I wonder when it starts. When do we start caring about that image staring back at us in the mirror? I do know babies love mirrors. Pets can be interesting in front of a mirror, too. I also noticed that 7 year old girls like mirrors, at least when they are shopping at Justice, a popular girls clothing store (however, not sure if they are looking at themselves or the cool unicorns on the leggings they are trying on). I remember when I belonged to a gym decades ago, usually going in the early evening when my children’s father was home from work and they were ready for bed and I could finally escape. This particular gym had mirrors everywhere! Yes, I understand that it is important to have the right “form” when lifting some heavy weights, or apparently, you can hurt yourself (hence, the heaviest thing I lift is my vacuum cleaner). I never quite understood the exercising in front of the mirror thing, though. I also always felt a bit under-dressed in my jogging shorts and long tee shirt, when all the other women had on these interesting outfits….thongs were the rage back then with tights. To each their own, but all I was there for was the rubberized track so I could jog mindlessly around in circles, and relax until I felt the tensions of the day slip away. But those mirrors. Floor to ceiling, wall to wall. Not sure if those girls in the thongs could see themselves from the back, but my guess is they probably already checked it out at home before presenting themselves at the gym. Clearly, they liked what they saw in the mirror and felt good about it (I hope) because they went out in public like that. Like I said, to each their own.
Anyway, I decided to write about this topic because over the course of the past few weeks I have experienced various casual discussions with individuals from different parts of my life (family, friends, co-workers, etc.) that have to do with dealing with that image. That reflection of ourselves in the mirror. It struck me how much our appearance really matters (for some more than others). What we are judging ourselves on varies from time to time, depending on our age, and what we might be going through. The change of seasons, especially going from winter to spring and summer seems to escalate the chatter about weight and dieting. Anxiety builds as the time gets closer for us to remove the secure layers we have enjoyed over the cold dreary winter months. People complain about weight gain and how they will appear in their shorts, if they can fit into them. Often people are focused on specific body parts, such as hips and thighs and butts and tummies (of course). As we age, changes in our bodies become ridiculous, and seem to happen overnight. A friend of mine tends to wear pretty scarves to kind of hide the inevitable changes to necks that happen after a certain age. Her mom told her that trick (funny, the only tricks my mom taught me have to do with cleaning and cooking…priorities, I guess). Anyway, I have discovered that if I lift my chin up high enough, and jut my jaw out, I can miraculously be rid of those seemingly new wrinkles under my neck…..although I look kind of weird and it is really hard to maintain, so I don’t walk around that way (often). And then, of course, we have the saggy arm issue and the veins. My old high school friends and I got together recently over drinks and appetizers, and the conversation was pretty hysterical. We actually laughed out loud at what our topics of conversation have evolved into over the years. Before it was where we were going to get the beer, and how we were going to sneak out at night (and other things) and now it was all about veins and the horror a few of my friends have gone through to get rid of them. I know it is a medical issue however it was still struck us as funny. What have we become?! The mirror does not lie.
The very sad thing to me is the way mirrors literally steal time, precious hours away from some people. I remember a woman I knew who was married to a younger man. She was truly a “spiritual” person, into yoga and art and organic everything. However, whenever she would visit relatives she would be in the bathroom for over an hour to apply her make up. Somehow, she did not feel right with her natural face or whatever, so that she had to apply foundation (that creamy stuff that is the color or your skin and is supposed to cover imperfections?), and blush (to make it look like you are rosy and healthy?) and eye make up and lip stuff…..and VOILA. She missed some meals with us, but she looked good.
I regret the amount of time I wasted when I was young and hated my curly wavy hair. I spent hours in front of the mirror devising ways to wrap it and pin it and tape it and iron it just to make it be straight. It took me until I was in college and 20 years old to finally get it layered and let it go. I felt free. It was like I retired, and left a job I no longer had to do. My time was freed! I just had to wash my head and that was it. Why had I wasted so much time trying to change something that was naturally me just because I did not like what I saw in the mirror?
Don’t get me wrong, I think checking yourself out in the mirror is pretty normal. It is great to feel like you look pretty good and presentable when you leave for work in the morning. That your clothes are kind of clean and not too wrinkled, that your hair is not a mess, there isn’t anything stuck in your teeth. It’s all good. But sometimes, spending too much time checking yourself out, especially excessive scrutinizing of particular body parts can become a problem. Sometimes referred to as “body checking”, which is a common behavior among those with disordered eating, it can be detrimental. Besides spending lots of time scrutinizing yourself in the mirror, body checking might involve squeezing fat layers, or circling wrists or arms to feel if they are the same size, and have not changed and other self-checking behaviors. For those with disordered eating, body checking often leads to more restriction and may worsen behaviors. For others, excessive checking of our bodies may lead to anxiety about our bodies and even trigger eating issues.
And although I said “the mirror doesn’t lie”, for some it actually does. My experience with individuals with eating disorders proved to me that people can look in a mirror and see a totally different image that what everyone else in the world sees. I am guessing you may know someone who always “feels fat” and complains of this and when YOU look at them it is infuriating because you see a thin person. You want to say, and probably have,”you are not fat! you are so skinny!” and find this does not help. Try not to get mad at someone who does this because to them, they see something different. Some people tend to “distort” what they see in the mirror and you will never understand or convince them otherwise. And if you experience these extreme feelings yourself, If you find that you can’t stop with some of these behaviors, and it is truly occupying too much of your day, consider seeking some support from a therapist who specializes in body image issues. Don’t let the mirror and body checking consume your life.
Even if you can’t relate to excessive body checking, and you are just a typical person who wants to be sure they are presentable, it is still important to be aware of how you feel when you look in the mirror. Ask yourself, how much of my time to I give to judging my appearance? Am I trying too hard to change the real me? Is it worth it? Am I accepting of the natural changes that occur with age? Remember, there is no right answer to any of these questions. Only YOU can judge what is important to you. It may well be worth it to take the time to wrap that scarf around your neck to cover what you may feel are imperfections that you have not gotten used to yet. If if makes you feel better, why not? Scarves are lovely, and even young women who have nothing to hide wear them all the time. And by all means, apply that make up if you like it! I love my under eye stuff which takes 10 seconds to apply but is magical and prevents me from having to answer people who ask “are you tired? you look so tired!” when I forget to put it on. Some women just love makeup, and if that is you, then have at it. But if putting on makeup is an hour long ordeal and feels like a job, then why let the mirror steal those hours from your life?
And when it comes to your body, ask yourself, how many minutes am I scrutinizing my body in the mirror? If it is a quick check after you get dressed to walk out the door, then no big deal. If you got a new outfit for a wedding, and you can’t help admiring yourself for a bit longer than a minute before you walk out the door, oh well. It is fun to dress up sometimes. If you have a new purchase you aren’t sure about and have to check yourself out ten times before deciding to return it, no big deal. But, if you find yourself spending an hour glaring at your body with negative thought running through your mind that just make you feel awful, well, that is a different story. Try to give up some of that time in front of the mirror. Work on the words you are saying to yourself (that “self-talk” always going on in your brain). Try to make it more complimentary, (you look pretty good for an old lady!) even if you don’t believe it at first. Fake it till you make it, they say. But, if you are struggling with feeling good about yourself then maybe it is time to seek out some help.
Finally, ask yourself what YOU notice in other people. Do you really notice if someone has makeup on or not? Do you notice the veins in anyone’s legs? Do you really care about anyone’s saggy arms or chin? The first thing I notice about a person is the expression on their face. Are they smiling and happy? Are they kind? Are they genuine? Are they unique? Do they make me laugh? That is what is important to me, and I am guessing that is what is important to you, too. Then why judge yourself in ways you would never judge others? Two of my favorite people often dress up as chickens and a moose outfit just to entertain kids at our school. And everyone loves them. Does it really matter what you wear or how you look?
Don’t let the mirror steal your life away.