Saturday, December 02, 2006

Maybe it's the mirror: A reflection on body image
Dec. 1, 2006

Nobody in our household is quite sure when the happy mirror first arrived.
For the longest time, only my stepdaughter knew of its magical powers. The otherwise ordinary full-length mirror hung in her bedroom for years and I learned of its charms only after she moved away and left it behind.
I’ve known about the existence of bad mirrors for many years, of course, being well familiar with those kind. I can’t count the number of store dressing rooms that have broken my heart over the years with their bright lights and bad mirrors.
The happy mirror, on the other hand, tells a much different story to those who look into it. Wherever your body type and tendencies have taken you, it makes you look taller and thinner, and quite nicely proportioned. Your clothes look better. Your hair is neater. You look rested.
At first, I resisted its allure. A mirror that made you look good just seemed like too guilty of a pleasure after a lifetime of bad mirrors. I worried that it would swoon me into thinking I looked OK all the time. Heaven forbid.
But one day a few months ago, it just became obvious to my partner and I that we loved the happy mirror. There’s no denying the pleasure of walking by it as you breeze back and forth in the morning. The happy mirror sends you out the door feeling terrific.
Is it wrong to be so caught up with the image in the mirror? We’ve loved mirrors for a long, long time: first as ponds, then polished metal, and now as treated glass. For better or worse, we are fascinated by our own reflections.
I have no real idea what I’m looking for when I glance in a mirror. I suppose I want to see the person I present to the world. It’s an effective tool for steely-eyed assessment and reconsideration - for getting the poppyseed out of your teeth, the mascara off your nose, your clothes aligned.
The happy mirror, on the other hand, is like having a kind-hearted person on hand at all times to warmly declare that you look really good. Stubby and thick around the middle? Not a bit. Slouching and pot-bellied? Nope. You’re just right.
That women loathe their bodies is nothing new. Any number of theories have been put forward to explain that - media images, social conditioning, marketing. What isn’t in dispute, however, is that what we see in the mirror continues to matter to us.
I searched on “Why do I hate my body?” in Google this week and came up with page after page of Web sites devoted to the question.
Some encourage continuing to hate your body by naming which part bugged you the most, while others denounced the fixation with body image and put the blame on the patriarchy, corporations and oppressive social conditions. One blogger wrote that she used to hate her body, but now hates “the forces that conspire to make you hate your body.”
But has anyone considered the role of the humble mirror in all of this? Could it be that we were happier when there were only pond surfaces and the warm glances of passing strangers to convey to us how we looked?
Up until the late 1800s, mirrors weren’t so hot. The techniques to make them were far from perfect, and the materials were a challenge. Then a German chemist invented silvering and the modern mirror was born. Life would never be the same.
These days, we check ourselves in countless mirrors as a matter of course. The one in the bedroom. The one in the bathroom. The car’s rear-view. Shiny glass buildings. Staff washrooms. Elevators. Mirrors greet us at every turn, passing their opinion on how we look with no regard for whether we want to know.
Before I came upon the happy mirror, I thought I was condemned to always finding some aspect of myself wanting in my reflection. I suspected that that it was one of those garden-variety issues related to self-esteem and body image, perhaps related to some inner psychological tripwire from my childhood I hadn’t worked out yet.
Never once did I wonder if it was the mirrors.
But to experience the happy mirror is to realize that you are whatever the mirror says you are. And if it says you cut one fine figure, you do. A lifetime of bad mirrors at every turn has left us believing the worst of ourselves. But that’s nothing that a good mirror can’t fix.
We don’t have to look for our personal truths in bad mirrors. We can seek out happy mirrors - pass a regulation requiring them in all public places, even. No more disappointments.
What’s the worst that could happen? We’d start every morning believing that we looked great. It’s not perfection we need - just mirrors that make us feel that way.