So the other day, I was thinking about that “Mirror, mirror, on the wall, who is the fairest of them all?” scene in Snow White. You know the one, where the magic mirror gives the evil queen her daily ego boost.
This got me thinking. To some extent, we all have our own magic mirror. I’ve certainly looked at myself in my full-length mirror and wondered – is this what people really see? Do people really notice that my double chin is more frog-like than ever because I’ve had too much cake recently? Does my winged eyeliner look as uneven to them as it does to me? It’s a little like recording yourself on a tape recorder, shuddering when you listen to a playback of your voice and wondering if this is what you sound like all the time. In fact, it’s exactly like that.
Let’s go one step further. If all those things that I see are, in fact, what people see when they look at me… does this make those things “real”? And if not, what IS “real”?
More importantly, is “real” something we actually want?
Here’s another one – those #nofilter and #nomakeup selfies that people do in support of charity. Again – these are the most “honest” photos of us there will ever be. No photoshop, no fancy filters that make everyone an Instagram model, just a photo of us. So why is this such a celebrated thing? Why is baring ourselves to the world such an achievement that is worth its own hashtag? Logically, that makes constant editing the norm.
Let’s go back to that looking in the mirror idea. A mirror that portrays us exactly as we are – is that what we really want? Or a magic mirror that reassures us that we’re beautiful all the time by showing us what we want to see? Admittedly, the queen’s magic mirror allegedly never lied to her, but the truth still stands. We say we want the truth and we prize honesty as a virtue, but we avoid it at all costs as a society.
So, I did a little reading and googling around this, and came across Charles Horton Cooley’s “Concept of the Looking Glass Self”. Cooley was an American sociologist of the late 1800s – early 1900s, and this was perhaps his most well-known work.
“As we see our face, figure, and dress in the glass, and are interested in them because they are ours, and pleased or otherwise with them according as they do or do not answer to what we should like them to be; so in imagination we perceive in another’s mind some thought of our appearance, manners, aims, deeds, character, friends, and so on, and are variously affected by it.”
– Charles Horton Cooley
So, what is the looking glass self? In a nutshell, it argues that the way we perceive ourselves is not a “solitary phenomenon”, but includes how others perceive us. In essence, it is the understanding of how others see us, and the consequent development of our own identity.
I don’t know about you, but I find this fascinating. As Aristotle famously said, “Man is a social animal,” and learning to see ourselves the way others do is about as social as it gets. However, in order to see ourselves from another perspective, this involves stepping back and viewing ourselves objectively from an external body. In doing this, there is now an outsider on the scene who sees everything from a birds-eye view. Which begs the question – who is this outsider?
Is this outsider our individual self? The “real” self that supposedly is the “real” us before any social influences come into play? If so, does this self diminish more with time and constant reassessing? Does it diminish in the presence of environmental, genetic, cultural and societal influences, and can it be eradicated altogether?
“Each to a looking glass reflects the other that doth pass.”
– Charles Horton Cooley
Cooley believed in harmonising “self-feeling” with “social feeling”, rather than losing our identity in society. Let’s look at this quotation for a minute. If we are all mirrors to one another, logically speaking, this means that we are all connected to each other. Not in the cheesy “let’s all join hands and bask in rainbows and unicorns” way, but in the literal physical way – the same rays of light are reflected by these mirrors, and there is no creation of a new light source somewhere along the way.
This seems contradictory to the middle ground stance that Cooley took – if there is only reflection and no “new light source”, how are we all supposed to be individual and unique?
That comes from what we see in the mirror. More importantly, how we see what we see.
If we are so heavily influenced by how others perceive us, every time we see ourselves in the mirror, we will always see in relation to a perceived self. We will always be comparing ourselves to some pre-conceived ideal, or what we think we should look like. Where does this ideal come from? This could come from what people tell us we are, eg. compliments from loved ones, our personal trainer giving us a specific workout plan, or a makeup artist telling us how to contour for our face shape. It could be what we want to be, influenced by media exposure, cultural ideals – the next time you edit a photo of yourself, note the things you instinctively change about yourself. This could also come from what we think we are based on external factors, like what clothing size we are, the number on the scale when we weigh ourselves, or even the colour code for our favourite foundation.
In essence, we never truly have a fresh eye when it comes to looking in the mirror. Everything occurs in relation to something else. Cooley believed that there are three elements to the looking glass self:
- The imagination of our appearance to the other person.
- The imagination of their judgment of that appearance.
- Some sort of self-feeling such as pride or mortification.
This is why some of us ask friends or trustworthy fashionistas for opinions before buying a new outfit. This is why we feel good when people compliment us on a new haircut, a new lip colour, or anything that shows that we’ve paid extra attention to our aesthetics.
“Well, what am I supposed to do about all this?” I hear you cry. We can’t help that we do need other people in order to establish who we are, and we do in fact care about what others think. I’ll tell you what we can do. We can use our awareness of others’ perceptions to our advantage.
Let’s use them to better ourselves.
Cherish the supportive people in your life who give you constructive criticism and are not afraid to bring you back to planet Earth when you need it. On the other end of the spectrum, if you have particularly toxic people in your life who seem to thrive on garnering negativity by doing everything they can to bring you down, cherish them too.
Thank them for everything they’ve done to you.
Thank them for taking the time to be destructive, petty or unjust. Because all that time that they have spent on you has given you the opportunity to learn to be resilient. They’ve taught you to suck it up and power ahead towards your own goals no matter what else is going on around you. If you’ve got a certain someone in mind whilst reading this, be it a nasty colleague, boss or “friend”, you’ll know what it feels like. So go on, take a minute today to think of everything they’ve done to you, doesn’t matter whose fault it was at the time. Then smile and thank them for helping you shape yourself into the wonderful person you’ve become. Cooley would be proud.
Apologies that this was so long, I got pretty carried away as you can probably tell. So if you’re still here reading this, you’re a saint. Let me know what you think in the comments, or if you’ve had any interesting experiences of the looking glass self in real life yourself – I’m always up for story time! Thank you for reading as always, you go girl.
- Charles Horton Cooley: Concept of the Looking Glass Self. Nathan Rousseau, Self, Symbols & Society, Rowman & Littlefield, 2002. http://www.csun.edu/~hbsoc126/soc1/Charles%20Horton%20Cooley.pdf, accessed 03/07/2017.
- Man As A Social Animal. Shared by Amit Mundra. http://www.sociologydiscussion.com/society/man-as-a-social-animal/2419, accessed 03/07/2017.