Word from the wise: the side of your face looks weird. I say ‘your’, I mean my. It’s all witch-hunt-inducing nose and self-propelling chin. I’ve decided (don’t disabuse me) that it appears odd because it doesn’t often make it into the mirror, at least not when I’m watching. It occasionally bounds into Facebook photos, but these episodes can’t shake my mental image. In the mirror and in my head my face gazes calmly forward.
Being able to see ourselves is central to how we ‘see’ ourselves. We try to fix how we see ourselves as much as we try to fix how others see us. Take the stock, teenage profile picture: a self-portrait in a mirror/at arm’s length with pouting lips/burgeoning six-pack. Let me point you to a large collection of photos of me (by, you guessed it, me) c.2006. It’s enlightening, though more light is shed on how I wanted to look than how I actually looked. And no six-pack.
So what do we get from constructing literal images of ourselves to match grand mental images? Why do I catch myself pretending to look at hideous ‘boot-shoes‘ in shop windows while actually examining my reflection? Is seeing yourself really central to being yourself?
Seeing and being certainly aren’t universally intertwined. Around the same time as I was gazing wistfully into the dawn for the benefit of my Motorola, a friend of mine was in Darfur working for an aid agency (I realise it’s not a contrast which reflects (boom) well on me). She told me about one village where local children squealed excitedly as she drove in. There was shiny metal on the van and in it the children could see their reflections. Without mirrors, glass, or even water clean enough to reflect, this was the first time they had ever seen themselves, and they were delighted.
This story blows my tiny mind. Here we are perennially surrounded by mirrors. Once a sign of great wealth, now an unremarkable wall-covering. And yet they still attract and distract.
The attraction has been examined by many psychologists and attendant boffins. The most famous of these was Jacques Lacan, whose work is mostly codswallop, just FYI. Lacan proposed ‘the Mirror Stage‘ of development during which a baby sees its reflection, recognises it, and therefore becomes aware of his or her existence as an individual being.
Though Lacan’s theory is the aforementioned walloped cod – it ignores children who grow up without mirrors – it found support at the time. Even boffins are drawn to the idea that looking at yourself is more important than simple vanity.
So here’s my twopence: our identity relies on interpreting other people’s reactions to us, accepting or rejecting them. To do this we must know what they are reacting to. Whether we wear Gucci or cultivate the appearance of a Spanish vagrant, we’re broadcasting an image to the world, and its good to proofread something before you send it out. It helps us to understand the feedback.