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Mirror, mirror: Woman reflects on month of not looking at herself

Autumn Whitefield-Madrano, 36, a freelance writer and copy editor in Queens, New York, was recently featured in a New York Times article about the growing phenomenon of “mirror fasts.” The writer went on two month-long mirror fasts in the last two years, where she went to such lengths as avoiding her reflection in the kitchen pots and pans and putting on her makeup by feel. She wrote about her experience for TODAY.com.

You know how some days you’ll think you look fine, and then you catch a glimpse of yourself later on and you’re like, Oh wow, I look awful, leaving you feeling cruddy? That feeling is part of why I embarked on my month-long mirror fast the first time around — and why I give myself an annual refresher in going mirror-free.

The first time I did a mirror fast, I was alarmed to find that without looking in the mirror, it was difficult to tell how I was really feeling. It was as though without a mirror, my brain couldn’t interpret the jumble of free-floating thoughts and feelings any of us might have on any given day and arrange them into an actual mood. I felt scattered, unmoored, adrift — that is, until I began to understand what was going on. It was like I didn’t trust my actual experiences and wanted some sort of verification of my state of mind by looking in the mirror — even though the mirror would never actually give me any new information. All it would do is serve as a sort of divining rod of my emotions: If I’m feeling blissed out, the mirror will reflect a smooth, relaxed face; when I’m stressed, the face that stares back at me looks lined, tense, rigid. Certainly we wear our moods on our faces, but this wasn’t about evaluating my expression; this was about looking at my face — which doesn’t really change all that much from day to day — and depending upon it to tell me how I was doing.


The author, right before she covered her medicine-cabinet mirror for a month.

Once I realized how much the mirror had been dictating my moods, a serenity set in that lasted for weeks. It was liberating to untether my feelings from my reflection — so when I did a mirror fast the second time around, I expected to jump right back into that peaceful freedom. What I found was that now that I understood the connection between my mood and the mirror, instead of diving into serenity, I jumped headfirst into the set of emotions I was going through at the time — which wasn’t so great. Within the span of two months, I’d lost my grandfather, had a professional setback, had begun a series of “talks” with my boyfriend that would eventually result in a breakup, and had fallen ill. I knew I wasn’t at my best, but taking away the crutch of the mirror meant that I had to actually experience my emotions instead of funneling them through the feedback loop of my reflection. I couldn’t pretend my sour mood was due to a “bad face day”; I couldn’t attribute my sagging energy to looking as drained as I felt. Mirror fasting helped me get through this time, to be sure — but it wasn’t easy.

It’s no surprise some women might lean on the mirror to help us interpret how we’re feeling. As art critic John Berger put it, “Men look at women. Women watch themselves being looked at.” Women are still seen far too often as objects of decoration, and it’s difficult not to internalize that to a degree. Most of the time we speak of this in terms of self-esteem and the unrelenting pressure on women to look good at all times. That’s a problem, of course, but what’s of equal concern of me is the fact that women are on a public stage pretty much every day. We look at each other, we see ourselves being looked at, we look at ourselves. All of that looking can distract us from doing.

I wanted to know what would happen if I cut out one part of that loop: What would happen if instead of looking at myself, I only looked at others? What would happen if I muted my preconceived notions of what others might see when they look at me? What would happen if I saw someone looking at me and instead of wondering what they were seeing, focused on what I was seeing in them?

Both times I’ve embarked on a mirror fast, I’ve been forced to look inward — and look outward as well. Writing about not looking at yourself might be just as narcissistic as constantly gazing in the mirror, which is why I don’t intend on writing about this much more than I already have. But I intend on doing this exercise every year, just as a private exercise for myself — a reminder that the mirror is just that, a mirror. It’s not a divining rod, or an oracle, or a place of either safety or fear. It’s a piece of silvered glass, that’s all. In it, I am nowhere to be found.

Autumn Whitefield-Madrano writes about beauty at The Beheld. Her essays have been published in Salon, Glamour, Marie Claire, The New Inquiry, and more.

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