The human race went a long time without having mirrors.
The animals still don’t use them, and apparently, even if they had them, they wouldn’t be able to make use of them. My dad told me that a study was done to determine which animals could recognize themselves in a mirror.
I’m undecided as to whether this study was a worthy use of time for the human researchers or not, but I feel safe in assuming that looking at mirrors was low on the priorities of the animals who were forced to participate.
In any case, the researchers concluded that the only animal tested who seemed to understand that the reflection was his was the magpie.
As a side point, these studies of animals puzzle me somewhat in the way that they are used. It seems that increasingly, they are used to ‘prove’ that animals are equivalent to (or better than) people. By drawing similarities between them (monkey and human both use tool; penguin and human both care for young; magpie and human both understand mirror), we can lose sight of the obvious and fundamental differences between people and animals. We forget about the gift of complex rational thought which manifests itself in our ability to think about abstract concepts, to write poetry and music, to communicate with others and so on. It’s this thinking ability which allows us to design and execute these animal studies in the first place.
But anyway, when mirrors were first invented, they weren’t very clear. That explains why, when you read writings from a long time ago, references to mirrors (or a ‘looking glass’) will sometimes mention how imperfect they are. The phrase, “a mirror darkly” comes from St. Paul’s letter to the people in Corinth, comparing our ability to see and understand on earth with our ability to see and understand in heaven. (The Revised Standard Version translation has it as “For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face.”)
But of course, mirrors nowadays are crystal clear, big, and everywhere. Sometimes they have lights all around them.
When you buy a new home, the builders install a big mirror into every bathroom. It’s attached to the wall very firmly, glued with some sort of industrial-strength adhesive and then secured with fasteners. It’s not going anywhere, which is good from a safety point of view, but bad from a decluttering point of view.
And we don’t even give it a second thought. Until I started this post, for instance, I never questioned why it is treated as essential and non-negotiable as the bathroom’s sink, toilet and shower or why it’s so big. It’s no longer the modestly-sized item that it was in the bathrooms of previous generations – now it sometimes covers almost one wall of the bathroom and you can see nearly your whole body in it. And people appear in front of this big mirror before and after every shower. Hmm.
What effect does that have on us?
Is this healthy?
I think it’s something to think about, especially because it’s one of those things we don’t think about.
What effect does it have on us to see ourselves this way every day, in the privacy of our own bathroom?
I know I’m not going out on a limb to say that these mirrors are making us think about our own appearance a lot more. And we wind up thinking about it when we least expect it. We’re just busily occupied with some activity, and then we pop into the bathroom. The mirror interrupts our thoughts and our activities and seems to show us ‘reality.’ It happens when we aren’t looking for it. We didn’t reach for a hand-held mirror – the mirror on the wall was waiting for us to just show up at the appointed place. Surprise!
And what do we think upon seeing ourselves?
Woe to the person who thinks he looks fabulous. Narcissism is never pretty. Narcissism is a fascination with oneself, and especially one’s own sex appeal. It seems to me that it’s a worse trait on a woman than a man, and leads to serious problems as she looks for external confirmation of her attractiveness.
But that place in front of the mirror is not always one of vanity. Often it’s a place of discouragement.
It’s a place where we realize that we don’t look very good, and so it can be a source of unnecessary wounds, for women especially. Without even realizing it, women internalize probably hundreds of notions about how each part of their body is supposed to be. Men might be astonished to hear how specific the ideas are, and what efforts women go through in order to achieve certain effects.
Let’s talk about eyelashes for example.
Unless you were born yesterday, you know that a woman’s eyelashes are supposed to be thick, long and curl up at the ends. Look at any cartoon or child’s toy, and you’ll see that the primary way that you can tell the male apart from the female is that the female has big eyelashes.
Now in case you don’t know what proper eyelashes look like, pick up a women’s magazine, and you’ll see high resolution close-up photographs, where one eyelash is magnified to the size of your pinky finger, so that you can appreciate them in all their splendour.
Now obviously, the truth is that very few women naturally have such eyelashes. God has arranged it so that such eyelashes are found almost exclusively on hairy men.
But that doesn’t matter; we women are supposed to try for the look anyway.
Let’s discuss the tools at your disposal.
To begin with, there’s eyeliner. You can buy this in liquid or pencil form, and you will use it to draw or paint a line just above your eyelashes. This will create the illusion of thicker eyelashes. Many women will make the line lift up as it reaches the outside part of the eye, creating a slanted cat-eye effect, which is considered somewhat seductive. I understand that some women even have this line tattooed permanently into their skin, so that they don’t have to reapply every day. Black is the most common colour, but you can purchase eyeliner in many different shades.
The next thing you will need is mascara. This comes in a little bottle with a mini-bristle brush. Mascara is almost always black. In nature, eyelashes come in a wide range of shades, but in the world of make-up, only dark colours are acceptable. For a red-head to go out in public with fair blond eyelashes is, well, almost unforgivable. To apply it, you dip your little bristle brush into the goop and then paint it onto your upper and lower eyelashes, and a common method is to do both sides of each fringe of lashes, the underside and the top.
Of course, you may encounter issues with clumping during the application procedure. Sometimes the black goop clumps together and so you have little balls of it on your eyelashes. This used to be acceptable, but I believe that nowadays, this isn’t desirable, so you’ll have to remedy that somehow. There are mini combs which you can use; perhaps this is their main purpose.
One of the main rules to remember here is that you must not, once your make-up is on, rub or otherwise touch your eyes, and crying is also discouraged. If you are not careful, your black mascara and eyeliner may ‘run’ which means you may accidentally have dark ink on parts of your eyelid or cheeks that were not meant to be blackened. This is, of course, considered rather scandalous, so you really need to make sure that it doesn’t happen. On the plus side, the manufacturers have added additional toxins to these products in order to create ‘waterproof’ mascara, which means that you can probably weep with abandon.
But back to the tools, I must also mention the eyelash curler. This contraption is made of metal and will squeeze your eyelashes into a bent shape. You bring this to your eyes, and insert your eyelashes (hopefully not your eyelids) into them. Press and then release. Hopefully your eyelashes now look appropriately curly. If they don’t, well, I don’t know how to help you.
Or maybe I do . . .
If you have gone through all these steps, and you still are not coming away from that mirror with satisfactory results, then you can call in the professionals who will help you with your eyelash problem. (And you do know that you have a problem, don’t you? Everyone knows that the first step to a solution is admitting you have a problem.)
Nowadays, you can find, without too much difficulty, an expert who will glue tiny fake eyelashes to your real eyelashes. You can have just a couple of these falsies added to the outer edge of eyelashes (for that desirable “I’m actually a cat” look) or you can go the whole hog and get an entire set put in. I once almost got this done because my friend needed practice clients. I was scheduled to get “PermaLash” (which is not permanent, of course) but then providentially the appointment couldn’t proceed, because the esthetics school instituted a policy to protect unsuspecting clients. (Apparently sometimes the students were overzealous with the glue and you’d wind up owning fewer real eyelashes than you had before when all was said and done.)
But anyway, just to finish up, I think that the ‘gold-standard’ is currently to have “mink” eyelashes. I suppose this would be from the animal.
The point of all this is that there are many ways that women can respond to the culture’s directives concerning lush and curly eyelashes. There are tools and resources to ensure that all women over the age of 18 16 14 12 10 can reach their eyelash-related goals, and obviously the mirror is an indispensable tool for this part of the beauty routine.
Now onto the eyebrows . . .
The problem with all of this is that there is no end to the types of improvements that you can make. When you start down this path, you’ll find that the ‘destination’ becomes more and more distant. Every moment in front of that mirror will give you more ideas about how you can improve yourself and about where you could go for help.
Cosmetic dentistry for instance, will offer you many solutions to problems that you didn’t even realize you had, and every minute spent in an esthetics salon will educate you on how your appearance could be fixed. The madness actually never ends. As long as you have money and the time to spend at the salon or spa or whatever, they’ll find something else to add or subtract from your body.
So what about all the people who can’t afford the time or money to access all of this “help”?
Well, some of them feel sad. They feel discouraged that they don’t have the energy or time or money to work on their appearance the way they used to or the way they ‘should.’ They look at the mirror and it causes their mood to fall, feeling that they have failed in some important way.
So sometimes they go to the other extreme, and give up. They say to themselves that appearance really doesn’t matter, and they stop trying entirely. All efforts are abandoned and they go out in public wearing sweatpants and hoodies and with messy hair. They look disheveled and apathetic, which is not right either, because it obscures the dignity of the human person.
There’s a correct balance to all of this, which stems from the right view of our bodies. We should care enough about our appearance to look sufficiently dignified, but beyond that, we should do nothing. Beyond that, there is vanity or discouragement and stress and worry.
We distort our priorities when we focus on our appearance. The truth is that people aren’t supposed to be man-made; we’re supposed to be like other things in nature: unique in our natural beauty. Appreciating the diversity in nature includes appreciating the diversity in our own and others’ appearance. These whole-body makeover television shows are completely wrong, especially insofar as they encourage us to approve or disapprove of people based on how well their bodies conform the current notion of ‘ideal.’
We’re supposed to look different. I’m supposed to have eyelashes like this, and you’re supposed to have eyelashes like that. I’m supposed to have hair like this, and you’re supposed to have hair like that.
We broaden ourselves when we are able to embrace the diverse beauty of nature, instead of following the latest idea of what is correct.
If we saw someone trying to stake up a pansy in order to make it as tall as a sunflower, we would be confused at their aims. And if we saw someone trying to prevent a sunflower from growing, we’d think that was, on some level, wrong. Maybe that’s why bonsai trees have always bothered me – it’s not ordinary gardening or plant care; it’s more like that Chinese foot bondage intended to make little girls grow up with disproportionately tiny feet.
An emerald is beautifully green and a sapphire is beautifully blue. A meadow is beautiful in its differences, because even one clump of clover isn’t the same as the one next to it. Even a mass planting of Christmas trees can’t help but be beautiful because into man’s order, God introduces his own order, which is beauty in diversity. Each snowflake is supposed to be different, and each person’s face and body is also supposed to be different. Without these differences, how would we recognize each other? We’d all be like assembly-line mannequins.
I know that it’s these erroneous (and mostly subconscious) ideas which are the main source of our image-related vanity or stress, and not the mirrors themselves, but having the mirrors so prominent and numerous exacerbates the problem.
I wish that the mirrors in our home were tiny, just little hand-held items. You’d pull one out of the drawer to check if you’ve combed your hair adequately and washed your face well enough, and then stow it away and move on with your day. Mind you, the story of Snow White proves that any mirror can be bad news, on the wall or not.
The story of Snow White was about a beautiful woman whose mirror was kind of like her best friend. Every day, she asked this magical mirror the same question. I’ve heard two versions it. The first is:
“Mirror, Mirror, in my hand,
Who’s the fairest in the land?”
And the other goes like this:
“Mirror, Mirror, on wall
Who’s the fairest of them all?”
This vain woman was always happy with the mirror’s answer because the mirror told her that she was the most beautiful.
But, as happens in real life, the woman’s beauty was fading, and now there were others who were more beautiful. She was filled with rage upon learning that a young woman, her own stepdaughter, had now surpassed her in physical beauty (Snow White).
And so, in a spirit of competitiveness, something which is sadly so fierce between so many woman, this wicked woman set out to destroy her enemy. For the sake of remaining the most beautiful, this vain woman was willing to do anything.
(Botox, here I come!)
(And before I forget, I have to tell you something very fun to do when you meet with family over Christmas and New Year’s. Ask the men in the room to tell you the plot line of a famous fairy tale. It’s so funny! Watch them try to narrate Cinderella or Sleeping Beauty for instance. You’ll hear it in a way you’ve never heard before. Another interesting thing is to see whether they’re remembering the real version or the Disney version.)
But anyway, the fairy tale holds a lot of truth about the human person. In the same way that a mirror reflects back a distorted image (reversing left and right as I’ve mentioned before), the mirror also creates a distortion in how we view the world. We’re meant to look outwards, upon each other, noticing what other people need, yet a mirror causes us to look at only ourselves – in a superficial way.
Any self-examination is supposed to be more developed than that. We’re supposed to look inwards – we’re supposed to examine what we need to change about our own behaviour and our lives, with prayer making this examination more insightful and honest. We’re not meant to be staring at or studying ourselves in the mirror for any length of time.
Too bad mirrors don’t come with timers. My fridge beeps when the doors have been open for too long, and if it’s been open for really too long, the lights go off. That’s what they should have for mirrors.
How long should we make the timer? How about 90 seconds? After that you’d hear a beep, and at the two minute mark, the lights for the bathroom would go off.
I suppose you think that’s too harsh.
But after having written this post, I am feeling rather harsh towards mirrors in general. We think of them as truth-bringers but I’m thinking of them as illusion-makers. After all, when they’re added to our living spaces, we’re often trying to create the illusion of space, the idea being that a home which is bigger is better than a home which is smaller (is it?).
And the use of mirrors is a well-known technique employed by the ‘best’ designers of homes, hotels and shopping malls to create a sense of grandeur. (Fortunately, the people who design churches aren’t going the same route — at least, not yet.)
And mirrors are useful tools for magicians and those early film-makers who used mirrors to create optical illusions to trick or deceive the viewer. I think of them in relation to the circus too – a mad house is created by lining the walls with all sorts of distorting mirrors. Do we create some type of ‘mad house’ for ourselves when we put up mirrors everywhere? Is it the case that the more we surround ourselves with them and use them, whether for interior decorating or for vanity, the more we wander into unreality, in the same way that Alice did in the rather nightmarish story of “Alice Through the Looking Glass”?
There’s a superstition that if you crack a mirror, you’ll be in for seven years of bad luck. I’m not sure where that idea came from (maybe mirrors were initially super expensive and the superstition encouraged extra caution) but if it were true, you might not want to own too many of them. You’d be running quite a risk with every mirror that you brought into the home.
Fortunately, it’s not true, and mirrors should be fair game for decluttering. We should be allowed to have bathrooms without gigantic mirrors. We should be allowed to replace these with something more modest, like the tinier ones that hung in the bathrooms of yesteryear.
The home designers aren’t asking for my opinion. Because you know, if they did ask, I would have told them.
I really would have.
But since they haven’t, and since your mirror is basically cemented to your wall in the same way that mink eyelashes are cemented to the face of that lady over there, I do have a temporary solution.
Don’t you think that the bathroom mirror would be the perfect well-lit place to display children’s art? You could start with one item in each corner just as a novelty. Later on you could make it into a border, a ring of pictures all around the edges. (Or you could print up some Chesterton quotations and use those.) Gradually, you could add more and more until you have just a small rectangle of actual mirror surface in the middle, just enough to see your face in.
Then later you could even go smaller . . . Leave only a tiny section of mirror exposed.
That little square would be for the birds.
After all, you never know when a magpie might stop by and want a peek.