How to Stop Checking Yourself Out

by The Beheld

You’ve used the blade of a steak knife as a mirror, right? You might have also used store windows, the door of the office microwave, or an iPad. Perhaps — just perhaps! — you’ve even hair-checked your shadow in the midst of a three-day hiking trip in the Adirondacks.

Self-consciousness isn’t an endearing trait, and mirror-gazing certainly doesn’t help matters, so I recently decided to go an entire month without looking at my reflection. Although there’s nothing inherently bad about looking in the mirror — I mean, we’re supposed to look perfectly pretty every waking moment of our lives (and every sleeping moment too; what else could Marabou satin sleep masks be for?) — we get accused of vanity if we derive satisfaction from it. But then again, feeling pleased by your reflection is nothing to be ashamed of! Still, after 31 days of mirror-free existence, I learned that what we see in the mirror goes way beyond our looks. Depending on the moment, we see what we expect to see, what we’re afraid of seeing, what we wish to see. The mirror lost a lot of allure after I realized that, and, as it happens, I look the same whether or not I’m looking at myself. I’m just less preoccupied by it.

Maybe a month without mirrors is a bit drastic, but if you’d like to cut down on the energy you invest in your reflection, here are a few ways.

1) Don’t look at digital photos when you take them. This one’s a gimme, an easy way to get your feet wet with laying off on the self-surveillance. Take the photo, or have someone else take it, and then don’t look at it until later. You look fine! Also, you’ll look very relaxed when your friend who snapped the photo starts to tilt the camera viewing screen your way and you shoo it away with a casual “I’m sure it’s fine.” If it’s truly heinous, your friends won’t post it on Facebook, unless they’re jerks.

2) Cover up your bathroom mirror. This turns looking into the mirror an intentional act instead of something you do every time you enter the bathroom. Lift up your mirror shroud to put on makeup, check for ticks, etc., then put it back in place and don’t look again until you have a legitimate need to do so. It turns out your hands get just as clean if you’re not looking in the mirror while you’re washing them! You can also make your mirror shroud super-girly so you don’t feel like you’re sitting shiva. Mine is a pink chiffon vintage nightgown, so I get to play pretty pretty princess every day. If you have roommates/spouses who protest, try averting your eyes from your glorious visage — it’ll still be glorious, I promise! — while you’re at the sink.

3) Auto-write your makeup. You don’t need to look in the mirror to put on every drop of your makeup. Foundation, blush, bronzer, powder — you know where your cheeks are, right? A small hand mirror will suffice for the rest. Hell, the writer of Mirror Mirror Off the Wall, who’s far more hard-core than I am and is abstaining from mirrors for a year, taught herself how to apply makeup with zero mirrors. It can be done! If that’s too extreme, just focus on the area where you’re actually applying the makeup. (Go ahead and make your mascara face, nobody’s watching.) You’ve done it hundreds of times and won’t learn anything by gazing upon the finished product.

4) Turn away from the mirror at the gym. I guarantee you’ll do more weight reps, focus better on the rowing machine, hold tree pose for longer, etc., if you’re not staring at yourself while you’re doing it. If you’re a total novice to exercise, it can be helpful to observe your form to make sure your downward dog vaguely resembles everyone else’s, but once you’ve got that down, look away. It’s difficult to be in the zone when you’re watching yourself try to get there. Plus, your fellow gym-goers are less likely to ogle you at the weight rack if you’re facing them instead of the mirror, because they’ll know that you know when they’re ogling.

5) Ask people how you look (judiciously). If you ask nicely, people will tell you if you have stray ink on your cheek or crumbs in your cravat or whatever, with the added bonus of leaving out the “and a little jowly,” which you might tell yourself if you were doing a self-report. (Caveat: Don’t ask more than once, and don’t ask at all if you’ve just looked in the mirror your own self. What new information will their response provide?) If you just want assurance that you that you look OK, say exactly that — ”I just want assurance that I look OK” — and you’ll probably hear a notch or two better than “OK.” Salespeople may even tell you the truth about how you look: They’ve seen a lot of people in that dress, and if they’re any good at their job they won’t blow sunshine up your unmentionables just to make a sale. I bought three dresses during my mirror fast based on the guidance of kindly salesladies, and all three are winners.

6) Remember: Nobody really cares how you look. (Sorry!) Actually, it’s more that if you stop looking at yourself so much, you’ll begin to believe that’s true, even when it isn’t. If you don’t look at yourself all the time, you won’t be constantly forming notions about how you look, which makes it easier to intuitively understand that nobody else is forming those notions either. The upside of realizing this is that when someone does notice you and gives you a nice compliment, and you haven’t already formed an idea about how correct or incorrect they might be, it feels like they’re handing you an unexpected gift. The downside is increased risk for existential meltdown. Spend a summer in Costa Rica or something, that usually works.

The main thing is to consider what you’re actually after when you look at yourself — because if you’re like me, 90% of the time there’s no actual reason to look in the mirror. Are you craving reassurance? Security? Joy? Self-flagellation? A sense of center? If you don’t take the easiest route out when you have the itch to look at yourself, you might find something unexpected. Like scabies! Or contentment. (Or, seriously, scabies.)

Autumn Whitefield-Madrano examines our cultural concepts of beauty at The Beheld, and encourages you to alert her when she has gravy on her chin.