The Mirror-Slave Dialectic


You, like me, probably have a mirror face. It’s close to my “photo face,” but it’s a separate beast. My face contorts itself not because it will be recorded for Facebook posterity, but because I desperately need to believe certain things about my appearance. My mirror face is an attempt to correct things about my visage I don’t like: The pout makes my lips fuller. The tipped chin minimizes the broad planes of my face. The widened eyes and softened gaze call attention to my best feature. You may even find me ever so slightly sucking in my cheeks. A friend of mine—whose womanly charm lies in her mix of acerbic wit and casual grace—turns into a bright-eyed, prepubescent pixie when she looks in the mirror. Like me, she has no idea she’s doing it, and when she tries to stop, it only gets worse.

So in my mind, I’m fuller-lipped, slimmer-faced, wider-eyed than any of you would actually find me. My adjustments are virtually uncontrollable. Which is to say: After 35 years of seeing myself in the mirror, it’s possible I still don’t know what I look like.

Certainly, I don’t know what my face shape is (Round? Oval? Heart?). When I was 25, I decided to find out once and for all. I used a classic ladymag tip: I took a tube of lipstick and traced the outline of my face onto the mirror. Then I got angry.

Lipstick in hand, I scribbled over the circle/oval/whatever. I covered an entire pane of my mirror, and then another, and then I went to the walls. And then I was out of lipstick so I took another, and another, and another. I coated, smeared, dragged, drew, until I had no more lipstick, no more walls, no more mirrors.

At the time I thought my rage was a combination of struggling with the beauty myth and generalized “quarterlife crisis” anxiety, which also saw me doing things like hacking off a foot of hair with kitchen shears and trading my magazine career for a $10-an-hour gig as a pastry cook. It was an unhappy, confusing time, and my gonzo lipstick paint job gave me some anarchic respite from the pressures of that era.

Now I wonder whether my rage wasn’t actually stemming from what I’ll call the mirror-slave dialectic. In the 19th century, G.W.F. Hegel cooked up the master-slave dialectic, which states that we’re incapable of self-consciousness without being conscious of others. As soon as we become conscious of others we’re alerted to our lack of control over our lives. “A struggle to the death” ensues, in Hegel’s grandiose words, a struggle for recognition in which we become master (getting it) or slave (giving it). In the 1950s, psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan introduced the idea of the “mirror stage,” positing that we have this master-slave dynamic with ourselves via the mirror. Lacan compares it to being permanently trapped in a stadium of onlookers composed solely of ourselves, captivated by our own image.

When I traced my face shape onto my mirror with lipstick, I was bowing to the needs of my inner slave. I was reaching toward the looking-glass and willing the world contained therein to reveal a great insight. Tell me my face shape so I may never again have an unflattering haircut, ye mirror! The moment incensed me because of its overt supplication to my built-in alter ego. But it was only one of many acts that ceded control to my reflection.

Ten years later, I decided to go for a month without looking in the mirror. Initially, I thought my constant self-surveillance constituted self-objectification. Now that I’ve abandoned my mirror for a month, though, I see that my image is far too vital to have been an object. I didn’t objectify myself; rather, I treated my mirror image as a grounding strategy. As someone both more beautiful and less appealing than myself, she was both slave and master.

The mirror is a quest for control. Control over the image we present to the world, sure. Control over fitting the beauty standard, to a degree. Mostly, though, self-surveillance is an effort to control our ideas about ourselves. When I pulled the plug from my mirror image, she exacted revenge by radically shifting some of those ideas. For example, about a week into this experiment, I had a nagging sensation that my head had become very, very pointy, à la Saturday Night Live’s Coneheads.

Less absurd moments simply found me sort of forgetting what I looked like: How wide is my smile? Do I have freckles? That woman on the street with the dark eyes and high cheekbones—do I look like her? Do I even have high cheekbones? And, most important: Am I pretty?

Except, this month, that question wasn’t particularly important. Realizing that I didn’t have to strive to look pretty every minute, I thought far less about my looks than I normally do. I didn’t feel better or worse about my appearance; I rarely felt pretty or unpretty. I just didn’t care as much.

Makeup held less appeal. I wore my glasses more. My love affair with lipstick dwindled; I wore my hair in a severe bun instead of the French twist I usually favor. I presented myself to the world reasonably groomed, but the physical labor of prettiness took a backseat. I always believed I wore makeup for others—not for their benefit, but as a tool to help me feel more comfortable with them. After all, I don’t wear makeup at home alone, so it must have something to do with other people, right? In the mirror-free month, I learned how much my makeup use is for my own pleasure. If I can’t enjoy seeing my lips turn a bright, puckery red, I simply don’t want to do it at all. If I’m my own harshest critic, I’m also my own most ardent observer—and fan.

Yet it’s not that I’m enthralled with my looks. In fact, in The Second Sex Simone De Beauvoir makes it clear that enchantment with one’s image needn’t solely be a reflection of thinking we’re beautiful:

It is not astonishing if even the less fortunate can sometimes share in the ecstasies of the mirror, for they feel emotion at the mere fact of being a thing of flesh…and since they feel themselves to be individual subjects, they can, with a little self-deception, embue their specific qualities with an individual attractiveness; they will discover in face or body some graceful, odd, or piquant trait. They believe they are beautiful simply because they are women.

Down with the tyranny of the beauty standard! Every woman is beautiful, or at least has some part of herself that’s beautiful. You’ve just got to find it, sister, and what better way to do that than the mirror? Rock on with your gorgeous self! Right?

Not exactly. When we look in the mirror, we are forever seeing a projection. As Lacan writes, the ego we access through the mirror “is a product of misunderstanding, a false recognition.” I’ve heard some women say mirror abstinence would rob them of a hard-won acceptance of their appearance, and I wouldn’t want to diminish that. But if what the mirror gives us is imagined, I wonder how far its affirmation can take any of us.

Case in point: During my mirror fast, try as I did to avoid it, I caught a few glimpses of myself in unanticipated mirrors. And I learned that I look my age. Of course, there is nothing wrong with looking 35, but like the majority of women I believed I looked younger. Mathematically, most of us cannot look younger than our age. We just think we do, because we see our ego, not our selves. When I caught unexpected glimpses of myself, I saw bags under the eyes, flaccid skin. This revealed how much I subtly control what I see when, during a normal month, I purposefully look in the mirror. I prepare myself to meet the face that I’ve prepared myself to see. And until last month, that face—the imaginary one—looked about 28 years old.

I’ve had a couple of friends tell me they’re surprised to find I think as intensely as I do about beauty. Their confusion is understandable: My physical beauty labor is pretty minimal. But my emotional beauty labor is another story.

By emotional beauty labor—a synthesis of Virginia Sole-Smith’s “beauty labor” and sociologist Arlie Hochschild’s “emotional labor”—I mean that sort of low-level, frequent, and unconscious acting that every so often lands me the plum role of “nice-looking woman.” You know how when you’re wearing a outfit you look good in, you’ll carry yourself differently? You’re aware of being looked at, you’re aware of how your body might appear in this piece of clothing that is signaling a certain occasion. You’re not lying, but you’re still doing a little acting. That’s the sort of labor I’m talking about: When you are conscious of the potential of being looked at, your behavior is altered as a result. Even if you don’t intend to do so, you are working.

Ridding myself of the mirror didn’t cure me of the push-pull of emotional beauty labor. (Not that I would know, because much of this labor is unconscious. Measuring physical beauty labor, like time spent on a manicure or money spent on tanning cream, is a far simpler operation.) But the mirror is key to recognizing it. Rare is the stage film that neglects the shot of the heroine, in front of a mirror, looking herself squarely in the eye as she prepares to play her part.

Removing the mirror removed my mirror face, which is, in essence, privately performed beauty labor. Times I recognized I was performing emotional beauty labor during my mirror fast: 1) volunteering with an ESL student who has confessed a small crush on me and who looks to me for affirmation of his language skills; 2) having drinks with someone who talked over every word I tried to utter; 3) meeting with an acquaintance who is extraordinarily self-conscious herself and kept adjusting her makeup. In each of those situations, I was “performing”: attempting to grant the other person some comfort, or struggling to maintain some presence when my other forms of power were being ignored. I did this by appearing attentive, widening my eyes, fixing a smile that’s probably close to my ever-false mirror face, cocking my head to make a small show of my quizzical nature. The only reason I was able to notice my actions was because I hadn’t had my usual warm-up with myself in the mirror.

My private emotional beauty labor, in other words, is a hamstring stretch that gets me ready for the sprint of uncomfortable interactions in which I feel I must perform. Without the warm-up, I actually felt the effort I normally put into the race.

My hope was that relieving myself of self-surveillance would help me better direct my energies toward endeavors with more value. Yet I did not waltz through the month writing Great Literature, or having shamanistic visions, or even organizing my bookcase.

What did happen was that I was got more in tune with myself. The itch to look in the mirror was acute during moments of intensity. Feeling, for example, particularly delighted with my company and wanting a quick visual confirmation that I was, indeed, having a good time. Or, conversely, feeling uncomfortable and wishing I could peek at myself as a reminder that everything was normal and I needn’t feel awkward. Removing the possibility of the quick fix alerted me to a desire that would likely have stayed invisible otherwise.

I also began to understand what else I see in the mirror besides my reflection. In looking at a handsome young man, the shapely form of a yoga model, and the calorie count on the graham crackers I was about to eat, I had phantom “flinches” of reprimanding myself for having looked in a mirror when I hadn’t. It was instructive in terms of where common “love your looks” wisdom falls short. Liking your appearance may be a fine goal, but if we believe the mirror is our companion in an autarchic route to self-worth, we are mistaken.

But I also missed the private joy of observing myself in a certain light. I missed the pleasure of giving myself a final once-over before leaving the house, smiling—yes, with my mirror face—and confirming all is well. I took less pleasure than usual in wearing certain outfits, because I couldn’t observe myself partaking in the ritual of playing dress up. Liberating myself from performing was a big relief at times. Still, my usual sense of play was muted: I missed witnessing myself slip into a persona.

Which brings me back to being master, or slave, to the mirror. In this case, resolving the master-slave dialectic could be interpreted to mean unification—a genuine recognition of the mirror as solely a handy tool for making sure we don’t have stray ink on our cheek. Not an oracle, not someone with control over us, not something to turn to as an emotional divination rod.

I’m under no illusion that I can somehow unite with my mirror image to become whole. I’ve tried and failed to rid myself of my mirror face; I now understand that I will never be an objective viewer of myself. As a result, I can recognize differences between myself and my image, the first step toward dissolution.

My mirror face is not how I appear to the rest of the world. But perhaps my mild self-delusion is the adult version of the child who wonders what she’ll look like when she grows up—fanciful, woefully inaccurate, but minimally harmful as long as its falsity is understood. My beauty labor—emotional and physical—is largely for myself. But knowing that allows me to evaluate what purpose it’s serving. It allows me to see what I can keep and what I should discard. The mirror allows me access to a part of my femininity that’s tucked away otherwise. Now I can be thankful for that key. And maybe, with practice, I’ll come closer to recognizing myself.