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What Mirrors Reveal About Society

Author Katy Kelleher reflects on something that is ubiquitous in every home--mirrors. She observes that mirrors are a lot like photographs:

… Like photographs, mirrors have been used to create false realities. We act as though what we see in the mirror is complete — a self fully formed and rendered truly. But the mirror is only capable of showing what others see. Mirrors reinforce the idea that a person’s value lies on the outside of their body, that it’s possible to learn our value by examining (and altering) our appearance.

Mirrors can convey the false idea that our appearance is more important than personality and character. Kelleher knows this yet she is “not exempt from the desire … to be visually appraised by relative strangers and found acceptable, attractive, worthy. I look at my face in a mirror and I don’t see myself — I see how others might see me, how others might know me, want me. Sometimes, I find myself substituting a camera for a mirror. I turn my iPhone toward my face and use its small screen to check my teeth before a meeting. ... I glean information from this image, but I can also get lost in it, or overwhelmed by it.”

Kelleher finds this all claustrophobic:

Everything is visible, but nothing really matters. We know the mirror is a trick and a trap. But we also know it’s a tool to succeed in a system that is broken, a world that assigns value arbitrarily and penalizes those who can’t adequately perform or conform. Perhaps that’s the ugliest thing about mirrors. They reveal more about society than they do about individuals, and what they show isn’t always attractive.


Katy Kelleher, “The Ugly History of Beautiful Things: Mirrors,” Longreads (7-11-19)

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