I’m rarely reacting to other people’s actual appraisal of me. I’m not even reacting to my interpretation of their appraisal. I’m reacting to my appraisal of myself, using perfect strangers as my proxy.
After writing part 6 of this series, where I mentioned the idea of not looking in the mirror for a month, I found two blogs written by women who did no-mirror experiments. The quote above is from Autumn, who spent a month without mirrors, and the ideas she writes about in that post are also discussed by Kjerstin, who skipped mirrors for a whole year (and wrote a book about it). In her post on sociology and mirrors, she writes: “interactions with people inform how we will view ourselves in a mirror and the mirror, in turn, informs how we understand our interactions with other people”.
I definitely relate to this. Mirrors are a huge part of how I get by socially—I use them to make a judgment of myself, and then I assume everyone around me is making that same judgment. When I imagine not looking in a mirror before going out, I picture being filled with anxiety over not knowing how to interpret people’s looks or interactions with me. Autumn writes (in the same post linked above) of seeing a stranger looking at her on the subway during her project, “I had no anchor to hold onto, no private feeling of, ‘Well, I do look nice today’ or ‘I wish he would stop staring at the enormous pimple on my chin.’ Without having any idea what he might be seeing, I had no idea how I should feel about him looking at me.”
As the opening quote says, though, knowing what you look like doesn’t necessarily help you know what other people are thinking when they look at you. What thoughts or attitudes you ascribe to them is really a reflection on how you feel about yourself. In part 6, I wrote about feeling ugly and thinking people would accordingly treat me worse. They didn’t—and I could extrapolate from that that people are kinder than I think, that they won’t treat me differently even when I’m ugly. But I don’t think that would be the right conclusion to draw. Rather, I think it shows just how much my perception of my appearance reflects on my sense of myself in relation to other people—my sense of worth, of having a right to take up space.
In my college painting class we did self-portraits, and because they were supposed to be from life I had a small mirror clipped to my easel. One day while I was painting I had a brief interaction with someone that made me embarrassed, and I saw myself blush in the mirror. And it was a really weird moment, because normally when you look in a mirror it’s outside the context of interacting with people or actually doing anything; it’s a pocket of time when all you’re doing is seeing what you look like or making adjustments to your appearance. But that time I actually observed myself in a real-life situation, having an interaction with someone and a reaction to that interaction. It was strange and interesting, and a little uncomfortable, and it felt significant somehow.
When I Skype people, I spend half the time watching the little image of myself. I use it to fix my hair, to moderate my hand gestures and facial expressions. And even as I’m doing it I feel like I shouldn’t be, because that isn’t the point of Skype—I should be watching the other person. But I can’t break the habit. And sometimes I wish I could see what I look like to other people when I’m interacting with them all of the time… but I don’t think I would actually like it. Most people hate the idea of watching themselves in a video, because they know they’re going to hate how they look or act or come across. But when you’re stuck inside your own body, looking out from your own eyes, you just can’t get the same picture; you can’t perceive yourself the same way.
And that kind of keeps you safe, safe from your own judgment. Maybe the only reason anyone can cope socially is because we don’t have full self-awareness; we don’t know exactly how we appear to other people. You can walk out the door thinking you look confident and put-together, but once you’re outside your hair might get windblown, or a harried look might settle onto your face. But if you don’t know that, and still think you look like you did when you put on a smile and posed for the mirror after perfectly straightening your hair, you’re going to act like that confident person you think you look like.
Not knowing about every issue with our appearances, not knowing how we look when we laugh or cry or gesture excitedly, saves us from crippling embarrassment and self-consciousness. If we did know, we would feel like we couldn’t do anything, because we’re so hard on ourselves that we would only see flaws.