Mind, Love, Life Stories, Wellness

This is what happened when I didn’t look in the mirror for a week

By Tuesday, I couldn’t believe how much this was bothering me.

I’ve never felt that I’m overly vain. Self-involved? Yes. Charming, hilarious, and humble but confident? I wouldn’t disagree with you.

Yet the amount of time I spend in front of my mirror doesn’t exactly correlate with my body image. I care a lot more if a person appreciates my ideas or laughs at my jokes, but I spend far more time ensuring I am satisfied with the way I look throughout the day than I do with, say, a pocket-sized notebook to jot down my thoughts.

Even worse – I don’t think my male counterparts bother with their appearance nearly as much as I do, putting myself, unnecessarily, even further behind.

Like most women, my appearance and I share a complicated relationship full of baggage and unresolved issues. This work week, I was ready to investigate them and get the closure I deserve.

Here were the ground rules of my five-day No Mirror Experiment:

  1. No looking at my reflection in any surface at any point in the day. I thought about covering up my mirrors but decided to have faith in my, albeit minimal, self-control.
  2. If I had to look at my reflection (see “Day Four”), I would limit my methods, and therefore time, to that of a guy my age (again, see “Day Four”).
  3. I would record how I spent my time away from the mirror.
  4. Surprise, unwanted group-selfies could be punishable by whatever means I deemed fit. Admittedly, it never got to that point. But I was ready to be pretty severe.

Here’s how this went down.

Day One

I didn’t have class on Day One, and because of the weather I stayed inside, so even if I were looking in the mirror, it probably wouldn’t have mattered very much. Not a successful start to the experiment. But I chose to try and be proactive in the name of this project, and dug up some personal history about my appearance and I.

I’ve never been thin. I’ve never had naturally smooth, manageable hair. I’ve had glasses on-and-off since the first grade. My parents have emphasized the importance of appearance, making a point to dress me well as a child and to appear professionally themselves. As people of color, they have always valued the way we present ourselves in terms of representing our culture, but also for the sake of access to opportunities, ensuring that a jacket smelling of masala never held us back in a world where such petty things make a difference. After some resistance growing up (“But how I look shouldn’t affect the value of my thoughts!”), I’ve come to agree with them. Things can come harder to us. The way we look, if we can help it, should not be working against us or our valuable ideas and contributions. Enough already is.

[bctt tweet=”Like most women, my appearance and I share a complicated relationship.” username=”wearethetempest”]

I have been very privileged in this way, because my access to appropriate and tasteful clothing has never been limited. I have lived a cushy life in a pudgy, well-dressed body. But a ticking time-bomb quietly awaited me in the background of my happy girlhood, setting off a mid-adolescent explosion of bubble-gummy lip shimmer, salicylic acid gels, and mascaras and liners that could blind one’s eyes just as quickly as they could “define” them. Yes, I not only needed to be a teenage girl. I had to start looking like one.

I was very late to this realization. One of my best friends remembers the day it finally occurred to me as the same day she knew we would be friends. After gym class one day, I looked at myself in the locker room mirrors and asked her, “Why do I look worse than everyone else?” She had retorted something about how everyone was wearing makeup just for me to finally notice, which was unhelpful but funny.

“But I should probably try to fix this, right?” I said, and we decided that concealer might help, but honestly, who gave a crap.

[bctt tweet=”‘Why do I look worse than everyone else?'”]

This attitude has effectively persisted through the seven years since I took gym class in eighth grade. And not to speak on her behalf, but the same goes for my friend.

Day Two

This was a day where I personally felt how badly I needed this experiment. I woke up late, my hair was presumably a mess, my clothes were all wrinkly, and it was below freezing out, so I would be layering four wrinkly, unflattering articles minimum.

[bctt tweet=”I not only needed to be a teenage girl. I had to start looking like one.” username=”wearethetempest”]

The point of this experiment was never about if I could get away with not looking in the mirror. I wasn’t after a “Wow, you look great!” “Thanks, I didn’t even look in the mirror!” “Shut UP!!” “You know I won’t!” kind of exchange. I only wanted to do this to see how I would spend time otherwise wasted fixating over each “effortless” wave in my sea of dandruff and brunette hair.

Guys my age don’t seem to spend nearly as much time obsessing over their looks, reflexively glancing at their reflection in windows, or worrying about touching up during the day. I thought I would ace this thing, and find myself in a really positive mental space having better managed my time.

Boy, was I wrong.

The morning of day two was a disaster. Instead of coolly walking it off and moving on without a care like I thought I would, I felt far more hopeless than empowered. It wasn’t because I was worried what others would think, but because I was out of control of what I have methodically controlled since I bought that first tube of orangey, awful concealer. I’ve gone out in public without makeup often, and I’ve had days where I have given up with my hair and pulled it back, swearing under my breath. Every woman has. But it was always after I examined my reflection enough to validate the decision. Being unable to confirm if I was satisfied with how I looked was surprisingly difficult for me.

[bctt tweet=”Being unable to confirm if I was satisfied with how I looked was surprisingly difficult for me.” username=”wearethetempest”]

I eventually was distracted with the rest of life, just like every other day, and I made sure not to stop and check myself as the day went on. When I almost did, just like every other day, in the washroom mirrors or along the tall windows near where I park my car, I either looked away or curbed the instinct by looking at just my winter boots. And I did so repeatedly, either because knowing I couldn’t look up made me want to even more (especially considering how unhappy I was with my appearance to begin with), or because I’m not used to looking at very much else as I walk. Both possibilities were highly disappointing. I could not believe how much this was bothering me.

Day Three

This was a much better day. I spent much of my time working with high school students on various projects, and I think the prospect of being the ~college student~ in the room made getting dressed blindly seem less frightening than the day before. Plus, I wasn’t running late, nor was it Palin’s Alaska outside. Things were better.

I got to the high school and first had to speak to a large group of students about a fundraiser I had organized. This turned out to be 1) a pretty frustrating and constantly interrupted effort and 2) eventually impossible. High schoolers are an intrepid force when it comes to unending conversation regarding the irrelevant and futile (and I am too, but this was my time to shine!). Some of the staff recognized me as a former student, but I think many assumed I was still a sophomore or junior there. I wondered if things would have gone differently if I had put on makeup before coming or not worn sneakers or stuck my head into a kiln to make my unruly hair more silken. I eventually decided that I don’t need to worry about it. High school has been a nightmare for everyone since its inception. This probably had nothing to do with me.

[bctt tweet=”The point of this experiment was never about if I could get away with not looking in the mirror. ” username=”wearethetempest”]

Ultimately, I didn’t spend the time saved on Day Three more efficiently. Instead of tossing and twisting my hair in the mirror that morning, I spent that time worrying about the impact of not having done so on my presentation for the students. I simply changed when the obsessing was happening, from before to after the fact. This was not going as planned. Chalk it up to a flawed experimentee?

Day Four

On Day Four, we had a guest lecturer visit one of my classes, and professional dress was made mandatory. I decided I would really kick the gender element of this project into gear, in order to make myself look presentable without obsessing and still learning something. I would simply live in the parallel, just like ~~a guy~~, and finally get a chance to see myself in the mirror without feeling guilty. I blow-dried my hair after I showered, justified by the fact that leaving it to air-dry might literally have given me pneumonia in the winter weather. My dad dried his hair that morning, too. It’s all good!

Blow-drying is not an easy-fix for wavy, relentless South Asian hair, for the record. In the name of professional appearance, I twisted the front of my hair and secured it with a single, solitary bobby pin. I figured it took as long as a guy using gel or pomade. I wasn’t trying to betray this project. I just wanted to look nice for once this week, and professional enough for my class.

[bctt tweet=”Blow-drying is not an easy-fix for wavy, relentless South Asian hair, for the record.” username=”wearethetempest”]

I chose my clothes accordingly as well, wearing a shirt tucked into trousers and a (boy’s department!) sweater to keep warm. I checked the length of my trousers in the mirror to make sure they didn’t look too short, and once I was sure, I was getting on with the rest of my day without a hitch. I didn’t know if I had something in my teeth, nor had I gone through my CC-cream/eyebrow gel/mascara/cherry chapstick routine. But knowing I appeared at least somewhat composed was very reassuring.

I don’t think I saved a lot of time on Day Four. Despite limiting myself, I still spent time in front of the mirror, and I realized that looking at just trousers doesn’t save a person that much more time than looking at their whole body. It’s instantaneous – I think that’s part of why I kept nearly giving in on Day Two. It’s a really quick check in the scheme of things, so long as it’s only a check and not a complete rearrangement of hair, dress, and makeup. In the spirit of the experiment, I kept my eyes focused on the areas at hand, but it honestly didn’t make a huge difference time-wise.

Day Five

By this point I was used to not looking at my reflection, and felt I managed my time well for most of the day, though it was nothing remarkable. Still, I was excited to be finishing this project. It was a learning experience, no doubt, but more in tune with being punished (“okay, okay. I get it!”) than empowering myself.

I think a lot of it has to do with my approach being that of a weirdly exciting punishment from the start. I thought of the time I spend in front of the mirror as problematic and wasteful, and that this would be a fun way to see that I can do so much more instead. But the truth is, I no longer want to spend that time better, nor am I even able to. I didn’t really save much time in the first place. Even if I had, spending it in front of the mirror to make sure I look the way I want and feel comfortable with myself is not a waste of time. Humans only need to be so efficient; self-care and self-confidence should always come first. And I’m glad I made myself do this, so I never feel guilty about it again.

[bctt tweet=”I’m glad I made myself do this, so I never feel guilty about it again.”]

The same goes for men. Day Four, the day I decided to get ready like a man would, was perhaps the best and least-insane day of the five because guys use mirrors, too. Thinking this was a women’s-only problem was rooted in the stigma that women care too much about what others think. Being presentable matters to all of us, not just women. Men’s restrooms have mirrors too, after all (there’s your equality, concerned scumbag Meninists).

At some level, the desire to be presentable could be about acceptance. To me, after these five days, it’s about bringing out my most comfortable and confident self by taking an extra 15-20 minutes in the morning, instead of wondering about her every hour of the day.

That seems like a more efficient use of time, doesn’t it?