Friday, May 13, 2011

Day 49 - What Sociologists (and I) say about "The Looking Glass Self"

Mother Combing Child's Hair, Mary Cassatt, 1879
I am a Sociologist (at least in practice if not yet by doctoral degree).  As such, my first "academic" post needed to draw from one of Sociology's most famous theorists: Charles Horton Cooley.  Here goes!

In his book On Self and Social Organization, Cooley develops the aptly phrased (for our purposes) theory of "The Looking Glass Self."  Cooley's theory proposes that our sense of self is forged through our imagination of the way we appear in the eyes of others.  In other words, we are fundamentally social creatures who depend on interactions with others to provide feedback, telling us both who we are and how we should feel about ourselves.

Using mirrors as both metaphor and tool to explain how we see ourselves through other people, Cooley writes:
A social self of this sort might be called the reflected or looking glass self: 
'Each to each a looking-glass
Reflects the other that doth pass.'
As we see our face, figure and dress in the glass, and are interested in them because they are ours, and pleased or otherwise with them according as they do or do not answer to what we should like them to be; so in imagination we perceive in another's mind some thought of our appearance, manners, aims, deeds, character, friends, and so on...."
Thus, even when we look into a mirror, our understanding of what we see is fundamentally social because it is mediated by reactions to us that we have seen in people we spend time with.  As Cooley aptly puts it, "The thing that moves us to pride or shame is not the mere mechanical reflection of ourselves, but [...] the imagined effect of this reflection upon another's mind."

Take a second peek at the child featured in the Mary Cassatt drawing I selected to headline this post.  By Cooley's logic, this child's self image will be more fundamentally shaped by interactions she has with her mother than by the image of herself that she sees reflected in the mirror.  Indeed, it is only through social interactions with mom (and others, obviously!) that a mirrored reflection can have any meaning at all!

Despite focusing on the impact of social interaction, this theory speaks volumes to how mirrors, themselves, contribute to our self-image.  On the one hand, in the purist form of Cooley's theory mirrors are wholly unnecessary for understanding ourselves, so long as we have other people around.  If the people we spend time with see us (and treat us) with love, affection, and approval... we will love, have affection for, and approve of, ourselves.  If the people we spend time with see us (and treat us) with disdain, disrespect, and condescension, well.... you get the picture.

On the other hand, mirrors allow us to actually see (at least in reverse reflection) what others are viewing when they look upon us.  They add another step of self-awareness (and, importantly, a tool for self-adjustment) in this process of self-understanding.  As noted by Autumn Whitefield-Madrano, in her blog The Beheld, mirrors give us greater information (we think) about how people view us.  (Like me, Autumn is partaking in a "mirror-fast.") Based on Autumn's experiences, a look in the mirror before leaving home can inform how we interpret interactions with other people.   Upon being peered at by a stranger on the subway - during her mirror-fast - she writes:
I had no anchor to hold onto, no private feeling of, "Well, I do look nice today" or "I wish he would stop staring at the enormous pimple on my chin."  Without having any idea what he might be seeing, I had no idea how I should feel about him looking at me.
What I love about this passage is that it goes further than Cooley's theory.  It illustrates a cycle in which (1) interactions with people inform how we will view ourselves in a mirror and (2) the mirror, in turn, informs how we understand our interactions with other people.

So far in my mirror-less project, I have been quite blessed to be spending time with people who almost uniformly "reflect" positive things back to me.  Yes, they let me know when I have mascara on my nose (thanks Mandy!), but this is different from expressing disapproval (or disgust, for that matter).  I've learned that others tend to be much kinder to me than I typically am to myself.

I think that this bodes well for my upcoming 10 months without mirrors - so long as I continue to surround myself with people who see (and in doing so, bring out) the best in me.  :)

Next up: I'll let you know what it feels like to go through "mirror-withdrawal".  Soon after, we'll learn explore history of how mirrors have shaped the body image of American girls since the 1830s, from Joan Jacobs Brumberg's awesome book The Body Project.  I'm pretty psyched - hope you are too!

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  1. Kjerstin, I am loving your academic takes on mirrors--I'm not an academic and to learn that there are all these theories on mirrors is fascinating. (My boyfriend tweeted about my little-girl-in-mirror post and made a Lacan reference that was totally lost on me...)

    My mother rarely looks in the mirror and once told me that she frequently visualizes herself as looking somewhat like whoever she's talking to. So with my aunt she'll be "thin but weak"; with her father she'll be "old but strong," etc. I think it's impossible to tell how much we really use other people as mirrors to form our self-perception but certainly going a month with only, say, socializing on the telephone or with people who couldn't see me would be a helluva lot harder than this project, ha!

  2. Oy, yes Lacan references are generally lost on me also! Glad this academic bit was not too dense to enjoy.

    Your mom has a really unique approach to mirrors vs. people. You should ask her if she intentionally spends more time with people who "reflect" things she especially likes!

  3. The story about the woman on a subway reminds me of a day when I flirted, quite successfully, with a guy at a bar. When I came home I realized that I'd forgotten to put on mascara. I was weirdly horrified that I'd acted so confidently sexy without mascara! How had I pulled it off?, I wondered. Why didn't he find me disgusting!? I realized that my attractiveness was tied more to how I acted than I had previously appreciated. Indeed, my perception of myself was greatly influenced by my imagined (and mistaken) memory of my reflection in a mirror that evening.

  4. I find it interested that we become so "horrified" when realizing that we behaved with confidence and daring when unknowingly looking less-than-our-best.

    Yet, it seems that you were primarily mortified because you had acted with such confidence, not simply because you forgot mascara. Had your night been uneventful, I wonder if you would have greeted your face in the mirror with a simple shrug ("Oops - forgot my mascara"), rather than cringing embarrassment.

    Instead, your reaction to the bar-flirtation sounds seems akin to finding out that your fly was unzipped during a presentation, or that you had spinach in your teeth during a job interview. I think that our self-imposed rules for acceptable appearance can feel even more rigid than more "official" rules. Perhaps this is because we build beauty routines around our appearance, which sets us up to feel unhinged if we deviate from these routines without realizing it. Food for thought!

  5. i think wat makes us so self conscious is wat we think other people will think of our appearance. but honestly "even tho i am very self conscious" we will most likely never know wat they are thinking so there is really nothing to be afraid of. even tho i am thinking this i can never stop asking my sister if my hair looks ok or if there is makeup under my eyes. i love this experiment u are doing and i hope it goes well!!

  6. Another mascara incident, from a different perspective:
    It was finals week and wanting to give myself the best possible chance of doing well on my Political Science exam, I took special care with my makeup and hair so that my attitude/self-image would be strong & positive.
    Being December, it was snowing, and living about a mile from campus I walked through the snow to campus, went to my seat in the exam room and took the exam.
    After the exams were collected, I lingered to chat with the professor awhile. After that I visited the ladies room and glanced up while washing my hands. To my HORROR, I found that during the walk through the blizzard, my carefully-applied mascara had transferred itself from my eyelashes to my eyelids and cheeks, making me look like a drunk raccoon, and NO ONE, not a classmate or even the professor with whom I'd chatted confidently for 5 or 10 minutes had said anything to me.

    Mirrors have their place. Especially when you can't count on people to tell you your fly is unzipped.

    On the other hand, my self-confidence hadn't been lacking right until I realized my mistake. A quick trip to the ladies room (with its mirrors) on the way into the exam might have solved the problem, but would I have felt any more or less confident while chatting with the professor?

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