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The Looking-Glass Self

I am not what I think I am and I am not what you think I am; I am what I think that you think I am.

-- Charles Horton Cooley

To keep from obsessing about her weight, UCLA grad student Kjerstin Gruys vowed not to look at herself in a mirror for one year. This followed an incident in which she found herself unable to fit into a bridal gown she had hoped to wear at her wedding. Having struggled with anorexia as a teenager, the now-Rubenesque bride-to-be realized she was on dangerous ground. Her inspiration was Sarah Dunant’s novel The Birth of Venus, which opens in a 16th-century Florentine convent where the nuns are strictly forbidden from gazing on their own reflections. Gruys decided she would likewise “force myself to experience life from the inside out instead of the outside in” – and to publish a blog about it.

Reading selections from Gruys’ blog, one soon realizes her mirror-free regimen is more a symptom than the solution to her problem. If it helps prevent her from relapsing into an eating disorder, so much the better. But why does she persist in completing all 37 items on a wedding website’s checklist entitled “Bridal Beauty: Countdown to Gorgeous” – and to do so without the aid of mirrors? The to-do’s cover everything from bikini waxes to eyebrow reshaping to dieting, the latter of which would appear to be extremely ill-advised for a recovering anorexic. A self-professed feminist, Gruys was certainly aware of the extent to which body image is dictated by social (mostly male) stereotypes. Yet, with the approval of a therapist who is treating her for depression, Gruys has embarked on a Weight Watchers program to shed excess pounds before her wedding.

Any quest to experience life from the inside out rather than from the outside in will require more than avoiding mirrors, since we have all long since internalized our self image. The process begins in infancy with the active collusion of everyone around us. Our sense of self does not develop in isolation but reflects what we see in others and how we interpret what they see in us. More than a century ago, the sociologist Charles Horton Cooley coined the term “looking-glass self” to describe how we acquire a sense of self by imagining how we are perceived by others. We view the self in individual terms, but it is primarily a social construct, as Cooley tried to convey in this couplet:

Each to each a looking-glass
Reflects the other that doth pass.

In other words, it is not me that I perceive when I think of myself, but some mirror image of myself that I see in you.

Now suppose I really could experience life from the inside with no mirror outside myself to tell me who I am. Who would I be then? Anthropologist Edmund Carpenter got an answer of sorts when he encountered members of an isolated tribe in Papua New Guinea called the Biami who had never before seen their own reflections – not in mirrors, not in photographs, not even in the murky pools of water found in their region. Carpenter recorded their reactions when they were first exposed to mirrors and Polaroid images of themselves. Having their sense of themselves abruptly turned inside out came as a shock. “They were paralyzed,” Carpenter later wrote. “After their first startled response - covering their mouths and ducking their heads - they stood transfixed, staring at their images, only their stomach muscles betraying great tension.” Carpenter repeated the experiment with other tribes, and the reaction was invariably the same. Sometimes tribesmen would turn away in embarrassment when confronted by their own image for the first time. Carpenter saw parallels to the Narcissus myth, but a more apt allusion might be to the Garden of Eden. Adam and Eve had been enticed by the promise of knowledge, but after eating the forbidden fruit they knew only that they were naked and exposed. In this case, the forbidden fruit is a mirror. And whatever is gained by having one’s experience of life turned inside out, something else is lost. Call it innocence.

Kjerstin Gruys, Mirror, Mirror…OFF the Wall (www.ayearwithoutmirrors.com)
Charles Horton Cooley, On Self and Social Organization
Edmund Carpenter, Oh, What a Blow That Phantom Gave Me!
Genesis 3

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