Mirrors show many things, but they do not reveal objective truth. Even the clearest and most accurate reflection shows a world flattened and horizontally inverted; any imperfection or tilt of the glass stretches or condenses. Hanging mirrors often warp under their own weight, casting back increasingly inaccurate images.
But it isn’t just the mirror that distorts, inaccuracy is also the fault of the looker. We come to our reflections like Snow White’s wicked mother, demanding to see our best selves, or we look with fear, intent on finding flaws. Either way our vision is tainted by expectation.
We trust our perception, but to a large degree what we see depends on what we have already seen. The sensory information that enters our lenses is nothing like the polished images we perceive. We have only a narrow cylinder of crisp detail at the center of our vision. Our minds fill in the periphery, adding complexity and clarity based on memory and experience.
In fairy tales mirrors rarely reflect, instead they bend time and space, tell the future, expose unseen truths. In Beauty and the Beast, a magic mirror shows Beauty that her father is ill and later that the Beast is dying. In some versions, a mirror is also the doorway she steps through to return from the Beast’s castle to her family’s home and back again. In Disney’s variation, Gaston uses a mirror to show the townspeople the face of the Beast, convincing them to attack him.
The Snow Queen tells of a mirror that shows only ugliness. It breaks and the splinters lodge in people’s eyes, making them despise all they see.
As a girl I was fascinated by mirrors. They seemed so capable of magic. I encountered funhouse mirrors at the state fair, but I was more intrigued by the regular mirror in my bathroom. I practiced tilting my face and watching my features change. If I threw my head back and slightly to the side I looked like the model from my favorite Pantene ad, my nose magically upturned, my cheekbones lifted, my jawline softened. I tried to keep my face at that angle, hoping it would make me appear more beautiful.
In the seventies, psychologists attempted to decipher if animals had a sense of identity by marking them—usually with a red streak on the brow—while they were asleep and then showing them their reflections. The theory was that if they recognized themselves they would try to remove the mark. Some animals passed with flying colors, others attacked the mirror, mistaking their image for a rival. But the results were inconsistent even among a single species. One elephant not only wiped away the mark but examined himself in detail while others didn’t acknowledge the reflected image one way or another. Animals in captivity were more likely to pass, regardless of their species. Scientists wondered, could interaction with humans allow an animal to develop a sense of identity? Despite erratic results, the test continued to be widely used and cited.
Forty years later, another group of researchers thought to try the method on children. Many of them, especially those from non-Western cultures, did not touch or try to remove the mark—in this case a small Post-It.
Unwilling to discredit the test, the researchers revised their conclusions. They decided that while an attempt to remove the mark proved that the children recognized themselves in their reflections an absence of that behavior did not necessarily indicate lack of awareness.
They decided that not wiping off the mark indicated that the child assumed the mark was placed by an adult who would be angry if it was removed or that the children had concluded that the Post-Its must serve some sort of purpose and they didn’t want to interfere.
The researchers did not ask the children about their reasons.
They did not explore the possibility that for children who do not regularly see their own reflections the bit of paper stuck to their head may be the least interesting thing about coming face to face with their own image.
Mirror neurons are special receptors that respond in the exact same way to observing and acting. The most rational explanation for this neural response is visual learning, that mirror neurons allow us to acquire skill through observation. But other more sophisticated methods for this type of learning were already known by the time they were discovered. If all a mirror neuron did was allow us to watch and learn it meant that they were a redundant feature. A more intriguing possibility was that they had something to do with empathy. These neurons proved that we could experience the feelings of others by simply observing them, perceiving them as if we were living them.
It seemed that that experience was not, as common metaphor would have it, a process of stepping out one’s own framework, but instead an of assimilation of the emotions of others. If this was true, then the act of observation was not passive; it was transformative. What we saw was subsumed. It became part of us, and over time it could change us. These small changes, like other consumables, were individually indiscernible. But over time, much like our food choices, what we consume may have a more profound effect.
Mirrors are used to treat phantom pain in amputated limbs. The procedure is simple: a mirror is placed in front of the missing limb, hiding the injured extremity. The uninjured limb is wiggled, clenched, and relaxed. While the damaged appendage is hidden, the functional limb mirrors these movements creating the illusion of a pair of limbs moving painlessly in unison. The brain believes what it sees, even though it knows it is a trick, and the discomfort felt in the missing limb recedes.
The character Jenny Petherbridge in Djuna Barnes’s Nightwood exists solely through mirroring others and stealing what they value. She wears someone else’s wedding ring, steals other people’s tastes, mannerisms, stories. Barnes describes her as a “squatter by instinct.”
To mirror is said to be a form of flattery, but the one being imitated rarely takes it as a compliment. In fictional depictions emulation usually ends in violent appropriation. In the 2016 film The Neon Demon the protagonist, Jesse’s beauty is so powerful that she magnifies the imperfections in those around her, reflecting in her clear unblemished façade the shortcomings of others. Her perfection inspires first awe, then jealous, then violence. Jesse, despite her apparent naivety wields the power of her appearance with increasing fierceness as the story progresses, mocking the other models and calling herself “a dangerous girl.” In the end, the other models kill and cannibalize her, hoping to absorb her essence.
The idea that beauty is a reflection of goodness is as persistent as it is false. One notable exception is Dorian Gray whose ageless beauty persists despite his living according to the philosophy that “the only way to get rid of a temptation is to yield to it.” The effects of his lasciviousness are refracted into a portrait painted of him, turning a work of art into something “bestial, sodden and unclean.”
A mirror’s revelations are limited by proximity. When my pale freckled skin was plagued with blemishes, I could often find something to admire in a distant reflection, but up close, I could focus on nothing but the inflamed and clogged pores. I spent hours clearing away as much of the impacted debris as I could. I squeezed, scrubbed, exfoliated, applied topical medicines, making things worse as often as not. If I left them alone, my blemishes were rarely visible from a few feet away, but I couldn’t resist leaning in, examining and exhuming.
The first time I felt shame was when my mother accused me of mirroring her.
She said: You are flirting with your father, like I do.
She said: You are too old to do that.
The ability to mirror is an essential part of communication, but though these skills are essential to gaining authority people who hold positions of power long-term lose their ability to empathize and mimic the responses of others. Their mirror neurons become less responsive and their capacity for vicarious experience deteriorates. The longer they are in a position of authority the less adept they become at reading people and empathizing with their emotions. An article published in 2009 calls the condition “Hubris Syndrome” and describes it as resulting from prolonged periods of power with little oversight.
Narcissus was obsessed with his reflection, but he didn’t know that he was looking at himself. He was responding to desire. Trapped in the water, he saw a man whose beauty was irresistible and who looked at him with rapt attention and earnest curiosity. He believed the surface of the water was a trick, an enchanted barrier, keeping him from the one he loved.
Alas, he could not find a way through. Still, despite his failure to unite them, Narcissus’s loyalty never wavered. Neither did his lover’s. Their eyes stayed locked together their passion burning even as their strength drained away. They stayed together, singular in purpose, in movement, in expression, until death.
The mirror crack’d from side to side;
‘The curse is come upon me,’ cried
The Lady of Shalott.
As a teen, I was fiercely competitive about my attractiveness and nothing pleased me more than being pursued by a boy whom one of my girlfriends was interested in. It was like having my own magic mirror to tell me I was fairer. I distrusted my own vision, relying on others to see myself.
Once I stayed up all night talking on the phone with a boy I liked. After I hung up, I sat up and looked in the mirror that hung on the wall near the foot of my bed.
I saw myself through the eyes of the boy I’d been speaking to, mesmerized by his admiration. My glassy, sleep-deprived eyes look wide and doll-like. My skin was smooth and my cheeks flushed. I appeared light, almost angelic. I was transformed. I headed off to school feeling enchanted.
But by the time I got home the illusion of the previous night’s magic had vanished. I had shed it over the course of the day and was back to looking splotchy, tired, and angular.
Years later, a partner told me that I was a mirror, that I revealed other’s true nature, casting it back to them like a looking glass. This was her explanation for why I was unpopular. According to her my reflective nature made people uncomfortable. I thought she was saying that I parroted other’s behavior, but she was talking about receptivity, responsiveness. The problem was not that I mimicked others, but that I reacted immediately and without consideration.
When that same partner, during a fight, punched the windshield of our Civic, shattering our reflections into shards, she could still see her rage in my terrified, fragmented expression.
Insecurity about my appearance lead me to a career as a hairdresser in the same way that uncertainty about one’s own mental stability is said to lead many psychologists toward a study of the mind. I hadn’t considered that my profession would require me to spend eight to ten hours a day in a front of a mirror, only that it would make me an expert in concealing flaws.
At first, I looked at myself all the time. I’d examine my profile as I walked past the drying stations on the way to the laundry room. I’d sweep away a smudge of mascara as a client ran her hands through a new style. But I’d look away from adjusting my collar or fluffing my roots and meet the reflected glare of my boss or the annoyed stare of a client. I was expected to look my best, but I was supposed to do so invisibly. For a stylist, looking at your own reflection is as taboo as a therapist checking the clock.
So, I learned to look in the mirror without seeing myself, to look past my reflection and through it, like tuning out background noise. I could erase myself, like Beauty of Beauty and the Beast whose reflection dissolves into a vision of those who need her. I used mirrors to see others, to notice hands clenched on chair arms as I snipped off a ponytail, or eyes darting to a wristwatch as I hurried through a color application.
People observed themselves while I worked on their heads, their gaze darting after their own hands or critically tracing the lines of their face, watching themselves gesture and emote, checking to see how closely their faces matched their feelings.
I had only one client who didn’t look at himself. He kept his eyes open, and downcast, only long enough to get to my chair. He had spectrophobia, he said, a fear of mirrors. It fascinated me, but I didn’t ask for details, unsure if he’d find my curiosity offensive.
Instead I asked about his job, if he had pets, the usual small talk, but I kept missing his answers, distracted with imagining. The salon was suddenly full horrors: mirrors framed in golden scrollwork, glinting glass countertops, an entire wall of windows, even the wooden receptionist desk polished to a reflective sheen.
He sat through his haircut with his eyes clamped shut, unusually still. He barely moved his mouth to speak, didn’t adjust his posture or fidget, but gave no other signs of anxiety as I took the usual half hour to sculpt his strands. When I finished, he examined the result by patting his scalp carefully as if searching for an object dropped in the dark.
“Thanks, that’s great,” he said, but he never came back.
Statues of Buddha are thought to be most powerful at the moment the eyes are painted on, for this reason the artist will not look at the statue while he is painting. Instead, he faces away from the statue and paints over his shoulder, using a mirror to guide his progress. Even looking at the reflection of the Buddha’s eyes as they are made is said to make the painter’s eyes dangerous. When he is finished, the artist is blindfolded and led away. The blindfold is only removed after the artist has encountered something he can destroy.
There are three types of spectrophobia.
One is a fear encountering something unexpected in a reflection: a ghost, a portal, or a person who looks like you but refuses to mimic your expressions and gestures like Nina’s dark alter ego in Black Swan.
Another is a belief that the mirror is a gateway to another world. Those with this fear worry that looking will pull them through the mirror, a foreign world, a different time, like Alice in Through the Looking Glass.
Or, one may simply feel terror at seeing their own face.
This is the fear that haunted Medusa. Legends focus on her ability to turn others to stone, but her face was equally as dangerous to her as to others. Surviving meant never seeing herself.
She was cursed because she was a mirror of Zeus’s lust. She reflected his hunger and his cruelty, and for that she was condemned to ugliness and eternal isolation. Unable to be viewed, even in a mirror, she becomes paradoxically famous for her appearance and invisible.
Reflection is a dangerous gift.