What It Feels Like To Be Beautiful Without A Mirror

Kjerstin Gruys explains:

I remember the time I felt most beautiful. […] I was camping with my husband. We were on a long hike through a forest in California, and I couldn’t help but admire all the redwood trees surrounding me. They were all huge, different and majestic, and I felt tiny in relation to the entire universe. As I marveled at the variety of beauty in nature, I said to myself, “This is what beautiful feels like.”

Buddha could not have put this better. Losing the boundary of her skin, Gruys appears to have felt herself part of the mutually interdependent arising of the burning cosmos. Buddhism’s two chief ontological insights are change and emptiness (things lack a stand-alone essence apart from their mutually interdependent arising with all other things). Gruys’s brain revealed itself, at least in that moment, to be Buddha’s brain–to be “wider than the Sky” (to quote Emily Dickinson). Birds twittering, neurons firing, sap dripping, blood pulsing, tree bark wafting vanilla aromas: she was that. More than just along for the ride, she was doing all of it and none of it. She was the awareness of it. Mind was moving. It was beautiful in that moment. She was beautiful. It was what her beauty felt like.

Where in this dance of Shiva could she say that she started and stopped? She needed no mirror to tell her that she was looking at herself, her larger self.

She needed no mirror.

And therein lies the premise for a book. Mirror, Mirror Off The Wall (Avery 2013) is Gruys’s account of living a full year without looking at “herself” in mirrors. Photos and videos were also shunned. If body image shapes “your entire sense of self,” who are you if you have no head or body for a year, but only awareness looking down at body parts (not yourself whole) and looking outward at others and other things? How do you apprehend your being in its entirety? Do the habitual boundaries we place between ourselves and others (and other things, like redwood trees) begin to ease?

Apparently they do. One of her “a-ha moments” from the experiment was the following:

When I was working from home one day, I realized I kept getting up and looking for a mirror without even thinking about it. I missed my reflection, who was my constant companion and office buddy. It had given me a sense of being present, and now I was almost questioning whether or not I existed. I didn’t think my reflection had that kind of power over me.

Gruys’s no-mirrors project, when it was ongoing, also drove her to a community affirmed sense of self:

Before, if someone would give me a compliment, I’d say thank you but then run to the mirror to see if they were right or wrong. I had to learn to trust people, and the only way to do that was to see what happened when I actually did just that. 

In other words, she gave herself permission to ask people, at least periodically, “How do I look?” This, to my mind, was an error in the conception of her experiment. To make it function most radically, she might have included a prohibition on ever asking other people their opinions about her, and discouraging others from describing or judging her face or body to her. Such information is a subtle mirror substitution, acquiring authority over her, and indirectly reinforcing an isolated-from-the-cosmos self-image. But she justifies her social inquiries in this manner:

In sociology, Charles Horton Cooley’s ‘Theory of the Looking-Glass Self’ tells us that the only way we figure out who we are is through social interaction.

Well, it’s not the only way. The mirror, after all, is another, and reducing its influence on self image was the stated purpose of her project. But her point is taken. She obviously compensated–and therefore compromised the radical potential of her experiment–by tuning into the social cues from others concerning who she was.

But the most extreme way to conduct this experiment in consciousness shifting would have been a year without mirrors in wilderness accompanied by drugs that induce temporary amnesia or hallucinatory visions. And no gazing, like Narcissus, into lakes or streams.

Gruys’s experiment also has me thinking about Jacques Lacan, the “French Freud.” Lacan’s take on the mirror’s function is that it brings together the disparate parts of one’s own body into a singular focus: when you look in it you see yourself as you cannot see yourself elsewhere, as whole. On gazing at yourself whole, you are no longer a Dionysian disembodied hand here, a nose smelling there, a foot stepping forward from your left there. You are now stopped in your tracks, as in a photograph: an Apollonian image comprehended and framed, set apart from all the rest of Dionysian creation—apart from what Lacan calls the Real.

So this mirror image is not the Real you; it’s a reduced image of you, the Imaginary you; the you that hides the unspeakable you—the always shifting you, the particulars of you—into something that is not you but that you take to be you, the whole you. And thus the Lacan-influenced philosopher, Slavoj Zizek, asks a question:

[W]here does that empty surface [of the mirror] come from, that cold, neutral screen which opens up the space for possible projections? That is to say, if men are to project on to the mirror their narcissisic ideal, the mute mirror-surface must already be there. This surface functions as a kind of ‘black hole’ in reality, as a limit whose Beyond is inaccessible.

The mirror’s emptiness, in other words, provides a hint to what the the Real is really like (that is, empty and impersonal, but the prerequisite for the endless play of passing forms), and what appears before it and conceals it is what Lacan calls the Imaginary (the image that substitutes for the Real). Stepping before a mirror, or placing someone else before a mirror, is the narcissistic framing gesture that blocks from consciousness its unbounded nature and interdependence with the whole. The Imaginary in the mirror assures us of a comprehensible identity–it frames us–and suggests why the vampire’s inability to see his own reflection in a mirror is so unsettling: he is revealed to be without borders, beyond comprehension and control, the Thing.

Who am I again?

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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