If I’m “Dressing for Myself,” Why Do I Need to Look in the Mirror?

Is a good outfit a vapid pursuit? This was the question I sought to answer last week when I took a break from my full-length mirror. If fashion was truly a tool for self-expression, or a conduit for a private kind of self-esteem, then why did I need to consider the gaze of others to engage with it? Why not just get dressed by feel?

As I heaved my IKEA mirror off the wall and turned it toward my bedroom’s white paint, I suspected the whole idea was a hollow, philosophical exercise. I knew that I would hate it, and that a cool outfit donned blindly would never make me feel as good as one I could see in the mirror. But I felt the need to go through with it on principle, if only to confirm what I’ve always suspected: My interest in fashion engenders shallowness no matter how I slice it.

The first thing I noticed was how often I tried to look at myself. While running to grab my charge cord or walking to the bathroom to pee or picking out my pajamas. I kept glancing up at the brown construction paper pasted on the back of the glass, expecting to gather some information about how I looked at that moment and finding, instead, a sheepishness in myself, because haven’t I seen myself enough? What use would I have in the data that the pants I’m wearing are not currently falling the way I imagined they were?

It had never occurred to me that by keeping a large reflective surface in a common area of my apartment, I have been inviting the opportunity to perform constant self-analysis. I’ve heard of people not keeping full-length mirrors, or failing to buy one for months after moving somewhere new, and I’ve always been baffled by that decision. “How can you get dressed without one?” I’d ask them in surprise. But what I was really asking was, “Don’t you care what other people think?”

Choosing my outfits without a mirror felt like navigating my own neighborhood without Google maps: I should be able to do it — I’ve gone through the motions every day for years — but without the external help, I felt lost. What shoes do I normally pair with these jeans? What proportion of coat would balance out these pants? If I wear a sweatshirt with this, will I look like a slob-slob or like a cool-slob?

Of course, these questions alone were proof the experiment was futile. I wasn’t getting dressed by feel, I was getting dressed using the mirror of my memory. A loophole and a failure in one. When it came time to get dressed for a holiday party near the end of the stint, I considered turning my mirror around five times before I finally caved. It was silly, I reasoned, I wasn’t actually doing the experiment anyway. I was just choosing to make my life harder.

But was I? I could argue that my obsession with my mirror has actually invited a lot more strife into my life than the adjustment period I was experiencing to part with it. How many hours have I spent criticizing my reflection? Tossing aside a pair of pants in anger because they didn’t fit me like they used to? Rotating through several outfits until I found myself back in the jeans and T-shirt I started with, now featuring the uninvited accessories of a frown on my face, a frustration with my body, and a tardiness I couldn’t explain?

It’s not that simple, though, because an earnest part of me delights in the art of the outfit-making. I love how the cuff of a pant can say something about a person, how a skirt length can tell a story about women, or that a trend can reveal something about society, like a poker tell, if you’re willing to pay attention. And when it comes to what people think about me, I’m addicted to the power of having a say. I can wear big pants and tell them I don’t care if my butt looks good. I can wear head-to-toe red and tell them I don’t mind sticking out. I can dress like Daniel Day Lewis and tell them I have a precise point of view and know how to express it.

And yet, we’ve also created this system. We wrote the rules; we’ve given clothing power just like we’ve given makeup power just like I’ve given my mirror power. What would a world look like without these force fields? Freer? Duller? More or less complicated?

Taking my mirror down showed me it’s much easier to ask these questions than it is to truly test them. Because we live in a world that values the aesthetic — in fun, unhealthy and inevitable ways, and choosing to navigate outside of that requires sacrifice beyond simply deciding that I am enough. It means enduring judgements I didn’t ask for, broadcasting messages I didn’t intend, and robbing myself of the power to self-create.

Maybe one day my need to accept myself completely will overcome my need to stitch together an image that’s in harmony with my internal self. Maybe asking these questions is the first step in understanding whether that’s a flawed premise from the start. Either way, I was right in my suspicion that taking my mirror down would be futile, practically speaking, but taking a short break from it did reveal one important truth: There is far less clarity to be found in my reflection than my obsession with it indicates.

Photo by Edith Young.

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