In what time in our lives did we start to believe that mirrors were truthful?
I’m sure a mathematician or economic analyst could whittle it down to a certain number of hours; let’s say one thousand. If you’re a woman, chances are you’ve observed yourself much more often in a mirror. I took dance classes from a young age, so the sight of my body pitching and moving while others did so to greater and lesser degrees was familiar. There was a time when it became embarrassing. Luckily at this point, the insecure teenager in me wanted nothing to do with mirrors or group dancing or comparing my body’s lines and bumps to others.
Even when (or if) you’ve made relative peace with your body, through the compliments of a lover, or more sustainably through acceptance of the traits you can’t possibly change, the mirror is a false comfort.
There was a TED talk I watched once, in which the orator claimed she didn’t look in a mirror for around one year. It was an experiment in letting go of the self in some semi-Buddhist experiment. She said that year was one of the happiest of her life. I wondered if that same experiment could help me with whatever I struggled with as I looked in the mirror. Ignorance as bliss, or realizing you are so much more than your projected image? At the time I saw it, I was reminded of a scene in what I believe was the movie miniseries “Merlin”, which I viewed in the indiscriminating nostalgic phase of childhood in which ‘movie magic’ is present in every movie despite the production value or acting. Merlin was, if I remember correctly, a movie that had magic for more than just children. There was a scene in which a young woman was looking at herself in the mirror for the first time. In that time period, which I had never imagined to be real especially in such a fantastical mythical story, mirrors were a rare occurrence. When did lay people have a chance to glance at themselves in flat glass that had no purpose except for the vain and wealthy nobles? For most of time, humans have gone without seeing a clear reflection of themselves. This concept really stayed with me, as I realized how much I took the many mirrored glass frames that were placed around my home for practical and interior decorating purposes for granted.
The whole illusion of my childhood’s mirror self was shattered in the printed image of disposable cameras in the late 90s, and then the poor quality printed image of early point-and-shoot cameras. This new and delightful invention that was open to more than just grandparents and your rich friend’s parents allowed young teens such as myself to squeal in mock terror at how terrible we felt we looked. Was that really what we looked like? Weren’t our eyebrows the other way round? Were our chins really so large? Then the realization came, every time, that the self you viewed in the mirror was not what anyone else saw at all. Not that it mattered to anyone but you, but obsession settled over insecurities every time.
In short, we are unable to see ourselves.
If you are lucky, you meet people who hold up a relatively undistorted mirror to you, and not to your body and face, but to your personality. The people you feel best around are most likely the ones who hold up a version of yourself that resembles your own concept of yourself or one that is more positive than your own. There are also those people I’ve shared myself with who had such distorted conceptions of themselves that when I viewed myself through their mirror eyes I found someone insignificant, dumb, oversensitive, and irrational. There was a point of return that I chose or was offered when the exchange of identities vanished in a flurry of angry or disappointed words, or simply stopped as one of us ‘ghosted’ the other in the age of online communication.
As it turns out, the people whose faces you seek yourself in that are the most formative and the most dangerous tend to be lovers. We humans really have a way of wrapping ourselves around someone like a blanket you become tangled in during sleep and refusing to wake up to extricate yourself from. And if there’s one thing the romantic writers should have learned in their documented torturous lives, it was not to place one’s own emotional identity in the emotions of another person. But the intoxication of seeing yourself through a new lovers eyes is like the quick bubbly high of champagne. Who wouldn’t want to live in that image as long as possible? And in love, what is the point of bringing to an end this beginning stage through philosophizing or trying to see the whole truth, marring the illusion the two of you have created?
A few months ago, I was reading "Something like an Autobiography" by Akira Kurosawa. In one particularly memorable chapter, he recalls explaining the themes of Rashomon to three assistant directors a few days before shooting : "Human beings are unable to be honest with themselves about themselves. They cannot talk about themselves without embellishing. This script portrays such human beings-the kind who cannot survive without lies to make them feel they are better people than they really are. It even shows this sinful need for flattering falsehood going beyondd the grave-even the character who dies cannot give up his lies when he speaks to the living through a medium. Egoism is a sin the human being carries with him from birth; it is the most difficult to redeem. This film is like a strange picture scroll that is unrolled and displayed by the ego. You say that you can't understand this script at all, but that is because the human heart itself is impossible to understand. If you focus on the impossibility of truly understanding human psychology and read the script one more time, I think you will grab the point of it."
If we really are so fragile, then why do we go about trying to change ourselves? Trying to see ourselves clearly? Why am I not content with only seeing myself through the misty projections of a lover, or the idolizing, curious eyes of students? Why bother when all pop-mindfulness or deeper Eastern philosophy explains to us that the division we create between the self and others is false? Isn’t it a luxury alone to be able to think this much about myself? There are just too many hours in the day, too many mirrors on our screens, too many people hungry for some scrap of attention and affirmation that they are who they think they are. Even this post, this blog, this facet of my entire online identity is some projection of myself that as an artist I refuse to close down because of the need for expression but also confirmation that I’m making something with my time. That others find me worthy of something I can’t see within myself. So that I won’t crumble when I look back and ask myself what I did with my time. Even if I scowl while looking in the mirror or grimace at the wording of something I wrote or the terrible execution of a drawing, it’s a reflection of something. And reflections are infinitely more comforting than facing the sea of time that swallows all things.