For a class called “Women’s Bodies, Women’s Lives,” that I took last semester, we were tasked with many activities meant to make us aware of what it meant to be a woman, and a woman in a body, and a woman in a body in a society alternatingly fascinated and disgusted with that body. One of those challenges was the spend twenty-four hours without looking at any reflection of our images, whether in a mirror or in an iPhone camera. I spent most of the Friday I had chosen to do the mirror challenge in Firestone. My junior paper proposal was due at the end of the weekend so I placed myself on the A floor, with a bottle full of water and a cup full of coffee, and within thirty minutes I had to pee. For three years now, bathroom breaks have given me an opportunity to leave work for a couple minutes, clear my head and think about something else. They’ve become a sort of ritual. Washing my hands that day, though, I realized the break wasn’t as restorative or as re-energizing as it usually was. I still felt stressed about my work, drained, and devoid of inspiration and energy. As I dried my hands—keeping my eyes down so as not to catch a glimpse of my reflection—I realized this was exactly what was wrong this time: I couldn’t see myself, and I missed her.
This was surprising to me because I thought—or at least I expected to think—that being free of my reflection for 24 hours would feel good in the way a fast does, that it would cleanse my soul and bring me out the other side clean. I knew I wouldn’t forget to think about how I looked, but I hoped at least I would escape from the burden of my reflection. But instead my day felt a little lackluster. After all, each time you look in the mirror is a tiny drama in a society where appearance is crucial to not only happiness but also success. You never know what you’ll find: maybe you’ll magically, finally have lost twenty pounds, or maybe your hair is just perfect, or maybe you have a giant zit on your forehead. Without these crises and victories, I had nothing to distract me from my frustration with my JP topic. Instead of worrying about my makeup, I had to worry about what was happening inside my head.
Without the ability to look at my body, I felt less of a connection to it, though it was still influencing my life in obvious ways (after all, my bladder was what had brought me to the restroom in the first place). Susan Bordo, a professor and feminist scholar, writes that this body/mind dualism is “characteristic of Western philosophy and theology and its agonistic, unstable nature.” Though she sets up this dualism as between the “finer, clearer self,” and the body which behaves “stupidly, unconsciously, dominated by appetite,” my thinking was closer to Bordo’s interpretation of poet Delmore Schwartz’ vision that “the body and its passions are obstacles to the expressions of the ‘inner’ life,” expressed in his poem “The Heavy Bear Who Goes With Me:”
That inescapable animal walks with me,
Has followed me since the black womb held,
Moves where I move, distorting my gesture,
A caricature, a swollen shadow,
A stupid clown of the spirit’s motive,
Perplexes and affronts with his own darkness,
The secret life of belly and bone…
That is, my desire to look good was connected to a desire to be sexually attractive, and this was in direct opposition to (by virtue of being a distraction from) my JP, which as a student and a scholar I have been raised to value more than my appearance.
The fact that I could literally be in my body and feel that it was somehow withheld from me exemplifies the schism between mind and body, a disjunction emphasized by fashion magazines that suggest effort put into one’s inner self is separate from work to look beautiful. The distinct health, beauty and sometimes even fitness sections in leading women’s magazines fragment this body dualism further. Women are not only made to feel a separation between their minds and their bodies, as Bordo discusses, but between their body and its beauty, its fitness, and its health, though the magazines often work hard to imply that these are all one and the same, coming from a “natural beauty” that starts from “within.”
The fact that I was as interested in the reflection of my body as in my junior paper shows how formative the body is to the self. My independent work combines my most serious interests and is therefore definitely more indicative of who I am than my appearance, but I just couldn’t shake how much I really, really wanted to see how my body looked in my new leggings. This was shocking to me: I rarely feel cheerful about my body, but I realized that the sight of my butt in a good pair of leggings was one of the things that made me happy, and that was encouraging. It made me suspect that under my daily insecurities and neuroses, I am totally fine with my body, even though I often tell myself I am fat and unattractive and need to be otherwise in order to be lovable. The language used here reveals how artificial my reaction is, however: the fact that I tell myself these things (as opposed to thinking them organically or feeling them naturally) implies the process is entirely socialized, triggered by what I’ve been taught to feel when I see my reflection, and not what I actually do feel. Looking at my reflection therefore becomes a recital, a sort of daily incantation of the type of magic Brian Moeran, a “business anthropologist” discusses in a piece called “Advertising and the Technology of Enchantment: The Portrayal of Beauty in Women’s Fashion Magazines,” describing how “spells” exist still in modern society, as means of control.
Advertising is a heightened use of language that aims to combine word and deed (the persuasion to purchase and make use of a product) by using spells especially constructed to effect a magical transfer. As in many magical practices found among tribal peoples around the world, beauty advertisements isolate and enumerate ‘the various or constituent parts of the recipient of the magic’ (a woman’s eyes, hair, lashes, lips, nails, skin, and so on), and then make a magical transfer that enables them to become ‘dazzling’, ‘healthy’, ‘luscious’, ‘kissable’, ‘soft’, ‘natural’, and so on.
In this, women’s magazines capitalize on “a use of the magical power inherent in sacred words to persuade adherents to believe in what is displayed.” Words like “ugly,” and “fat” may not be sacred in the way that words like “beauty” are but they are certainly contain a potent, shaping power. If fashion magazines create spells, then beauty ideals create curses.
There are feminist scholars who argue, in this vein, that the increasing impossibility of beauty norms is at its core a distortion of male power, a reactionary restructuring precipitated by the significant strides made in women’s rights over the past few generations. The lawful subordination of women is prohibited and societal subordination continues to be problematized by feminists who call attention to the way that socialized gender norms can support male hegemony. Appearance, therefore, becomes the last aspect of women’s lives that men can have any say in without violating an explicit code. The ideal woman is not only beautiful but also perpetually unhappy with her appearance; even though she can do anything a man can do, she won’t, lest it be perceived as “unattractive.” Naomi Wolf in The Beauty Myth explains that beauty is “the last, best belief system that keeps male dominance intact.” She claims we live in “a culture fixated on female thinness,” which she interprets as not an interest in beauty but instead a discourse that expresses “an obsession about female obedience. Dieting is the most potent political sedative in women’s history. A quietly mad population is a tractable one.” Revisiting the scene of me craving my reflection as a way of escaping difficult intellectual work with this observation in mind proves ominous: when my JP proved discouragingly difficult, I could distract myself with… myself. It’s not that I wanted to gaze at my reflection in the mirror because I was vain and self-absorbed, but subjugated, imprisoned, bewitched by beauty norms.
It is men quite literally who still create these norms, above all by controlling the production of idealized images of women, especially in advertising, beauty companies, fashion. In a New York Times investigation of Photoshop in magazine ads, men are shown not only demanding certain types of female beauty, but also creating them. The sample size in this piece is admittedly small, but it’s hard to ignore that both the image editors interviewed—as they elongate torsos, widen eyes, slim legs, and shrink waists—are men. Add to this already chilling set-up one editor’s comment that a model looks “way too, like, powerful” with a thicker waist and Wolf’s assertion becomes almost impossible to deny.
It is a fair point, though, that male reactions to female beauty are valid for evolutionary reasons. On a basic level, both sexes want to look good, if only to attract a partner and perpetuate the species, and I certainly place a lot of stock in whether men are attracted to me. I am single, but I have a good deal of platonic friendships with straight guys that I enjoy partly because of the sexual tension that such a friendship brings. Because I had no idea how I looked on the day I did the mirror challenge, I found myself taking their compliments and joking insults more seriously than I normally did. When a notoriously flirtatious friend told me I was making a “cute face,” I actually believed him for once. I noticed another friend staring at my butt and was ashamed to find myself feeling affirmed, not annoyed. Overall, I felt like I received more male attention than normal, which I believe is because I was more attuned to the reflections of myself I could glean from others. Without my own eyes to count on, I had to count on somebody else’s.
The biggest impression that the challenge made on me was that when I look in the mirror, I have no idea what I’m looking at. Even when I can look in the mirror, I don’t see anything close to an approximation of what I “actually” look like. I had chosen to do the mirror challenge on that Friday specifically because the next day I would be attending Casino Night, and I knew I would be doing a lot of looking into the mirror as I readied myself. Saturday night, I put on a dress, looked at myself, and hated the dress instantly. It was too tight around the hips and squeezed my fat in awful ways; I looked wide and huge and I became instantly miserable. I walked into my roommates’ room to ask to borrow something better, and both of them shrieked, “You look hot!” Looking at myself in their mirror, I noticed that everything had somehow—magically—changed. All it took was one complimentary sentence from two people I loved and I didn’t look fat, but curvy, in a nice way; my thighs, which had filled my eyes with tears minutes before, were not so noticeable; my chest looked nice, my hair shiny and thick. I wasn’t fooling myself as much as just seeing myself differently, and I was glad that now—knowing that my own impression was unreliable—it didn’t even really matter what I saw.