It is very difficult to see your own reflection in a puddle. I tried it in the park the other day: what you get is a silhouette of yourself against the sky. Even if there was enough light falling on your face to fill in the details, you’d still get the view from underneath, looking up the nostrils; not a good angle, especially as the years march on. To see yourself full-face, albeit with the equally unflattering tug of gravity, you’d have to lean quite far over the puddle and tilt your head forward, at which point you run the risk of overbalancing. Perhaps Narcissus couldn’t swim, and that is how he met his end?
For millennia, such an imperfect, low-angle, high-risk glimpse was all that was available to Homo sapiens. Can you imagine not knowing what you look like? Today we are not only surrounded by mirrors, everywhere from the bathroom to the gym to the lift, but also by incidentally reflective surfaces. Car windows, computer screens, the oven door, vast cityscapes of plate-glass. It’s hard to avoid your own reflection, even if you want to.
That we have been looking at ourselves for some time is, er, reflected in our language. To say that someone is self-regarding is not a compliment. If you are asked how you see yourself, you don’t reply “I look in a mirror,” because you know it is an abstract question. That’s how fused the literal and metaphorical aspects of seeing have become. But it is worth detaching them a bit if we want to remain sane in a culture that exhorts us to change what we see in the mirror—by buying this object, or having that procedure—in order to feel better. Consumer culture is based on the sophistry that looks and feelings are congruent, but despite the linguistic blurring, what we see and what we feel are discrete. I can’t prove it, but I have a hunch that eating disorders were not such a problem before mirrors came along. And I doubt that the Fast Diet was big news, either.
The earliest mirrors, found in Anatolia, date from 6,000BC and were made of polished stone. From about 2,000BC there were mirrors of polished copper in ancient Egypt and of bronze in China. All these surfaces would have shown a much dimmer reflection than we are used to today: although the Romans knew how to coat blown glass with molten lead, for centuries the privileged few who owned mirrors only saw themselves through a glass darkly. It was not until the early Renaissance that mirrors made with a tin-mercury amalgam became more common in Europe—and thank goodness, because without them we wouldn’t have Dürer’s self-portraits. Even then, they remained one of the most expensive things a person could own, and the church disapproved because they led to the dangerous path of self-worship. It had a point.
In 1835, a German chemist invented the silvered-glass mirror that ushered in the world as we know it, with mirrors, mirrors everywhere. They have great benefits—solar power, precision telescopes, spinach-free teeth—but what is it doing to us, meeting our own reflection at every turn? I can’t help feeling that humans weren’t designed to know what we look like, and that we haven’t adjusted very well to doing so. Before the looking glass, we could only see part of our bodies and nothing of our faces, and we looked out at the world from within them: it was an inside-out process. Now it is partly reversed: our interior selves are bombarded with information about our exteriors—along with suggested improvements. The self-consciousness that was the curse of Adam and Eve was surely only heightened by the arrival of the mirror, which has made us subject and object at the same time.
A few months ago, I saw this advice from the fashion designer Erdem in a newspaper: always look in a full-length mirror before you leave the house. Soon afterwards I was chatting to Anna, the owner of a fashion boutique I know, and she said the opposite: “Once you’ve got dressed, don’t look in the mirror again. That last glance can be fatal.”
I’m with Anna: it allows the sliver of self-doubt to slip in. Now that even our phones can show us ourselves, and the word “selfie” has entered the dictionary, the time is ripe for a backlash against the tyranny of the mirror. I’m going to start by not looking in one before leaving the house, by not preparing, J. Alfred Prufrock style, “a face to meet the faces that you meet”. Let’s all step into the street unseen by ourselves. If beauty is in the eye of the beholder, surely life will be easier when the beholder is not you?