What It’s Like to Live Without Mirrors
07.30.19

On the day I was set to begin my no-mirror challenge, I spent the morning appraising myself in my mirrored wardrobe. It was a humid Friday morning and I picked a sheer floral dress I hadn’t worn in years. It looked good, kind of retro, and I left the house buoyed by the universal appeal of feeling stylish. When I got to work, I took a selfie in the office mirror and put it on the internet. This is what I might call a rough start.

I finally remembered to cover my mirrors around 6 p.m., when I saw the day-old reminder on my phone with a gulp. The impetus of the directive was research. I hoped that abstaining from my own reflection for a week would help me understand a group of people I’ve always been captivated by: the mirrorless. The Mirrorless (name mine) are a group of individuals who have only one mirror in their home—usually the small one above their bathroom sink. Whether by choice or by accident, their choice represents something rare and interesting to me: the refusal to revel in their own image.

Consider Lydia, 35: “For me, there is no need for a mirror as I know exactly which clothes I can combine and therefore I don’t need to check if it looks good,” she says. “Also, my gut tells me exactly if I don’t feel like a certain outfit. A mirror wouldn’t help or add anything to my life.”

I do not understand Lydia, but want to.

Part 1: The Disorientation

The first challenge of living without mirrors was figuring out how to cover mine. My aforementioned wardrobe spans the entire length of my and my boyfriend’s small bedroom (we needed storage); we chose the mirrored doors “to open up the space,” a design that’s proven effective with the unforeseen consequence of forcing us to gaze at ourselves constantly. We covered these with two white fitted sheets, which did not open up the space. Our two other mirrors were also put to bed: with a blanket and pillowcase respectively. And then our home was officially asleep: no way to escape into our own dumb eyes.

The evening that followed was disorienting, as all glances at myself (while undressing for the shower, while changing into PJs, while performing my skincare routine) proved fruitless. I was nowhere to be found. I didn’t know whether my face looked puffy or my bangs looked greasy and, humblingly, it did not matter.

When I reached out to The Mirrorless population (via Instagram), many acknowledged feeling free from these small but persistent opportunities for self-assessment:

Liz, 23: “Without being confronted very often by my own reflection… I think about it less. I wouldn’t say I care less because of it, but my appearance face-wise isn’t at the front of my mind.”

Emily, 27: “I think getting some space between me and the image of my body constantly reflecting back at me has helped me move toward recovery [from body image struggles]. Plus, you can’t trust a mirror—they are often distorting.”

Healy, 23: “It has made me a much less looks-focused person…. Also, as someone who struggled with cystic acne for 10+ years, I feel like it has been groundbreaking in taking the focus off my face and a lesson in just letting things be as they will.”

After night one, I saw how this could be true. I went to bed in what felt like a shabby fitted-sheet-artist’s closet, nary a thought of my bangs.

Part 2: Blind Confidence

The next day, not having a mirror proved potentially punitive. Was my hair sticking up like Alfalfa à la Little Rascals? Was there breakfast in my teeth? I decided to institute a rule that I could use my phone for infrequent face/hair checks lest I embarrass myself.

This did not prove helpful for getting dressed though, for I quickly learned that, contrary to Lydia, 35, I do not know how all my clothes look on me; in fact, I get dressed every morning as if I’ve never seen any of them in my life. How could this be the case? Has my mirror become a cheat code, keeping me from gleaning an intimate and tactile understanding of my wardrobe?

My first blind outfit entailed jean shorts, a T-shirt, and Birkenstocks. I wasn’t positive I was achieving the proportions I imagined (yes, I imagined proportions for an outfit most people paint in), but without objective confirmation, I had to assume I was, which was kind of nice. But it did come at the potential cost of misjudgement, which begged the question: Which was worse—facing self-criticism at home or later, accidentally, in a shop window? Or is that a false binary that assumes self-criticism is constant?

Getting dressed is a divisive topic among The Mirrorless:

Vicky, 28: “I suffered from outfit [indecision] for so long and it always made me late to everything…. Now I just plan an outfit I’m excited about in my head and confidently head out…. It’s helped my confidence and outfit-making abilities!”

Maria, 22 (ex-mirrorless): “I didn’t really like [not having a full-length mirror]. It’s not practical. I like to experiment with clothes and so not having a mirror hindered my creativity.”

Brittany, 26: “I like fashion, but used to get obsessed with how it fit my frame. I would deliberate endlessly with body dysmorphia, the devilish voice in my ear. Now I design and sew my own clothes and, although it’s hard to design fit without a full-length, it has forced me to think about comfort before fit.”

Amandine, 25: “When I can’t verify how I look, I am forced to imagine it looks good.”

Maisie, 21: “The strangest result of not having a mirror is that I don’t know what I look like during my day…. [It’s] led me to wear some very bad clothes and I always get a shock when confronted with myself in a public place… It has been an interesting two years at a more or less complete remove from myself visually, but I wouldn’t want to do it again.”

Emma, 26 (ex-mirrorless): “That period of not having a full-length mirror did a huge amount for both my body confidence and style because I wasn’t staring at myself picking everything about my body and outfit apart.”

On another occasion, when I was heading to dinner (in white pants, a white t-shirt, and black sandals), I, again, wasn’t sure how I looked, and realized that through this experience I was forfeiting two potential emotions: the disappointment of not connecting with my appearance or the pride of the opposite. I wondered, not rhetorically, if that felt like a win or a loss.

Later, I noticed I’d stopped trying to catch glances of myself around the house. I folded laundry and didn’t notice my wardrobe was covered. I tidied the bathroom without trying to sneak peeks at my pores. One evening I realized I hadn’t considered what I looked like all day and noted, neutrally, how unusual that was.

Part 3: The Final Word

On the last day of the challenge, things took a sour turn. I was in the mood to experiment with my clothes and didn’t feel I could do so without mirrors. In the end, I chose something that bored me. At this point, I was unsure whether the upsides of forgoing mirrors had been worth the costs.

One thing that unites The Mirrorless is their belief in the power of courting—or rather, not courting—your own image:

Emily, 24: “What started as a frustration slowly developed into a sort of ‘blind’ confidence. I’ve grown to value my opinion of myself as a person more than the opinion of others.”

Nicolette, 24: “I spend less time scrutinizing myself and more time learning to love myself.”

Yael, 21: “I really believe having limited mirrors helps me focus on myself as a whole rather than just my reflection.”

Lauren, 30: “Looks don’t really intrigue me as a quality so I don’t give them much credence…. I can still be vain and arrogant, it’s just more directed toward intelligence. And if I’m being totally honest, I think my true disinterest in ‘looks’ gives me a slight sense of superiority—which is its own form of vanity.”

Mary, 21: “I don’t think I’ll ever purchase another mirror, my confidence has grown too much without them.”

Joana, 28: “[Mirrorlessness] doesn’t mean in any way I don’t care how I look, but it means I care more about how I feel.”

At the outset of this challenge, I assumed I might reach some of these same conclusions. But as I un-taped all the sheets and blankets from my mirrors at the end of the week, I felt happy to reunite with my physical form. Relieved, even. At first I questioned this—after years of self-esteem struggles that turned my mirror into a battleground, perhaps I’d just developed a toxic dependence. But the more I considered that, the more it struck me as an old, outdated story. In fact, what I’d missed during the challenge was pride in my self-presentation. In the strange joy of drawing a crisp connection between what’s in my head and what’s on my body.

Barbara, 23: “I have a friend who always asks: ‘If you don’t have mirrors in your room, how do you admire yourself?’”

I’ve spent a lot of time over the past few years examining my and our culture’s relationship with vanity, and I’ve been told by many to chill the fuck out. But in the conclusion of this challenge, I noted a possible payoff: My mirror no longer represents a source of constant hand-wringing or exhaustion. It’s become a convenient nice-to-have. An occasional mood booster. Which isn’t to say I think I’m perfect or never criticize myself, but that I’ve reached a place of neutrality—one that’s enabled my affection for styling myself to evolve away from making me feel ashamed, obsessed, or shallow. And while I’m sure that neutrality will wax and wane over the course of my life, returning to my reflection with casual pleasure felt like a tiny, singular triumph.

It’s much easier to say that vanity is a distraction than is to say it can be, but doesn’t have to be. I’ve spent so long feeling torn between my interest in the aesthetic and the harmful overemphasis of it in popular culture (and historically, my head), that I’ve struggled to believe the two could be entirely mutually exclusive. But I’m starting to believe they can. We don’t live an invisible, gaseous world, which means that physical properties have meaning, and how we present ourselves does, too. We can choose to remove ourselves from that narrative, as The Mirrorless do with admirable aplomb. But the opposite choice, if thoughtfully made, doesn’t have to stand in moral contrast to that, does it? Maybe a gaze can just be gaze. A heady little preamble to whatever comes next.

Collage by Emily Zirimis.

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