(When we look into the looking glass, why do we stare so long? Is it vanity, or do we desire a feeling of connection that requires our very own reflection?)

Leah Johnson

28 April 2023
The mirror in my room stands like a totem amongst a community of artisans, crafting a reflection of my life from an obtrusive angle. When I look into it I am searching for the image everybody else sees. Desperately trying to grasp this perspective, my harmless glances in the mirror have mutated into a dirty habit. It’s something I do almost unconsciously, and yet I do it as often as I touch my hair, or caress my fingernails. It’s like a reflex; some form of muscle memory. I envy the omniscience which the mirror possesses. To understand who I am to others is to sneak a side glance of myself in a flurry, to see the parts of me that I may overlook with my familiar eyes, and it is one that will always evade me no matter how hard I try to trap it. I will never be able to see how others see me, nor will I be able to conceptualize my life without being attached to it, and still I can’t help from yearning for it. No drugs and no amount of spirituality will obtain my desired gaze in full: myself, off-guard and removed. 

My mirror never fails to project a near perfect representation of the reality it experiences. It is a slab of projection, an entity of unfettered ubiquity, and at the end of each day, it stands rigid and unabiding; a type of grounding I search for in my own life. In the mirror I am reminded how I have not been grounded, how I have not been rigid or unabiding, and how I have been out of control.

It was a Friday morning when I looked into my mirror and saw my nose had swelled to twice its normal size. The events of the night before seemed to hail down on me: I had fallen down a steep set of wooden stairs. Washing over me was a birds-eye recount of the accident. As I tumbled down each teetering step until I hit the bottom, flashes of white seemed to scream into my ears. I remember lifting my head to see blood spattered across the concrete sidewalk. I was lucky to walk back up those ominous steps, but I had not yet processed the consequences of falling.

I had a conversation with my father following the X-Rays.

“Do you think I will still be pretty after my nose heals?” I asked him over the phone.

There was static behind the microphone, as if he were contemplating.
“Are you really that vain?” He said to me, sighing.
A distinct heaviness replaced the white noise between our phone calls, and I knew I wouldn’t have been able to answer the question. I hung up shortly after.

I wished he had used a different word, like vapid, or spoke in a different tone. I’m not sure how I would have liked it to change, but I remember the emptiness that sat in my throat, nuzzled in a deep wave of nausea. It ate at me the way worms eat apples: slow and diligently. I have since forgiven him for his candor. There was no use in holding onto the pain, I assured myself. After all, I still am that man’s daughter.

Following our conversation, the idea of my vanity and its accompanying self consciousness loomed around me like a dense fog. I had not thought about this element of superficial validation since I had felt such a lack of it in adolescence. And since I have not experienced this feeling of absence, I felt as though I had achieved balance. I felt I had grown out of the desire to be viewed as strictly what I appear to be, for I have learned to flaunt much more interesting elements of myself. When my father waved the notion of vanity in front of me, I felt a sharp stinging in my chest, as though the grief of my past had booked a permanent stay in my body. The recurrence of such insecurities I thought I had overcome stripped a sense of agency from me, and I was flooded with feelings of shame and regret. The air felt as though it had suddenly been removed from my lungs. I was breathing in hot oil. A familiar feeling of insipid self-image spread like a disease, and I could do nothing but cry.
It seemed that my vanity dangled off the mirror on the wall, warping the reflection staring back at me. I had become a body derived from other people’s perceptions, and I had let my confidence transform into an entity I could not fulfill on my own. I needed someone else’s approval. When this was at its height I would loiter in front of the mirror. I began changing in front of it, staring with eyes that did not belong to me. Looking into a body I have for decades recognized as myself, I suddenly felt like I was peering into the broken window of an abandoned prairie home. One light flickered dimly in the foreground, yet there was no grounding – I was not at home in this reflection. I was consumed by my image.

I realized that my contention was with how I felt I had to show up as someone other than myself when entering a new setting. There was an intense urge to play the actor and fit the open role, no matter how restrictive it might have been. As time went on, the mirrors saw me in different roles, all reading from a different script, and all looking back with the same blue eyes. It wasn’t long before what the mirror saw became what I saw. In this shared gaze, my sense of self began to deteriorate. I realized I had begun a period of deep inward missing. Both my body and my soul were lost at sea– struggling to wade in the harsh ocean current.

It got to the point where looking into the mirror awakened a deep feeling of dissatisfaction and self-hatred, so I began to hide from them. I noticed that the mirrors would scratch at the itches which burned my skin, and the longer I looked the more I turned red.  I ducked away from mirrors, and would shy away from photos. It was as though I was attempting to avoid eye-contact with a one-night stand from the year prior. When I would wash my hands in the bathroom I hastily lathered the soap around my fingers, attempting to distract myself from looking up and meeting my own eyes already there, already staring back at me. After about a month or so, these diverted gazes helped me stifle my need for them. I realized then how my lack of self image worked at reducing how important image was to me.
I will admit that I am still unable to stare at myself naked without some kind of judgment or criticism. I sat in bed late one night and contemplated: What within  humanity drives the insatiable desire to know who we are – or what we look like? Would I still be able to recognize myself without looking in the mirror? We have mirrors in bathrooms of the establishments we enter, and small mirrors in the sun visors of our cars. We use these to constantly check, and impatiently upkeep, parts of ourselves that may mean nothing at all to the outside world. And yet, these small flickers of joy we get from recognizing ourselves through a mirror cannot compare to the rich complexities that linger deep within us, layers beneath our skin. The way our hair sits, or the direction our teeth veer, is only a distraction from the immutable aspects of our individual selves which cannot be duplicated or even represented by a glass filter.

When I look into a mirror, I am attempting to see what others see, and in doing so I am creating a bridge between my individual perception and that of society. The feeling of satiation that comes from grasping vanity may stem from my deep yearning to feel connected to something, to be near someone – to be close to my own self. I want to see myself so that I may understand myself from every angle, in all shades, and at all times of the day. When I am content in what I see, both inward and out, I feel connected to my being, if only briefly.
But in order to see myself clearly, I have to connect my image with the deeper parts of myself. I remind myself that the image in front of me, that which stares so deeply into my soul, is not a full depiction of who I am. The mirror can’t see my love for art, or my patience in conversations, nor can it see my benevolence, or my malice: the mirror will only see that which lays flaccid on the surface of my person, and this I have come to find is the most boring part about me.

With every mirror I gaze into, I muse on these ideas of identity, and how far I have come from vanity. I am not what others see, I tell myself, I am much more than that. I have found a great relief in not looking into the mirror, but I have found an even greater relief in the recents moments when I do look into my reflection, for I seem genuinely happy. I am no longer searching for a mode to settle into, nor a frame to fit – I am merely looking into myself at this very moment, in every shade. Part of me feels as though my vanity is dissolving, as though it is gently sliding off my body, and I can only begin to express this feeling as that of walking directly in the sun on a windless day. Even if I can’t see it in my reflection, I feel warm and joyous in the body I nourish. The fever of vanity has broken. War is over.

To break out of vanity is to destroy the paintings of the solely isolated creature from the wall, for we are much more than the way we present ourselves, or paint ourselves, to be. We are the small intricacies in thought, the evanescent emotions, teetering smiles, fluttering hearts. We are the deep caresses which only art can touch. In a universe of absent mirrors, and absent vanities, I am not an animal, or a character: I am an essence, and mirrors can’t refract that.


Leah Johnson
28 April 2023