How To Turn Mirrors Into A Source Of Beauty

by Justin Robert Thomas Smith

Well, I woke up this morning — the sun was shining brilliantly through my bedroom window, one of my favorite songs popped into my head randomly, I took in the fact that I had the day off from work — it was just one of those mornings, you know? Those "calm before the storm" mornings, the kind of mornings screenwriters put in rom-coms right before the shit really hits the fan. You could even think of the beginning scene of Mulan as a point of reference if you wanted to: She gets up, kind of nervously excited for the day but still chipper, not really knowing what to expect when she goes in for her makeover, and not really being prepared for her (very degrading) exchange with the Matchmaker — during which the shit definitely hits the fan. So, yeah, in what was probably one of the best pre-noon moods I've ever been in, I danced on over to the bathroom and, just like in Mulan, the shit found its way to the fan... All because my morning buzz decided to go Medusa on me and turn stone-cold upon seeing my reflection in the mirror.

It is in this way that I began what I call "the physical self-assessment" this morning. The assessment is almost a daily occurrence for me, a routine inadvertently aimed at humbling myself piece by piece — one that (now that I really think about it) bears a very striking resemblance to how Mulan is treated by the older women during "Honor To Us All": A glance at my eyebrows (which luckily don't take much to maintain) told me that they were in desperate need of a spring cleaning; a close-up on my nose had me remembering how badly I needed to buy all those facial products I've been bookmarking; and the hair — I really don't even want to talk to you about the hair. I mean, I love that I've been going natural with it (and the long and hard journey that comes with that process), and I love my curls 'til death do us part... but my "bed head" is not a joke, and I end up failing most of my physical self-assessments solely on account of it — because, let's be honest with ourselves: Who really just "wakes up like dis?"

So, after I was all done bullying myself, my critical mind regained control of its thought processes for long enough that I actually became aware of the fact that I had just put myself through yet another physical self-assessment. But sadly, the psychological damage had already been done. I continued to stare at myself in the mirror apologetically, and I began to realize that when dealing with mirrors, one is dealing with two kinds of reflection: The literal — one's physical reflection — and the figurative, or emotional reflection. While these two concepts are in no way mutually exclusive, neither are they so conjoined that one cannot affect the other, and being in front of a mirror is one of the few instances where these experiences truly intersect. Though many of us take that for granted or don't take it seriously enough, it is a dangerous point of vulnerability, a weak spot in our psyche; a mirror enables unfiltered scrutiny at the speed of thought, our physical reflection finding itself completely at the mercy of its emotional counterpart.

The time spent in front of the mirror is crucial. A lot is at stake in these moments, as they speak to the true power of language — not only how external voices can influence our ideas, but also how much power our inner voices have over us. Just as it is no large secret that the way in which we choose to talk about (and even the way we teach) certain topics heavily affects our perception of them, that also rings true when it comes to our perception of ourselves. That inner voice is speaking to me when I'm in front of the mirror getting ready in the morning; if I let it go unchecked to say whatever it wants, it almost always turns into a negative bashing of my physical features which tears away at my confidence, so that I end up leaving the bathroom with the feeling that I look worse than I did before — and I make it a personal rule of mine that one always leaves the bathroom looking better than when they went in.

Here's the thing: Our society already shoves all of its own unrealistic beauty standards in our faces — a symbiotically abusive relationship between the media, our friends and family, and ourselves, each working with the other to reinforce standard notions of idealized beauty and keep us all in an ugly Catch-22, without any options. There's the weight problem: We're either fat-shamed into thinking we're too big for our bodies — something that the awe-inspiring Marie Southard Ospina, our Associate Fashion & Beauty Editor here at Bustle, fights against in many of her articles on body positivity — or made fun of (by way of insensitive eating disorder jokes) for being too skinny and not having curves like "real women do."

Then there's the skin problem — whether we're too dark-skinned, too light-skinned, or we're somewhere in the middle (mixed race like me, forever thought of as "exotic" instead of beautiful). And there's not only rampant ageism, but there's also prejudice against those who go under the knife in lieu of taking a drink from the ever-elusive Fountain of Youth, plastic surgery being their next best bet at looking young for as long as possible. At this point, the construct of beauty has been rebuilt in such a way that it is almost universally inaccessible to the general public without a couple mouse clicks on Photoshop. So, if and when we do find ourselves critically judging our appearances in the mirror, we are not just seeing our reflections — superimposed onto our own, we see a reflection of society's "perfect" version of us, inclusive of all the physiological traits we've ever caught ourselves wishing we could change.

Given the tenacity of such societal pressure when dealing with beauty and defining our notions of what is and isn't beautiful, it becomes paramount that the time we do spend in front of the mirror is not used to our detriment. Even if they are initially received from external sources, positive body images must eventually be generated and cultivated within our own minds — just as it doesn't matter how many people say that you're attractive until you yourself can look at your reflection dead in the eye and say it, too, with sincerity. Also, self-affirmations in the form of thoughts (or even words, if you like to talk to yourself in the mirror like I do) never hurt anyone. In fact, there have even been studies done on the positive effects of giving yourself pep talks — though apparently, it is much more beneficial to ask yourself potentially self-affirming questions than to simply shout well-meant declaratives at yourself until you start crying [source(s): experience].

Side bar: Have you ever thought about how the level of your attraction to someone shifts as you get to know them better? Many claim that this occurs because people's personalities (made up largely of their choices and the qualities they possess) play a significant role in your physical attraction to them, in the overall perception of their beauty. And that shift can go either way, really — either the person in question ends up looking more attractive to you because you admire their personality, or they treat you and/or others like crap and you start perceiving their effectual lack of beauty. The take-away is that beauty is not simply "in the eye of the beholder" but, more specifically, that it is intrinsically linked to the beholder's perceptions of whatever is beheld — that beauty is itself a matter of perception.

"It is time to picture in your mind what you feel beauty should be. Rather than think of a determined shape, decide on your own standard. Better yet, think of beauty as an attitude, as confidence, and as character." — Temimah Zucker for The Huffington Post

This is why it is imperative that we continue to deconstruct beauty as a preconceived physiological standard and instead start to see it for what it really is — and mirrors can aid us in that struggle to redefine beauty and deal with self-perception. If we let them, mirrors can be a source of great emotional support, and by cross-examining the authority of our inner voices with the validity of the phrase "beauty is in the eye of the beholder," it becomes clear that when we're standing in front of them, mirrors give us the power to change how we see ourselves both figuratively and literally. Within the duality of our mirror reflection — this is where our personality and our beauty meet, where we are both at our strongest and weakest emotional points. And if that is indeed the case, then our path to mastering self-perception isn't as difficult or complex as it once seemed: as you start to become the kind of person you appreciate through your actions and the way you live your life — as you start to really appreciate yourself with self-affirming internal and external dialogue — then you'll begin to see yourself as the kind of beautiful you want to be, instead of the kind of beautiful everyone else thinks you should be... Then, and only then, will your reflection finally show who you are inside.

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