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The Frenemy Over the Bathroom Sink: Mirrors and Self-Image

I would have seen it had I bothered to look in a mirror. But instead I spent a whole job interview, trying to project professionalism and confidence, with a smear of toothpaste on my right cheek.

Fortunately, I was the one doing the interviewing. The young woman I was talking to about an internship was very gracious after my husband at the time came into my office and immediately pointed out the dab of dried blue (as he has been trained to do—see sidebar). Even though I’m sure she thought one of her duties would be following me around, dabbing up messes on my face, the woman accepted the position.

I used to have a love affair with mirrors. I remember spending hours in the bathroom growing up, looking at my face from different angles, practicing expressions of surprise, shock, anger. How I managed to get the time for this, I’m still not sure since I shared the bathroom with my five siblings. In college and during my years in New York, I was more like the subject of “You’re So Vain” than I like to admit. That “one eye in the mirror” part. That was me.

Read More: Instead of “You Don’t Look Your Age,” This is the Compliment I’d Rather Hear

A Changing Relationship With Mirrors

Rita Hayworth in a mirror maze in “Lady From Shanghai.”

My feelings about mirrors began to change in my mid-30s, after I had kids. I mean, who had time for all that primping and blackhead pinching when babies and toddlers were yanking on your robe or untying your shoes? When my husband and I built a new house, I was happy to have over our bathroom sink a big window looking onto to a stellar live oak tree rather than a mirror. Better view, in my mind. For any essential checking—teeth, nostrils, stray eyebrow hairs—I hung a small hand mirror on the wall next to the window. I got used to not seeing my face.

Did the small mirror mean I was letting myself go? That I didn’t care what I looked like any longer?

When I reached my early 40s, I remember worrying about the significance of the small mirror. Did it mean I was letting myself go? That I didn’t care what I looked like any longer? But looking back, I think it led to a more positive self-image.

In our next house, which we bought rather than built ourselves, a huge mirror hung over the sink in the master bathroom surrounded by the kind of lighting you see in backstage dressing rooms. I couldn’t get away from myself in those days, and I think that’s when I realized why I wasn’t thrilled about mirrors. Sometimes I just got tired of seeing my own face. Oh, you again, I’d think at times when I looked up from washing my face. I didn’t so much mind the wrinkles that had formed; it’s just that I knew so well every curve and crevice—I’d poked and pulled on the skin tag on my left eyelid so often—that I really felt I didn’t need to see much of my face anymore.

Keeping a Positive Self-Image

Now I think of my face as a favorite film I’ve watched many, many times. I sometimes will put on a movie like The Third Man and do a crossword, write some online checks, see what’s happening on Facebook. I  just look up for the special parts, like the Ferris wheel scene, where Holly Martins confronts Harry Lime. The movie parts I focus on are like the occasions I actually spend time with a mirror—putting on makeup to go out, though that’s only a few times a week. So if my face is like a favorite movie, you’d think I could show it a little more respect. You’d think I wouldn’t subject it to the embarrassment of being seen in public with toothpaste smears and the like.

I’m not sure if the mirror will ever be my friend again, but it shouldn’t be my enemy.

We’re in a new house now, and the mirror over my sink is somewhere between huge and hand-held size. It’s good for quick assessments as well as long, loving looks. I think my out-of-sight-out-of-mind attitude has been a factor in my positive self-image, but I think I’ll need to take more hard looks at myself. I’m not sure if the mirror will ever be my good friend again, but it shouldn’t be my enemy. I’m aiming for “frenemy.”

Read More: The Incredible Shrinking Woman. Where Do Those Lost Inches Go?

By Jeannie Ralston


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