More than a year after I did my first month without mirrors -- and months after my blogging buddy Kjerstin Gruys finished her yearlong experiment of the same nature -- the concept of going without mirrors by choice been getting a fair amount of press. Gruys (who is currently writing a book about her mirror abstinence) appeared on 20/20, I was recently on the Today show, and both of our projects have been mentioned in publications ranging from the New York Times to the Guardian. I'm skeptical that there are enough mirror refusers out there to truly qualify as a "trend," but the possibility that women questioning their relationship to the mirror is part of the zeitgeist is exciting.
I was planning on going a month without mirrors again anyway, making it a sort of annual ritual for myself, when the Today show reached out to me after having read about my first go-round. In talking together, we decided it would be fun for me to keep a video diary of this year's abstinence, giving periodic updates about my progress and occasionally filming myself doing things that one would normally need a mirror to do. In brainstorming ideas we came up with a handful of ideas -- going to the gym, shopping for clothes, getting my hair done, and so on.
When a friend suggested going to the beach, everyone else present nodded vigorously, but at first I wasn't quite sure what that might have to do with going mirror-free. It's not like there are mirrors at the beach, right? "It's the whole 'bikini season' thing," she said. Now, here's the thing: I have my share of body anxieties, believe you me -- but by whatever grace of the fates, "beach body" anxiety isn't one of them. See, I love the beach. I. Love. The. Beach. Ilovethebeach. I saw a documentary about people with "object sexuality," which amounts to a romantic desire toward inanimate objects (one woman fell out of love with her archery bow and fell in love with the Eiffel Tower), and -- I mean, I'm not actually in love with the beach, but if the beach showed up at my place in a trenchcoat with a boombox, I'd be charmed, okay? And once I'm at the beach, my ability to get worked up about the circumference of my thighs becomes pretty much nil. I'm in the water half the time anyway -- my great-grandmother was a mermaid -- and the rest of the time I'm too busy sunning, dozing, fanning, or generally lazing about to care.
Sure, I might take care to suck in my belly when I emerge from the surf; yes, I usually give myself a quick once-over in my tankini before heading out the door. But I'm of the belief that American beaches -- at least, my favorite beach in the five boroughs, Jacob Riis Park, named for a muckraker who documented the plight of poor, often new, Americans, who came here for a better life -- are a sort of haven of democracy that extends to our bodies. There are plenty of beaches in the world (and in this country) where body consciousness rules, but New York City public beaches are not among them. I'm not saying that "beach body" anxiety isn't a legitimate anxiety to have, just that it isn't mine. Certainly, judging by the way others started nodding when the idea of going to the beach without having looked in a mirror recently, it's an anxiety plenty of others share. So, sure, yeah, I'll go to the beach and film it for my video diary. Maybe I'll learn something, right?
Still, a couple of weeks after this conversation, it occurred to me: By including my beach trip in my video diary, which was going to be broadcast on national television, i.e. roughly four million people, I was also agreeing to appear in my swimsuit -- on national television, in front of roughly four million people.
At this point, I feel like I should describe something about this realization felt: like a ton of bricks, perhaps? A punch in the gut? What other clichés can I come up with about how a 36-year-old woman with ample thighs, a round little beer belly, and a lifetime of Growing Up Woman would react upon realizing what she'd signed up for? This was the "swimsuit readiness" test of all time, right? This was my bikini body -- okay, my tankini body, whatever -- on display not for my fellow beachgoers (who would be, after all, in their own trunks and tankinis and Speedos and triangle tops and having far too good a time at the beach to be thinking about moi) but for people in their living rooms who may or may not have had their coffee yet and who may or may not be sitting there, arms crossed, grumbling, Who is this woman, and why does she think we want to see her in her swimsuit? I should have been freaking out, right?
Here's the thing, though: I didn't actually feel that way. I report this not in a moment of triumph of overcoming all my self-consciousness, but rather in the way some people report reacting to the death of a loved one: feeling sort of weird about not feeling worse than they actually do. I knew of the feeling that might be expected of a woman nearing 40 with a probably-average set of body woes who just realized four million people may see her in her swimsuit -- panic, anxiety, worry, fear. But when I compared it with my actual reaction, which was more in the realm of, Oh, whatever, the gap between the two made me wonder why I wasn't more anxious about it. Let me repeat that, for absurdity's sake: My reaction to realizing that I'd signed up for four million people to see my bare thighs was nonchalance, and I didn't understand why it wasn't anxiety.
Like the five stages of grief -- which, as a side note, are nicely debunked in Ruth Davis Konigsberg's "The Truth About Grief" -- the idea that women are eternally dissatisfied with our bodies has taken deep hold in our culture. That's not an invention; plenty of women are or have been dissatisfied with our bodies, and I'd wager that the number of women who have never felt bodily dissatisfaction could fit in my bathtub. But it's also an idea that came to be a truism that's actually based on something deeply contextual. Looking at the comments on a post at No More Dirty Looks about when we feel most beautiful, it's clear that as often as plenty of us bemoan the state of our bodies, our skin, our selves, we also know that sometimes we are damned good-looking. Who doesn't feel radiant after an amazing dance class or yoga session or run in the woods? Who doesn't feel beautiful curled up in the arms of a lover après amour?
These aren't the stories we hear, though. We hear the opposite -- the tales of dismay with ourselves. Even when we hear about women looking at their bodies without disapproval, it's generally framed as a tale of redemption, of overcoming the poor bodily esteem we're all expected to have. And in my case, that story had become so entrenched that even when my own experience and reality ran counter to it, there was still a part of me that reacted to the societal narrative above my own. Which, by the way, I did: For a couple of days I actually considered going to a tanning booth in hopes that a deeper color would serve as a quick body makeover -- this from someone who can check every box on the high-risk skin-cancer checklist, and who has already had precancerous cells removed. I have never considered indoor tanning before; frankly, I'm just thankful I didn't go down some weird food restriction rabbit hole, since I know that leads nowhere good. In the end, I didn't go tanning; in the end, I was indeed filmed in my swimsuit, and in the end, approximately four million people saw my bare thighs, yet the earth has continued to rotate on its axis. My baseline sense of self prevailed here, but still I wonder about why there was a part of me that let the societal narrative run on its ticker tape, nearly superimposing itself over my own authentic reactions.
I'll be thinking on this, probably for a while. I suspect it has something to do with the ways women are punished for being vain (though it's not exactly as though we're rewarded for rejecting vanity either). Perhaps my perspective is skewed on this; after all, I spend a good deal of my time in corners of the blogosphere that focus on women's bodies, so maybe I'm getting a slant here that isn't actually representative of the archetypal narrative of women's relationship to their bodies. I'd love to hear what your thoughts are on this: When you read or hear about women's bodies -- from women themselves -- is it underscored with an assumption of dissatisfaction? Or is it underscored with neutrality or positivity, or redefined each time depending on the speaker and context? Or...?
WATCH: Autumn on the Today show, Aug. 27, 2012
A version of this post first appeared on The Beheld.