|Mother Combing Child's Hair, Mary Cassatt, 1879|
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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