Infants start to recognise themselves in the mirror at two-years-old. For many of us, that moment is the start of a relationship far more complicated than we could ever comprehend as toddlers. Every single body image crisis, every hair and skin gripe, every frantic effort to cover our self-perceived flaws with makeup and cloth: it all begins with that flat, shiny surface.
To which we're addicted, seemingly. A Simple Skincare survey found women looked in the mirror on average eight times a day. Vanity? Hardly - little else prompts constant appearance-monitoring than insecurity: that same survey found 75 per cent "hate" looking in the mirror altogether, and 39 per cent said doing so decreased their confidence. Similar research found more than 50 per cent of women may even see a distorted reflection of themselves, similar to the visual contortions experienced by sufferers of anorexia. For a huge number of us, mirrors go far beyond the means to preen. They signify self-loathing, distress, and an inability to see ourselves objectively.
That some women are therefore choosing to avoid their reflection altogether is perhaps a natural evolution. The trend, based mainly in the US and dubbed 'mirror fasting', aims to put the breaks on participants' compulsive mirror-checking. It kicked off when New York beauty blogger, Autumn Whitefield-Madrano, decided last year to completely avoid her reflection for a month. The writer noticed she had developed a 'mirror face', and it concerned her: "I'd open my eyes a little wider, suck in my cheeks a little and tip my chin down in an effort to make myself look more like I wanted to. It made me feel really vain."
By the end of her mirror-free month, Autumn concluded she felt "calmer and more serene". She also noticed she was much less consumed by thoughts of her appearance: "I didn't feel better or worse about my appearance; I rarely felt pretty or unpretty. I just didn't care as much." She's decided to repeat the exercise every year: "...to remind myself I don't need to know how I look every minute to be a fully functional, capable human being."
AdvertisementAdvertise with NZME.
If the raft of female bloggers following suit are anything to go by, that's a highly desirable reminder. And understandably so. As Autumn points out, preoccupation with one's reflection is an uncomfortable and ineffective exercise in control: "Control over the image we present to the world, sure; control over fitting the beauty standard, to a degree. Mostly, though, surveillance is an effort to carefully control our ideas about ourselves."
And, of course, behind every need for control is a sense of powerlessness. We fret we're not pretty/thin/hot enough, and that's disorienting. It's an age-old angst: traditional fairy tales illustrate the power of beauty (or ruinous lack of it) time and time again. A classic example is the evil queen from Snow White: "Who is the fairest of them all?" she barks at her mirror, repeatedly. The unhappiness and desperation of her demand is obvious even to children. Underneath it all, she hates what she sees, and that renders her helpless.
The shape-shifting nature of perception when it comes to mirrors was illustrated in a study some years back by Italian psychologist Giovanni B Caputo, who set about exploring the disconnect from the self that comes from looking in the mirror for an extended amount of time. Namely, that weird sensation where your reflection suddenly seems foreign, and 'other'. The paper, titled Strange-face-in-the-mirror Illusion, reported participants were emotionally affected by the experiment, with every participant experiencing "some form of this dissociative identity effect".
Although not directly related to self-esteem, there are some interesting parallels to be drawn. If we critique our bodies long and often enough in the mirror, a sort of detachment occurs. Or, worse, our minds distort the reality of what we're seeing until what we're seeing actually freaks us out. Bodies, faces, hair - they become 'things' to pick holes in, rather than the living, breathing, wholly unique entities designed to let us live our lives.
The media has reacted to mirror fasting with an amusing blend of bewilderment and alarm. Broadcast media especially can't seem to get its square head around the trend, including Tyra Banks, who in an inane panel discussion on Good Afternoon America declared: "I'm not for that. I always tell women that the mirror is not the enemy." (Also: "I started Top Model to expand the definition of beauty.") That may be the case, Tyra, but sometimes mantras and model shows just don't cut it. If mirror fasting works for some, then who's to say it's not valid? Here's Autumn's 2012 mirror fast caught on camera for the Today Show - so you can decide for yourself.
Follow Rebecca Kamm on Twitter.