I don’t know about anyone else, but for me, mirrors are mostly utilitarian objects. I look into them to a) make sure the toothbrush actually goes into my pie-hole instead of poking me in the eye; b) to double-check that my buttons are properly lined up with my button-holes; c) to ascertain that no glaringly horrible stains mar the clothing I probably picked up off the floor to put on. Sure, there are times when I’m getting ready for something special and taking care with my appearance – mirrors come in handy then, too.
I don’t avoid mirrors. In fact, in my apartment there are two whole walls of mirrors in exactly the places you’d most want them: the kitchen and the bathroom (luckily, unlike my friend Mike’s place, my bathroom “wall o’mirrors” is behind me when using the toilet). Because of this, avoidance is hardly practical. On the other hand, I also don’t go out of my way to gaze into these mirrors. On the whole, I’d say my relationship with mirrors is pretty healthy.
Except when its not.
For example, one evening, as we toured out-of-town friends around the city, we found ourselves at the Guthrie Theater. The lobby leading to The Endless Bridge has deep-set windows with mirrored window surrounds. Usually, I have fun with these mirrors, as they reflect the sky and surrounding landscape in interesting ways and from unusual angles. But on this particular evening, I made a horrible discovery: Women my age, who have lost more than half their body weight, should not look down into a mirror. Gravity was not my friend. It conspired against me to throw every wrinkle and every bit of loose skin into stark relief. I was immediately plunged into a depression born of sheer horror. I wanted, nay, needed, a facelift – STAT! For the next twenty-four hours, I was obsessively checking my status in mirrors: a little old? a lot old? Just where did I fall on the spectrum between Meryl Streep in “The Devil Wears Prada” and Meryl Streep in “Into the Woods”? Every mirror I glanced at made me feel haggard and flabby.
Mirrors are nothing but bits of reflective glass, though. Despite our reactions, they don’t exist for the purpose of self-judgment or recriminations. As inanimate objects, mirrors cannot “make” us see or feel these things. Rather, the self-criticism and self-loathing we sometimes feel are coming from sources more hidden and more insidious. We’ve drunk in our culture’s singular version of perfect beauty since birth, and we have internalized it to the point at which we can’t even see that it is unattainable for everyone – even for those held up as models of it. They’ve been digitally or surgically remastered to look that way.
I’m proud to have lost so much weight, and even more so to have kept it off (some days it seems almost miraculous). My body is so much stronger and healthier than it once was. I feel so much more physically free than I once did. Much of the time I happily celebrate my body and its accomplishments. Yet, I am also often sad, embarrassed, shame filled when I think of my body. It lacks symmetry, it lacks flatness, it lacks tautness. I have an excess of skin where I would prefer not to. There are rolls and lumps and overflows where there ideally should be none. The existence of mirrors will not let me forget this, though mirrors are hardly to blame.
The poet, Marge Piercy, laments our cultural desire for body perfection in several of her poems. In “Belly Good”, she speaks to her belly, saying:
…You’re not supposed to exist
at all this decade. You’re to be flat
as a kitchen table, so children with
roller skates can speed over you
like those sidewalks of my childhood
that each gave a different roar under
my wheels. You’re required to show
muscle striations like the ocean
sand at ebb tide, but brick hard…
In the poem, Piercy goes on to celebrate her belly, tracing it through her grandmother and mother, claiming its softness and spread as comforting, its presence as a strength. I was reminded of this poem as a friend complained about her belly getting in the way of tasks she was attempting. Her partner gently reframed this, saying that her belly was perfectly lovely and more useful than problematic. It was a sweet, fleeting moment. What if we could love our own bodies like that? Shouldn’t we extend the same amount of compassion to ourselves as we so often do toward others?
Imagine how differently we might feel if we did so? And not just about our fleshy bits. What if our compassion extended to things like gray hair and wrinkles, balding heads and chin hair and crooked teeth? What if we took the highly un-American stance that all bodies belong on the beach (because it feels good and is good for the soul)? What if we celebrated the body electric, like Whitman and the kids from Fame? Beginning with my imperfect body. Beginning with yours?
What if we all finally made peace with mirrors?