What sadist invented the mirror?
A mirror is a device that we can’t avoid looking at dozens of times a day, but it passes back judgment without fail. We wouldn’t put up with a person disparaging our looks every time we glance at them, but we are completely OK with doing it to ourselves.
Kind of a twisted thing, if you ask me. But look in the mirror I do, and often shake my head at what I see there.
How harshly do you judge your own features? How much of your body from the neck up do you try to hide under a comb-over or makeup? We are the only animal that that is obsessively focused on the imagined imperfections of our faces, and it’s not a natural thing.
We can remove at least some of that judgment from our reflections with – appropriately enough – some self-reflection.
Do you have a favorite mirror? You know, a mirror where you think you look like your real self. vs. that mirror (you know the one) where every side seems to be your bad side. It’s a trick of lighting of course, but it’s dismaying how much of an impact looking in the “wrong” mirror can have on your day.
Or, have you ever intentionally not looked in a mirror that is right in front of you, just because you weren’t up to dealing with the negative thoughts?
I’m not at my best in the evening before bed – I’m tired, mentally brittle, and focused on the sweet release that sleeping will give me from my overactive thought processes. (Hey, I get up around 3 a.m. so at bedtime I’m ready for bed.) I’ll often leave off the bathroom light as I brush my teeth, relying on a little light leaking in from the hall. It’s just easier that way.
You see, we all maintain an illusion of what we think we look like. Shattering illusions is painful and best avoided whenever possible.
Video: The fragile shell of a human
Is it any wonder that filters are popular for selfie images? We can’t have the world seeing us as we really are, can we? They need to see us as we imagine ourselves to be. “As we really are” is a precarious proposition for our fragile psyches.
We filter ourselves – virtually and in reality – for so much of our lives that we often forget what’s underneath. Or, perhaps, we try to forget.
I was at a high school class reunion once, sitting at a table with three women. Mind you, this was a 30-year reunion, so time had definitely been marching on. One of the women remarked that most of the guys had let themselves go, while the women were looking pretty good.
Feeling a bit contrary (and bored, since it was my wife’s reunion), I decided to pierce that bubble.
“You know,” I said, “most of the guys haven’t done anything besides shave before showing up here. What you see is what you get. Would any of you be willing to come to this reunion without wearing any makeup or hair coloring?”
Stunned silence. Unkind looks cast. New topic of conversation quickly turned to.
Here’s the fascinating part: the woman at the reunion had been managing her “look” for so long that it was, in her mind, her actual appearance.
But the conversation made me think. My point had been that the men were more “natural,” and by extension, perhaps, more honest. But the more I considered the issue, the more I realized that I was wrong: the men were actually altering their appearances much more than the women. 1
Note: Always click on these → 2 for additional, slightly off topic but still interesting stuff. Go ahead, try it.
You don’t believe me?
Uncovering our natural selves
Let’s get right to the visual. Here are two typical American adults. I’m focusing on white people here because it’s easier to illustrate the, um, hair issue. 3
The man in this illustration is actually me. Sort of. Photo-realistic accuracy isn’t my artistic strong suit. But I’m including myself because I have a huge issue with presenting an unclean image and work every day to manage it. More on that in a bit, but first we need to see the man and woman in their natural state.
I present to you, homo sapiens, au naturel:
Wow. But notice something: the woman actually has little to do to go from the hairy version to the cleaned-up version. In fact, if she did nothing at all and you saw her (clothed) from across a room, you wouldn’t think anything at all about her appearance. The natural man, however, might cause office workers to duck and cover in their cubicles after only one glance, scream-whispering “Unabomber!” to the 911 operator.4
So men have a ton of work to do to keep up with modern appearance standards. A man who has reverted to his natural state looks rather untamed, as we all know from watching the Tom Hanks movie Castaway.
Take it from someone who manages his hair diligently – all of his hair – it takes a lot of work. It’s more brute force work than women undertake; it involves manly things like sharpened blades, but the effort is equivalent to makeup when it comes to changing appearances. 5
You see, women talk about altering their appearances, openly and honestly acknowledging it. Men don’t talk much about their routines. They scrape away behind locked bathroom doors, then sigh and roll their eyes out in public when women take a moment to apply more lip gloss.
Well, this has been interesting. But lest we forget my point, here it is: No one is satisfied with their natural appearance. We all change it in some way, some more than others. Why? What are we afraid of? What are we hiding? Or hiding from?
Our reflections stare back at us, asking a simple but profound question:
“Will you accept me for what I am?”
Why we look, and why we judge
We look in mirrors because we know others are looking. We judge because we think others are judging. The mirror is, in essence, a stand-in for all those people we expose ourselves to all day long
And the self-judgment is as harsh as we imagine the other-judgment to be.
The onslaught of modern media and marketing is a huge contributor to our low body-esteem, of course. But I think media is a multiplier of underlying issues, rather than the foundation of the problem. What is the underlying reason for this intense criticism of how our features look? Is it part of our human nature?
Or could it be, at its foundation, the result of empathy gone wrong?
From puddles to mirrors: a history of reflection
Think about this: billions of humans (and almost-humans) never once saw how their own faces looked. It’s almost inconceivable, isn’t it? Today, literally every single person in the world who’s not living in a loincloth in the Amazon rainforest knows how their own features look. But for eons, they didn’t.
Imagine not being able to observe what color the hair on your own head is until you grow it out long enough to pull in front of your eyes. To never see the ravages of smallpox on your own face. Or the scars that ring your neck from a too-close encounter with a cranky animal.
Or the color of your beautiful eyes, your dimple when you smile, your tears of sadness or joy.
“They looked at their reflections in water! Duh.”
When was the last time you tried to see your reflection in water? It’s hard to do. Go ahead: run a sink full of water and try to get the light just right so you can see your reflection. Or wait for a rainstorm and see how well you can make out your features in a puddle.
Mother Nature does not cooperate with our vanity. The wind has to be just right to make for smooth water. The sun has to be at the correct angle. The water has to be clear.
So. You are a bushman of the Kalahari Desert. Your only potential reflection source is a muddy watering hole you share with animals. Conditions might be perfect for you to catch a blurry glimpse of yourself once – maybe – in your entire life.
You certainly aren’t going to be traipsing down to the watering hole every morning to comb your hair or put on some makeup. You can’t even check for plant leaves stuck in your teeth before chatting up the object of your affection.
In most environments, water is just water, not a mirror.
So until the advent of mirrors for the masses, the only clues about a person’s appearance came from the way other people reacted to them. And I think that from the beginning, we have been mistaken about the attention we receive from others.
Why do people like you? (Or not)
As I said above, the problem is empathy gone wrong. Yes, empathy: the ability to view the world from another person’s perspective.
“Another person’s perspective” is exactly what a mirror’s reflection gives us. And at humankind’s first glance into the looking glass, they collectively made a huge mistake:
“Everyone has been judging me mainly – if not solely – by my appearance. They either like me or don’t like me based on how I look.”
So typical for us self-centered, vain humans to jump to this conclusion, isn’t it? There could have been all kinds of reasons people were friendly to us that had nothing to do with our looks:
- Our winning personalities
- Our incredible wisdom
- Our helpful natures
- Our humorous commentary on life
But as soon as mirrors came into existence, we focused on just one primary reason (our looks) that our peers, friends, and even our families treated us nicely.
The opposite was also the case: the reason behind people not being friendly to us could well have been based on:
- Our nasty personalities
- Our foolishness
- Our stingy natures
- Our spiteful commentary on life
But who wants to admit to any of those defects? It’s much more palatable to our psyches to blame our genetically-determined, less-than-divine looks for how others treat us.
But what if that’s not the case? What if most people have never been judging you on your looks when it comes to the things that matter? What if they’ve been noticing something else?
Would this help you better accept the reflection you see?
Good questions. But, before we go any further, I need to talk about sex.
Humans have X-ray vision (sort of)
Greater acceptance of your own appearance hinges on the human capacity to see deeper than the surface of the skin. We can all do it, of course, because we do it every time we meet a family member – especially one who has aged out of physically/sexually attractive beauty. Do you care at all how your grandpa’s face looks? Do you hold your nana to a high standard of grooming before you’ll give her a hug? Of course not. You are looking deeper than their skin to see the person underneath.
In other words: X-ray vision. Or, as I mentioned above, seeing with empathy, not judgment.7
Unlike Superman, our X-ray vision is not instant. It takes patience and a little time to see below the surface. And you usually must engage with someone to activate it.
Which brings us to the most important questions for you:
1. How can you tune up your own X-ray vision to see yourself less judgmentally when you look in the mirror?
2. How can you make your exterior – your skin – more transparent to others’ (latent) X-ray vision, so they see beneath the surface and not judge you by your appearance?
Looking under the surface
The best way to accept the person you see in the mirror is to practice seeing others without judgment based on their physical appearance.
Yeah, yeah, I know. So easy to say, heard it before: “Don’t judge others,” found in every mainstream religion and the good advice you got from your second-grade teacher. But diminishing other-judgment is crucial for diminishing your own self-judgment. Let me give you a question to ponder:
“What is your real reason for judging others by their appearance?”
If we’re not focused on physical attraction (and for the sake of the point I’m making, we’re not), the honest answer is that it’s a way to feel better about some perceived flaw in yourself.
If you always see flaws in others’ looks, if that’s the way you’ve trained your critical eyes to pick apart faces, what happens when you look at your own face in the mirror?
Maybe learning to look beneath others’ skin to see their humanity and not their appearance will help you look beneath your own skin as well. It’s kind of simple, actually: treat everyone like your nana.
It’s worth a shot, don’t you think?
And now my second question: how can we convince other people to look beneath the surface of our features to see the real human underneath? And to be certain that’s what they are doing? The answer to that is rather easy.
The mirror method for empathy
I’m a guy. It’s different for me than it is for women. I haven’t spent a lifetime being judged by my appearance or being reminded of how my face should look by magazine covers. Still, even though I’m not being constantly checked out in public, I don’t like to be the center of attention, either one-on-one or in a group. That’s how I learned my method of escaping judgment on my appearance.You can’t desire to be the center of attention AND avoid the judgment that comes from that. Click To Tweet
To avoid having your appearance judged and found lacking, you must step out of the limelight and place the other person (or people) in it. This gives time for the others’ X-ray vision to warm up so they can see beneath your outer appearance.
How do you put the spotlight on someone else while remaining engaged with them? By giving the other person something they’d rather look at than you: themselves. For this, we use our old friend, our personal nemesis, the mirror.
Attention is the input, empathy is the output. When you invest attention in others, they will invest empathy (under-the-skin understanding) in you.
“But how can they get to know me, the under-the-skin me, if I don’t talk about myself?”
Well…what is it that you want other people to know about you?
- Have a dog named Jasper
- Are in therapy
- Hate eating off paper plates
- Consider donuts to be distinct food group
- Ask questions that you already know the answer to
Yes, if you wish to impart this critical information, you must talk. But what if what you’d really like other people to know is this:
- Have a long attention span
- Are a safe person to share ideas with
- Hate monopolizing conversations
- Consider eye contact to be as important as “ear contact”
- Ask questions that make other people think
For that, you don’t have to talk much. But you do have to listen. In a caring way. When you project this level of empathy, it will be returned to you. Their X-ray vision will switch on, and any judgment about your appearance will fade away. They will develop an attraction of their heart, not an attraction of their eyes.
Listen to this audio to learn the key method for accomplishing this, every time, without fail.
Don’t fear the mirror
I’m not going to lie about totally accepting my reflection. I’ll never get there because it’s in my nature (and yours) to continually try to improve on reality. We’ll never finish that process, and we can’t stop trying.
So I’ll keep looking in the mirror. But I’ve learned to be a lot nicer to the guy I see in there. After all, he’s not judging me. He’s just reflecting the judgment I’m projecting at myself.
How about you? Can you start over with the relationship you have with your reflection?
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Here’s a link to an article in which I discuss appearance and acceptance. You might enjoy it.
Until next time… remember: Think about it. A lot. Then do something.