgments that we didn't ask for and eventually transmitting messages that we didn't intend to convey. It is very difficult to take advantage of the abundance of opportunities available in life, at all levels, if we do not feel capable or worthy. Could a year without mirrors lead to greater self-acceptance and appreciation of one's own body? For many people, most of the problems with self-image and self-esteem are precisely linked to the way they feel about their body. The more improvements they feel they need in terms of their appearance, the less confident they feel, and the so-called snowball effect begins. Throughout history, mirrors have been associated with vanity and narcissism. The absence of a full-length mirror could mean a decrease in self-awareness and, consequently, excessive self-analysis. However, we need this self-awareness and its accompanying capacity to change our personality in order to function in a global context, in society. Sometimes we fall into the trap of thinking that there is some "authentic self", that it is our responsibility to honor it, and that any manipulation of that "self" is a betrayal. There is no such thing. This “self” changes according to the context, time, place and company.

In an experimental article on the Buzzfeed website, journalist Lara Parker accepted the challenge and, for a week, completely banned mirrors and any other possibility to face her reflection. No selfies, webcams, stopping in front of reflective surfaces or even asking other people about her own appearance. I was inspired by it and did the same for three full days. At home I have four mirrors. I like mirrors and I always thought they were a good tool for expanding rooms. Besides that I use the full body mirror to share my daily look on Instagram through a beautiful mirror selfie. Millennial stuff not even worth talking about. On the first day, I had barely gotten out of bed and was already nervous about the future absence of my reflection. I wrote down in my diary the following: “Is it going to be like waxing, when I imagine an atrocious pain and then after all it's (more or less) ok? Or am I going to have symptoms of drug addiction, looking for my reflection even in the spoon?” Contrary to my first thoughts, I spent the day well, working. I saw my figure a few times in frames around the house and at the dishwasher tap, but that was just it. I dressed up a bit scared, a bit “safe choice” - two words (fear and safe) that I usually do not consider at all about my outfit, preferring unexpected details instead. I got some orders in the mail, namely trousers and bikinis. I tried on the trousers without the help of a mirror and found them small, I felt like a canned sausage inside them. “I wonder if the mirror also sees me this flat? Does the mirror also think I have to size up?”, I thought. I’m curious about this finding that I need the mirror to find out if in the eyes of others - yes that’s right - something suits me. With the bikinis I didn't even bother to do a try-on. Swimwear is always minefield, to proceed with caution. I threw everything awkwardly onto the couch, giving up any final verdict. Without a mirror, this verdict was not possible for me. On the second day, before taking a shower, I wrote in the diary: “I feel like a little monster, I feel like I'm living in the dark, groping. I'm missing being somewhere.” On the third day laziness had taken over me: without encouragement or motivation to get ready, I put on the same tracksuit as the previous day and grabbed my hair on the top of my head in a hideous top knot. I inadvertently saw my reflection in the kitchen window (caught by surprise by very strong rays of sunlight) and screamed hysterically. A mix of "I saw a ghost" with "I'm stealing gum and I got caught." Saturday morning, when I was finally able to uncover the mirrors, I did a kind of silly ritual as if I were a child opening a Christmas present. When I saw my face and hair in the mirror, I felt disgust. That was exactly it. "What hair is this?" was the first question, followed by a “My face is full of pimples, how disgusting.” During the three days I did not realize the seriousness of the situation because although I could feel it, I did not see it and that is why I did not spend more than mere seconds thinking about the state of my face. I didn't even have a chance to do the classic skin picking in front of the mirror, in which I pick at my skin until I form wounds. Conclusion: although I think that the absence of my reflection calmed me and removed some pressure not only when it comes to my skin, but also to the way I dress in the morning, I would not do it again. Although I felt a certain disorientation, my relationship with the mirror does not concern me to the point of needing to take a vacation from it.

Experience has shown me that to live without our reflection would be practically impossible and it is curious to think how we are always being confronted with our own image. Even without wanting to, we can see it everywhere - in the dishwasher, on a tap, in a shop window... the list is endless. It is not born with us not to like our reflection in the mirror for one reason or another, that happens when we face the world and compare ourselves with other people, other images, with other ideals and standards. This is where we begin to doubt our reflection and abandon our private moment of confidence. That's when we start to use the mirror as a mechanism for self-criticism and hate. The mirrorless, or the people who have only one mirror at home and is usually the one above the washbasin in the bathroom, say they feel satisfied and free from these small, but insistent, self-assessment opportunities. Their choice represents something rare and interesting: the refusal to delight in their own image. Perhaps they have seen themselves enough. Being less confronted with their image makes them think less of it and there is less scrutiny. It does not mean that they worry less, but their appearance is not a priority. Not having a full-length mirror could prove to be punitive and, instead, what starts out as a frustration at the inability to find your reflection has the potential to become a kind of “blind” trust. The mirrorless, which hold a limited number of mirrors, focus more on themselves as a whole and on what they feel, and less on their reflection. Their total lack of interest in the external aspect makes them feel a certain superiority - which turns out to be another form of vanity.

At first, we are able to even appreciate the break with the relentless self-criticism unleashed by the mirror. But as this challenge progresses, we start to avoid social interactions and we seem to become more socially awkward. This is because we use the mirror in the same way as face-to-face communication: to get feedback on who we are and what we are experiencing at that moment. A quick look in the mirror reaffirms our sense of identity. Mirrors help us to regulate our emotions and synchronize with ourselves and with others, avoiding anxiety caused by social interactions. All in all, when we see our reflection in the mirror, most of the time, we do it with a critical eye and much more rarely with pride. Not looking at our reflection at all can be liberating, but not full-time. However, sometimes, we should be able to forget about it, or at least be able to see it only as a useful tool that prevents us from leaving the house with a stain or something in our teeth. Not as an oracle, not as an object that has control over us.

Translated from the original on Vogue Portugal's The Mirror issue, published january 2021.
Full credits and spread on the print issue.