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Illustration: Brittany Holloway-Brown
Illustration: Brittany Holloway-Brown

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Why I Love Staring at My Naked Face in the Mirror

When all my skin got burned off in a car accident, I had to learn to embrace my reflection all over again

People are always surprised when I tell this story, but I'm more taken aback at just how surprised they are. Sure, I got in a car accident when I was about to turn six and my face was covered in bright red burns, of which there are no traces left on my skin. What's it to you?

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Alright. Maybe they get surprised because I spring the story on them like that. I got too much attention as a kid, so it's a thing of mine to spin a compliment into a story. When someone says I have nice skin, I come back with, "Thanks, I got all my skin burned off when I was in a car accident when I was six!" It was the ultimate chemical peel, I joke, enjoying their look of shock. But I can tell what is ultimately an upsetting story in such a light-hearted way because I have no visible long-term effects — and because, at the time, I didn't even see the effects of it myself.

I've always been somewhat vain. This might catch people unawares, because I don't fit society's idea of beauty, nor do I seem narcissistic when you first interact with me. But when I was a five-year-old with a full-length mirror in my room, I couldn't stop looking at myself. Well, it was more that I couldn't stop looking at myself being myself. I would take one of my mother's nighties, letting it trail behind me as I tripped over it and smiled into the mirror, babbling like I was at a cocktail party, or accepting an incredible award. I enjoyed the make-believe and the image of myself in that make-believe world.

After the accident, my parents did their best to keep me away from mirrors.

So when an automotive air bag exploded in my face three days before my sixth birthday, after finding out that I would be okay, my parents had to take on another problem. They knew very well that beyond my swollen face, my ego was vulnerable to attack. So they took precautions. They made sure nothing really changed in my life, beyond smearing medicine on my face every day. They talked to my teachers so my classmates knew not to react. And finally, they did their best to keep me away from mirrors.

Maybe that's why I was so startled when my five-year-old cousin came over and screamed upon seeing me, right when I was mid-sentence about how I'd recorded Cinderella for us to watch.

My cousin looks unhappy when I recently remind her of this (jokingly, always jokingly). "I just didn't expect it," she explains. Expect what? I ask.

For you to look that bad, she says.

And when I see the pictures from my sixth birthday, only a few days after the accident, I can see what she means. I see a little girl with pigtails and glasses, with so much red on her puffy, scarred face. This was before my cousin was allowed to see me, so she wasn't there, and neither were any of my friends. Only my uncle came over. Looking back, I think my parents took those photos to maintain a sense of normalcy, not to show them to me. It helped that I couldn't ask to see them immediately, that maybe I would forget they existed even as my parents didn't.

Despite their best efforts, I did finally look into a mirror. What I saw made me feel ill, shocked: The girl with the big, bloody face was completely out of sync with the "self" I carried in my mind's eye. I burst into tears.

In 1969, the psychologist Gordon G. Gallup, Jr., created the "mirror test" to assess what animals other than humans can recognize themselves in mirrors. According to Gallup, it's not recognition itself that's important, but rather "what that says about your ability to conceive of yourself in the first place."

The girl with the big, bloody face was completely out of sync with the 'self' I carried in my mind's eye.

The mirror test involves a mark placed on the subject's body somewhere they can't see without the help of a mirror (such as their back or forehead). To pass the test, children or animals need to be able to figure out that they are reflected in the mirror, and then use the mirror to locate the mark.

The main reason the test hasn't prevailed is that as other psychologists have argued, self-recognition can occur at different times for different reasons. For instance, culture and society can change how people comprehend themselves in the mirrors. Children from places like Fiji and Kenya don't pass this test; instead of smiling or greeting their reflections, some of these children froze, "deeply uncomfortable."

Psychologists believe they act this way for a number of reasons: their cultures' lack of familiarity with mirrors, or the way their cultures emphasize interdependence over independence. About the latter, one psychologist says, "They aren't supposed to look different so when they see that mark they're stunned."

Perhaps that's its own self-reflective test: Instead of picking out what looks different about you, pick out what looks different about you — compared to everyone else. For years, that's what I did.

My scars healed, leaving no trace. (Well, no visible trace.) Funnily, my reaction to my face right after the car accident is almost quaint compared to how painful it has been to look in the mirror as I've gotten older.

Maybe you've experienced this too: the act of looking in the mirror and being horrified not at your image, but at how weird and out of place it feels compared to the other faces you see during the day. For most of my childhood, I lived in a predominantly white town in New Jersey and would look in the mirror and sob, thinking that I'd never be pretty. In my view, my features —€” my heavy-lidded eyes, my thick hair and brows, my brown skin — just didn't put me in the "beautiful" category. After a while I stopped trying to look in the mirror. With the exacting way I'd begun to critique my face, it was safer not to see it at all.

The mirror is the only place we get to look ourselves in the eyes.

As I got older, the shame developed trickier parameters. I could get dressed for gym class without blinking an eye or worrying over how my body compared to my peers (this didn't even occur to me), but I couldn't change in any room with a mirror. I'd catch my own eye and feel embarrassed. Not about what I looked like, but about looking myself in the eye.

Think about it. The mirror is the only place we get to look ourselves in the eyes. Pictures aren't comparable; they freeze moments in time. Looking at all the Facebook photos I've posted over the years, I can see that my face stays pretty constant. Even selfies — certainly a revolutionary, self-actualizing act — are products of tiny camera eyes on the side of a screen. When I take pictures of myself, I tend to slip into one particular face or another: a goofy grin, a dark frown, a far-off look. These are my standard selfie faces.

Mirrors, on the other hand, show my face in action, flitting from one micro-expression to another; they offer up a live document.

Part of the reason the mirror test has been popular for so long is that children's ability to recognize their reflections were thought to coincide with their ability to empathize. By understanding themselves as separate entities, the mirror test suggests, children can learn to comprehend that someone else might be sad or hurt, even if they themselves aren't.

Of course, the flip side of empathy, especially for women, is learning to have it for yourself. One way I've heard people try to do this is to think of how secure and caring they were as children. At one point, I stopped being the little girl who could look in the mirror with joy at her own existence. I could still look at other people with warmth —€” to me, my friends and family were obviously beautiful. I once asked a friend, another Indian woman, about this strange feeling of being outside of the category of beauty that cropped up when you couldn't ever fit the blonde, blue-eyed ideal.

"The thing is, I never thought my family wasn't beautiful," she said. I agreed; it was a special kind of narcissism, in which we were the only plain ones in a sea of beauty.

Instead of looking into a mirror to understand ourselves, we start using it to determine how others see us.

In fact, studies about why people look in mirrors suggest that most people's concerns with their appearance are related less to vanity and more to beauty privilege — in how other people might treat them based on their appearance. Even attractive people might worry about their appearance, because losing their attractiveness might mean losing their privilege. Instead of looking into a mirror and understanding ourselves and, thus, others, we start using it to determine how others see us.

But in many ways, I don't think we can ever really comprehend how people see us. When I was in the car accident and saw how distraught my mom was in the driver's seat beside me (the accident had been the other people's fault), I felt oddly calm. This might have to do with the fact that I wasn't in much pain. It felt like someone had swaddled my face with thick cotton, so much so that I kept touching my cheek to remind myself that this cotton was actually my swollen skin.

Otherwise, I mostly paid attention to other people's faces: my parents and the concerned adults helping out, all the kindness as I asked for Skittles at a nearby gas station while we waited for the ambulance. (I was not allowed candy and thus considered this a great triumph.) But their expressions gave me no sense of how I looked. I didn't have an inkling until I peeked in that mirror much later.

Just as I did after my accident, these days, I tend to look for answers in other people's faces, or rather, other people's discussions of their faces. In her deeply personal review of Kim Kardashian's Selfish, a book of selfies, Anupa Mistry describes the idea of beauty privilege: "The assumption is that if you're a woman who says, ‘Hey, I don't fit into conventional ideas of attractiveness,' you're pathetic, or petty, or suffer from poor self-esteem."

But learning to relax in front of the camera, she writes, has helped enact the opposite. "I was already on the road to understanding what happens to your self-image when you take control of the presentation; Selfishsuggests this is an actual superpower in a patriarchal world."

In contrast, prominent beauty writer Jane Marie writes about a discussion she had with her husband. He thinks of himself as less attractive than people say he is, while Jane Marie says she has the opposite belief — that she looks better than people think. It's not about insecurities, she says, but rather about "an incongruity in perception." But whose perception, exactly?

There's something fun, isn't there? About looking at oneself with alacrity and joy.

For a few days last year, I tried out an experiment: I avoided mirrors altogether. I think I wanted to try not to feel that incongruity in perception. It barely lasted. There are simply too many mirrors around us. I began catching my lone reflection in odd moments. Walking triumphantly past the mirrored walls of the bank to deposit a check, or slumped impatiently in a reflective elevator on my way to get coffee with a colleague. Seeing my teeth floating like the grin of a Cheshire cat in the space between liquor bottles lined up against a mirror across the bar.

When I broke down and peered into my bathroom mirror, I was surprised by how much I liked it. I grinned as I was reunited with my reflection —€” not just at the familiarity but also at my ownership of my own damned face. Not your face. Mine. All mine. My nondescript nose? Mine. My often chapped but perpetually pink lips? Mine. My dramatic brows and hair as dark and thick as a tangle of secrets? Mine.

In a way, these days I'm doing what I used to do as a kid, before the accident. I gaze at my visage for long periods of time. Maybe it's because I eschew makeup or even blow-drying my hair that I need the extra time to look at myself. It's the type of behavior that can make other people roll their eyes. It's not that I suddenly think I'm beautiful. (Don't get me wrong, I do think that.) But more interesting to me is the fact that I relish having a self-awareness about how I look. By examining my reflection, I feel like I'm taking notes, making sure that what I think I look like matches what I actually look like.

My friends and family always laugh good-naturedly when I go on about my looks. Maybe it's because I flavor it with jokes and silliness. But there's something fun, isn't there? About looking at oneself with intensity — to stare with alacrity and joy.

According to the Smithsonian magazine, studies have found that bonobos, orangutans, monkeys, gorillas, dolphins, elephants, and magpies can also pass the "mirror test."

But in another mirror experiment, a photographer put a mirror in a jungle to examine how animals reacted to it. These reactions ran the gamut in terms of aggression, vanity, and discomfort. But when the mirror was removed for repairs, they united in a kind of "depression," according to the photographer. No matter how they'd reacted initially, they loitered in the area, waiting for the mirror —€” and their reflection —€” to return.

Sulagna Misra is a freelance writer based in Los Angeles.


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