Rumor has it that certain left wing kibbutzim eat pork on Yom Kippur. Their ostensible goal is to demonstrate that the day is completely irrelevant to them. I always thought that if it truly meant nothing, they would treat it as a regular day and not arrange a dramatically defiant repast. Clearly it still holds some power over them.
Likewise with children who fight with their parents to prove their independence. True independence doesn’t need to be asserted. Children who have matured and cultivated their own individuality and sense of self don’t need to provoke a fight with their parents to show it.
And I think the same also applies to Kjerstin Gruys, a UCLA doctoral student, who spent a year not looking in any mirrors in order to separate herself from an unhealthy obsession with body image (and presumably to write the recently released book, Mirror, Mirror Off the Wall: How I Learned to Love My Body by Not Looking at It for a Year). It’s not the mirror that’s the problem (although she does claim that the average woman looks in the mirror 70 times a day – how is that possible? Aren’t we all too busy for that?!). As with the other examples, true independence from her obsession would make mirrors irrelevant, not taboo.
I certainly agree with Ms. Gruys that 70 times a day seems, shall we say, a bit much. But I don’t think the mirrors are really the problem. The desire to look attractive is hard-wired. It’s natural and normal. And can even be good (I actually wish that some of those baristas at Starbucks with the tongue piercings and oversized holes in the ears would look in the mirror a little more frequently!). We want to make sure that we are presenting an appropriate image of ourselves.
And that’s where the problem lies. Obsession with looks to the detriment of all else means we’ve missed one of life’s crucial lessons along the way, a lesson that can’t be learned by simply avoiding all mirrors.
It means that no one taught us that our internal self is more important than our external self. No one advised us to emphasize character over beauty. Or if they did, we didn’t believe them because we didn’t see anyone truly living that way. And that’s a real shame.
It’s a delicate balance. Making character our primary focus does not mean that we should go around unwashed, unkempt and wearing a burlap sack. That’s also not independence.
Concern with our physical appearance is here to stay. It just shouldn’t be our main emphasis.
We want to look presentable. We want to look dignified. We want our looks to reflect our inner good. We don’t want to look like we don’t care and we don’t want to look like we care too much. We don’t want to be obsessed and we don’t want to be cavalier. We want a healthy balance, a healthy relationship with ourselves, a healthy perspective on our bodies, a healthy attitude towards our external presentation and a healthy focus on our character traits and the inner life of our souls.
Extreme reactions aren’t usually effective. Just like fad diets don’t last and a ban on sugar leads to binging. Mirrors are a part of our lives. Concern with our physical appearance is here to stay. It just shouldn’t be our main emphasis.
Ms. Gruys was certainly right to try to deemphasize the role of looks; to diminish the time spent looking in the mirror. But if all the time and effort spent focusing on the outer self wasn’t replaced with a focus on developing the inner person then perhaps the whole experiment was for naught. To wit, her breakdown purchase of “Tammy Fay”-style fake eye lashes a few weeks before her wedding. Even though she ultimately pulled them off…ouch!