Thursday, July 30, 2009

What I see when I look in the mirror: ageing, body image, feminism and psychoanalysis

I often assume I suffer from mild body dysmorphia, which means that I supposedly have a distorted view of how I look. It’s much worsened by the fact that I have rosacea: the degree of horror varying with how pink the cheeks are at any one time.

But I’m not even sure about whether it is dysmorphia. For a start, my face is simply never the same each time I look in the mirror; with the rosacea affected by my food intolerances, I sometimes have ‘egg eyes’ (pinched and defeated looking); ‘tuna eyes’ (red and shrunken) or ‘oil eyes’ (same as previous). Usually there is some degree of swelling on my cheeks. The menstrual cycle complicates this further and I literally appear to age five years just before my period.

I suspect what actually afflicts me is hypervigilance coupled with an unhealthy narcissistic streak!

As a coping strategy, I go for long periods where I don’t do mirror close-ups. Everything except eyebrow plucking is done from a distance and even then I just focus on the relevant area, not the whole face.

It hasn’t always been like this. There was a time, before the ageing and rosacea started their ghastly double act, when I could gaze into the car rear view mirror and see my plumped-up, pale, glabrous skin and believe, momentarily, that I was beautiful.

So what happens when I allow myself, after a long interval, to edge closer to the mirror, to witness all the flaws – most of them identifiable as age spots, milia, broken blood vessels, enlarged pores, but some of them inexplicable, indeterminate markings, as if someone had smeared a tiny piece of non-removable charcoal on my forehead?

I got a close-up look the other day after perhaps a year of being too scared to. I was in the four-lane highway of Dandenong Road, in the Saturday morning traffic, waiting for a red light to change, and the face had gone. I mean the face as a whole, the face as an idea, as a unified concept. The new face was defined by its irregularities: the uneven vertical wrinkles on each side of the nose bridge, the deepening labial folds, the tiny crimson paths under the left eye socket and on either side of the nose. The expression in the eyes one of distaste. Not scared exactly, not quite horrified but somewhere close.

I almost stopped the car to check again. It’s unbearable, the desire to check. You check once and are shocked and then when you move your eyes from the mirror your imagination makes a monster of what you have witnessed, so you check again to reassure yourself. And in between the first and second checks you compose the expression on your face, you adjust your hair, you point your chin upwards, you civilise and arrange yourself.

You’re okay, your mind finally decides, overriding that first visceral reaction. Barely.

P.S. I’ve just done some basic internet research on dysmorphia and I probably do have a mild version!

Stuck in the mirror
Like many women before me, the ageing process has made me question my identification with what I see in the mirror. In the way I’ve written this blog entry so far, I have refused to identify with ‘the face’, distancing myself from it. It is no longer me. (In certain mirrors, with a bit of make-up on, it becomes ‘me’ again – for the moment.)

Could the discipline of psychoanalysis shed some light? Sigmund Freud explored the unconscious through psychoanalysis, and Jacques Lacan basically developed and elaborated on Freud’s theories. But other theorists of early child development such as DW Winnicott have extended and challenged their work.

I studied a little Freud and Lacan at university. I’m no expert on either of these controversial thinkers, but my obsession with the mirror made me think about a stage in infantile development that Lacan posited. It supposedly occurs between the ages of six and eighteen months and is called the ‘mirror stage’.

I wondered if I was going through another kind of mirror stage, a kind of de-identification with self.

Psychoanalysis, so often discredited these days, can be incredibly useful in explaining aspects of human behaviour that social theorists might struggle with. For example, like me, many Western women have long been crippled by a form of narcissism that sees them invest way too much in their body image. The fallout from this is obvious in eating disorders, as well as excessive time, energy and money spent on appearance.

Perhaps body dysmorphic disorder is some extreme manifestation of this?

Naomi Wolf wrote her feminist classic The Beauty Myth almost two decades ago. In it she posits a trenchant and disturbing thesis – that current standards of beauty came about as a backlash against second wave feminism. According to Wolf, when the popular media such as women’s magazines could no longer control women’s actions after feminism sent them scurrying out of the home, they introduced the body as a site of feminine guilt and preoccupation. The perfect woman, a 20-something, underweight blonde with translucently clear skin, is the uber-woman that none of us can ever measure up to (Twiggy was, of course, an early major prototype).

This is a compelling argument, one that is still useful in the twenty-first century to explain why women are willing to risk disfiguration and ill health to explore ever more invasive anti-ageing procedures, so ‘raising’ the standards that apply to all women.

But I think we need psychoanalysis and related theories to explain why so many of us are so invested in the beauty myth and our own appearance in relation to it; and why the ageing process threatens our self-image so gravely.

Feminine narcissism – not just a metaphor but a psychiatric condition, albeit mild in most – is one reason why feminism was spectacularly unsuccessful in luring the mass of women into checked shirts and overalls, and convincing them to bare their faces (another, of course, is that in an unequal world women feel compelled to compete via appearance).

Thus, women are not lying when they say of the face lift, the botox injections, the face peels, ‘I did it for me’. Advertisers encourage this: ‘Because you’re worth it’.

A word of warning: narcissism is often used as a term to denigrate women, to imply that we are foolish and frivolous to be obsessed with our bodies and appearance. This is the double standard of patriarchy: set up an impossible ideal, then complain when women spend all their time and energy trying to live up to it.

A recent article in The Age’s Good Weekend would have horrified many readers. It featured four women of various ages who spent what most would agree was excessive amounts on their beauty routine – the average was $16 762 a year, but two of the four spent more than $19 000 annually. These sums were for beauty and hair products and treatments only, not clothes, shoes or jewellery.

Before looking at how these women justified their spending, let’s take a very condensed journey through some of the theories that consider how we look at ourselves.

Lacan’s mirror stage
What happens at the mirror stage? Basically it takes place when the child sees its reflection in the mirror, and recognises itself as itself, for the first time.

At this point the very young child is a bundle of drives and experiences, with little control over its needs and bodily functions. It doesn’t experience itself as a unified being and it does not see itself as separate from the world.

When the child recognises itself in the mirror for the first time, it’s thrilled – the self that looks back at the child appears to be far more unified than the child feels itself to be.

The mirror stage supposedly helps the child develop an ego. But there are two sides to this. The child rejoices in this image of the unified self it sees in the mirror. But the child also becomes aggressive and angry towards the image in the mirror because unlike the image, it is still stuck with the reality of its uncoordinated, helpless body.

Feminist academic Elizabeth Grosz describes it thus:

The child invests the [mirror] image of itself … with all the hostility directed towards its own lack of satisfaction … The … internalized image becomes an … object of aggression (for example in narcissistic self-deprecation). [my italics].

Therefore, a huge split takes place within us in this important stage of becoming ‘ourselves’ – of developing an ego. Just as we are becoming ourselves, we are also alienated from ourselves.

All about my ‘other’
Before we get on to the bit about narcissism, we need to know that the mirror stage has another important function. It sets up the distinction between the self and the world, the self and the other. This is because for the first time the child sees itself as a kind of double being – reflected back at itself in the mirror – so it’s then able to recognise other people, and other objects, as being separate from it. The child is no longer merged with the world.

The mother is an important part of the mirror stage because she is the child’s main ‘other’, reflecting the child back to itself.

The mirror stage is associated with narcissism because it takes place in the state that Lacan calls the Imaginary – a closed system where mother and child continually reflect each other. In growing up, the child moves from the realm of the Imaginary into that of the Symbolic. What brings about this move is the oedipus complex. (Freud refers to the end point – the resolution – of the oedipus complex as the development of the superego.)

For Lacan, this process is represented by the presence of a male who brings the larger world into the closed system of mother and child. He believed it takes place when we start talking, when we enter language. Similarly, the superego described by Freud represents authority figures that we internalise.

Before I go any further, I have to say that the mirror stage has long been howled down as a developmental phase. Why, other theorists have asked, does it make a material object – a mirror – more important than the role of the primary carer, usually the mother? And how do blind kids develop an ego? Lacan himself later said that it wasn’t a stage at all but a state of being.

I and others have found it compelling, though, because it dramatises so beautifully that split from the self that also separates us from the world. And it uses the mirror, that non-place in which women so often get caught, as a site of self-becoming.

An important aspect of the mirror stage is what Lacan called ‘the desire of the other’. This means that at this point the child comes to see itself as an object of the mother’s desire – it is seeing itself through the eyes of an other, the mother.

For Lacan, then, narcissism might become pathological if we get stuck in the mirror stage, stuck in the Imaginary. And we can see, too, how, if we did get stuck in the mirror stage, we’d continue to feel aggressive towards that mirror image.

But here the concept gets confusing – when we start to age there’s no idealised self to falsely reflect back a unity we don’t feel. Instead, at this point in our lives, shouldn’t we feel more unified on the inside, so that the outer image, which is falling apart, isn’t so important? Shouldn’t the mirror stage be reversed? Perhaps that’s what actually happens when mentally healthy people age – perhaps they begin to detach from the image in the mirror. If so, this would surely be a healthy development.

But what happens if we never get to feel unified and whole on the inside, and the outer image starts to fall apart as we age? Perhaps as we try to detach from the outer image we're also feeling panicky and scattered inside. Or perhaps we simply can't detach – that’s when all hell breaks loose and we seek the two-hundred-dollar face cream, the knife, the injections.

These are speculations only (sorry about the pun). In his discussion of the mirror stage Lacan wasn’t overly concerned with narcissism as a pathology. Indeed, he seems to think that narcissism is the normal state, and goes on to portray conventional heterosexual relationships as narcissistic.

The mother as mirror
Everyone breathed a sigh of relief (not really but it sounds good) when the famous paediatrician and psychiatrist DW Winnicott replaced the mirror with the face of the mother.

It's significant that, just like Lacan and Freud, Winnicott believed that the newborn didn't see itself as a separate being and couldn't distinguish itself from the world. The newborn gets hungry, cries, and the world -- which appears to be part of itself -- feeds it.

According to Winnicott, as the mother tends the child and gives it her attention, the mother’s face literally reflects the child back to itself – in ideal circumstances, ultimately giving the child to itself.

This is very important. If the mother is not in a state where she can reflect the child back at itself, she will not be the mirror the child needs to become itself.

If she does not mirror the child, the child develops a ‘false self’ to protect the ‘true self’. Instead of having its ‘true self’ mirrored in the face of the mother, it searches her face in order to anticipate her moods, and responds accordingly.

The child is in danger of never being able to move into the transitional phase (the phase where kids have an object, like a blanket, they can’t be separated from). In this vital phase the child is slowly coming to terms with the fact that its mother (and others in general) is a separate being with her own interests and autonomy.

It’s not hard to relate this theory to a woman’s relationship with the mirror. Perhaps when we look at ourselves uncritically in the mirror and can accept our ageing process, we act the part of the approving mother who responds to our true self.

If we haven’t had that positive mirroring, perhaps when we see our ageing face we worry only about the reactions of others, and fear they will reject us.

But I think it's worse than that. If we don't get mirrored properly we can't move onto and through the transitional phase. So basically if our parenting's been poor (and there might be a thousand reasons for this, many of them social or economic) then we may still believe on one level that we are merged with the world. We may therefore wait indefinitely to be properly parented by a world we expect to bend to our needs, and we may grapple with the idea that those around us have interests and indeed existence totally apart from us.

Back to the superego
I wonder, though, whether the disapproval some of us experience when we look in the mirror is even more complicated. Is something else going on at the same time, something to do with the wider world beyond the bond of child and mother?

What makes us care about what the rest of the world thinks of us? What makes us subscribe to the beauty myth as an exterior standard by which we measure ourselves? This is where Freud’s idea of the superego and Lacan’s related idea of the Symbolic could prove useful.

I think we really need these ideas when we think of how some women might view their faces and appearance in general. If I think I look bad it’s perhaps partly my superego telling me I no longer measure up to an external standard that the world has imposed on me – the ideal of feminine beauty. I have internalised a disapproving larger world that is telling me I don’t measure up.

Thus, in the Good Weekend article I mentioned earlier, 28-year-old Canna Campbell justifies the $17 754 she spends a year on beauty with the words ‘People say that you don’t get a second chance to make a first impression’. Head of a company that offers financial advice, she’s talking about how prospective clients will view her – seeing herself through the eyes of a larger world. Similarly, 50-year-old Wendy Snyder declares: ‘I want [people] to see a groomed, efficient person’ and 39-year-old Vina Chipperfield believes that ‘People judge us every day on the basis of our appearance’.

Beyond the mirror?
These remarks are very much just possibilities based on my limited knowledge. Not all women are narcissistic and overly invested in their appearance. Not all women have conventional upbringings with father and mother playing traditional roles. Parents vary enormously in their ability to love and nurture children. It would be fascinating to see qualitative studies on how aspects of upbringing affect female narcissism, body image and attitudes to ageing.

But again, let’s not forget Lacan’s idea of the larger Symbolic, the wider world, that we enter through language (but that also includes visual symbols). However loving, parents can’t protect their girls from the saturation of media images that portray society’s ideal of feminine perfection.

But perhaps even perceiving all this gives me choices. If I look bad in my own eyes I now have a choice: I can stay in the world of Winnicott’s false self, or instead play the part of the loving mother/mirror, reflecting a positive image back to myself: ‘I love your true self, and I’ll give you the structure you need to bring it into the world’.

Perhaps I can also realise that in judging my own appearance, my over-active superego is playing the part of a potentially disapproving world. And while I can’t necessarily dismantle the impossible standard of beauty I’ve internalised – how can any one person hope to do that? – I can detach from my image a little bit: if I don’t necessarily like what I see in the mirror – viewed through the eyes of the wider world – that doesn’t mean I don’t like me – the me I feel from the inside.


  1. Hello Catherine,

    I am not qualified to give advice, I am simply another insecure human who observes human nature.

    You are treating yourself appallingly. Ask yourself, "would I treat a friend as poorly as I treat myself?"

    It is difficult, especially with a lifetime of adverse conditioning and peer influence, but we need to be our own best friend. We can not be loved and admired by others until we can honestly love and admire ourselves.

    Can I suggest that you put every effort into stop listening to your negative and brutal inner voice, and follow the caring spirit of your inner self. Try to make a connection with the beautiful being inside your body, and be a friend to that spirit - try to love yourself.

    You are with-holding love and acceptance from yourself. You are entrenching fear and disapproval deeper and deeper into your psyche. You are living your fears instead of living your dreams.

    A person cannot love him/herself until he/she can 'like' him/herself. Accept your body, blemishes and all, and realise that it is that which comes from within that is alive and begging to be loved. Love yourself, and you will be rewarded with inner peace. People will smile at you in passing.

    You are the only one giving you negative feedback regarding yourself - don't listen to this feedback. Take up the challenge to like yourself.

    I wish you well.


  2. Hi Gaye,

    Thanks for your comment. It’s a good reminder of what counts. I do get the outside and the inside mixed up – I guess that’s what I was trying to say in the blog entry, but unfortunately it is very hard for me to disentangle even when I think I am doing it. If I feel bad about my appearance, it simply reinforces my own self-dislike rather than me working on changing that inner feeling in the first place.

    I haven’t always been so punitive about my appearance. One reason I am now is that I developed rosacea about three years ago. I thought I had come to terms with it, then I realised it was only because I had been too scared to look at myself up close for a while!

    What your’e advocating is the only sane way forward. I guess that is what happens to every woman when she reaches a certain age: they have to accept the changes ageing brings, and this means accepting (and loving) themselves – unless they choose the path of cosmetic surgery with all its risks and expense, and I don’t intend doing that.