Shameless

The mirror always lies.

Mirror, mirror in my hand, who’s the fairest in the land?” It depends who’s asking. If the Evil Queen asks, she’s usually the fairest. Anybody else – like you or me for example – fuhgeddaboudit! We look in the mirror but can’t see a body there. Instead there’s a body image: a placeholder for the real thing. Most folks find their own body image fascinating and true. Yet nobody else can see it, because it’s also unreal. Like Humaginarium minus the fun.

Basic body image is contrived self-awareness of personal beauty, or lack of it. It’s a mental model, a projection rather than a reflection, something like Peter Pan’s shadow. Body image is a creative reconstruction of the organismal self: physical, behavioral, visible, expressive. It’s everything that reflects sunlight in the real world, though it isn’t actually there.

Body image is superficial yet complicated, sometimes disturbing. We rarely see one without feelings of surprise and delight, or curiosity, or suspicion, embarrassment, even shame. When body image feels out of control, we try to master it with stuff – fashion, coiffure, cosmetics – that make the image look, well, more beautiful in the mirror than the body is in real life. At least we try. It gets expensive.

Folks have positive and negative body images that alternate, like having two of those wily Peter Pan shadows. The images switch on and off with moods, health conditions, social interactions; and they produce different, confusing outcomes. Positive yields satisfaction and acceptance of self. When our body image is positive, we’re like the Evil Queen when her Magic Mirror says, “You are the fairest!” – or at least fair enough, fuhgeddaboudit. Negative body image by comparison is stressful. It unleashes feelings of sadness, anger or alienation. “Snow White is now the fairest,” says the Magic Mirror unexpectedly to the Evil Queen. “You’re kind of a mess.”

Was the Magic Mirror body shaming the Evil Queen? The fairy tale doesn’t say, but yes, I think that’s what happened. The Evil Queen felt humiliated because her outward appearance was somehow, suddenly flawed though it hadn’t changed one iota. In a modern retelling of Snow White, the Evil Queen would not begin a criminal conspiracy to murder and cannibalize her rival. Instead she would enroll in a gym, reduce the size of her portions and meals, try a different hairstyle, consult a plastic surgeon, move her shopping from Bloomingdale’s to Bergdorf Goodman.

But none of that would matter. Why? Because it isn’t true that the Magic Mirror never lies. The mirror always lies! False positives and false negatives abound, making folks complacent or anxious but rarely indifferent and often inauthentic. How they look determines how they feel; and how they feel about themselves may damage their selfsame body – the one that is invisible in the mirror but is the only incontestably real thing about them. Agonizing body dysmorphic disorders may start when the mirror is mistaken for a magician.

Humaginarium also performs magic, but not with mirrors. Rather than judging relative body shape or size, rather than identifying flaws in a body that have to be masked or fixed, rather than exaggerating the importance of irregular features, it flatly states that the human body is a miracle. To be clear and unequivocal: every human body is a living, breathing, sentient miracle; not because of how it looks, but how it works and acts.

Perceiving and appreciating the intrinsic beauty of this miracle yields something far more satisfying than positive body image. It yields a positive body, full stop! That’s a good foundation for resilience, self-worth and self-determination that pursues and preserves health. It’s a good attitude to take to all those mirrors in the dressing room and bathroom: proud of your beauty, inside and out, and utterly shameless.