How the mirror changed our identity.

November 4, 2022

How the mirror changed our identity

I stood in front of the mirror turning from side to side trying to wish away certain “stubborn” parts of my hips and thighs. What could I wear to hide or minimize those pesky imperfections? I considered putting on oxygen-restricting shapewear but thought it better to be able to breathe. Too much time had already passed and I was going to be late…again. I reached for my favorite kimono (a gift to all women born in the 21st century) that hid everything in a shimmering wave of florals. Sometimes I hated the mirror and wish it had never been invented. It made me curious how the mirror changed our identity and possibly…our punctuality.

I wonder if you relate to my little story opener. How many hours have we stood in front of that piece of reflective glass and deconstructed ourselves? For me, too many. Did you know that our identity wasn’t always hyper-focused on outward appearances? The invention of the mirror changed our identity and how we evaluated ourselves and the world. 

Pre-mirror identity

Before the mirror, people could only see themselves in the reflection of a pool of water or in polished metals. The mirrors of polished bronze, obsidian, or silver were expensive and didn’t reflect all the colors and light of the modern mirror. The crisp clarity of our own image provided by a mirror of today wasn’t available until 1835. Early on, only very wealthy or royal people could afford to own one. It was something coveted and special to see one’s own image reflected back “in living color.”  

According to author Ian Mortimer prior to the invention of the mirror, “Identity was tied up with the people we knew, and the place we lived in. This is why medieval punishments of banishment and exile were so severe.” Millennium: From Religion to Revolution: How Civilization Has Changed Over a Thousand Years Community was paramount to individualism.

Who we were was connected to where we lived, who our family was, what we did, and our internal character. Individuality as we know it today didn’t exist. After the invention of the mirror, it wasn’t that the community identity broke down, but rather people became aware of their unique qualities. The old sense of collective identity was overlaid with a new sense of personal self-worth.

The mirror marks the launch of individuality.

People began to perceive their uniqueness as mirrors became more popular. They could observe the details of their image, and how they appeared to others, and modify it. 

The mirror became the ultimate physical tool for introspection and learning about oneself, including one’s role in society, because it allows a person to scrutinize their own face, with its expressions, shapes, and character signs, according to Sabine Melchior-Bonnet, historian and author of The Mirror: A History.

Photo by Europeana

Many researchers and scientists have tried to quantify the effect mirrors have had on humanity and our identity. Let’s just say that it changed a lot. The invention of the mirror set off a craze in the art world…portraiture. As more individuals could see themselves the individualistic infatuation began. Artists began painting self-portraits and wealthy people began commissioning portraits of themselves to adorn their halls.

Furthermore, things like a 1st-person novel came into existence. Ordinary people started jotting down their day and time of birth. We also craved more privacy and began sleeping in separate quarters. These changes in society stemmed from having a more individualistic view of ourselves.  

Before we make the mirror the root of all evil, I want to clarify that looking at one’s own image is not sinful. I can imagine the first time someone saw themselves clearly was similar to when a child sees themselves for the first time. Children are delighted, fascinated, and in awe of what is before them in the polished glass. They reach out to touch their own face, clap, smile, and laugh. Unfortunately, being awestruck by our own image lasts for a fleeting moment.  

Losing the awe and wonder

Today we find ourselves observing our own image multiple times throughout the day. Whether it is in front of a mirror, in a photo on our phones, or in the image reflected back to us on a zoom call, we see ourselves more than ever. Looking in a mirror or observing our reflection is just something we do. Most of us have allowed this habit to cause dissatisfaction and diminish our happiness. We have forgotten the sense of awe and wonder that comes with looking at our image. 

how the mirror changed our identity
Quote by Katy Kelleher

As individuals role-played before polished glass they reached for status beyond themselves. Women practiced how men would perceive them not out of a strictly vain perspective, but for survival. The more suitors that could be hooked, the more comfortable life she could expect. The game hasn’t changed all that much in the last century. 

According to research from the Social Issues Research Centre, people who are perceived as attractive have distinct advantages in our society. THIS IS CRAZY STUFF!

  • Attractive applicants have a better chance of getting jobs, and of receiving higher salaries. (one US study found that taller men earned around $600 per inch more than shorter executives.)
  • In court, attractive people are found guilty less often. When found guilty, they receive less severe sentences.
  • The ‘bias for beauty’ operates in almost all social situations – all experiments show we react more favorably to physically attractive people.
  • We also believe in the ‘what is beautiful is good’ stereotype – an irrational but deep-seated belief that physically attractive people possess other desirable characteristics such as intelligence, competence, social skills, confidence – even moral virtue. (The good fairy/princess is always beautiful; the wicked stepmother is always ugly)

This reality has led to the loss of awe and wonder in our unique creation and design. Contentment in our body image is as rare as an obsidian mirror was 8000 years ago. So how can we begin to reclaim a healthy acceptance of the reflection we see in the mirror? I believe it starts by exchanging comparisons for completeness.

Embracing the image in the mirror

Although the mirror changed our identity, that doesn’t mean we have to fear what we see in it. God didn’t design any of us to compare ourselves to one another, that is why we are all unique. The mirror was a way to observe our originality. Being a unique individual was HIS idea! 

Psalm 139:14 NIV  I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made; your works are wonderful, I know that full well.

Those words fearfully and wonderfully mean worthy of awe, unique, and set apart. I believe society has sold us snake oil for far too long. The world’s standard of beauty is a moving target. One week skinny jeans are in, the next they are out. One-year runways are adorned by tall, thin, and pale models in muted neutrals. The next year, they favor multi-ethnic women with curves wearing brightly colored frocks. #impossibletokeepup 

Stop trying to meet the expectations of the world when it comes to your body confidence and body image. Spend time asking God his opinion. What does he think about your skin tone? Full thighs? Curly hair? If you ask, be prepared for a gushing artist to explain how He LOVES every aspect he baked into your being. Don’t believe me? Have you tried? 

Maybe you feel unhealthy and therefore you don’t think God is proud of you. HEAR THIS. God isn’t disappointed in you. He does want you to be healthy and he is willing to help. If you are unhealthy, what small steps can you take to heal and strengthen your body? 

The God of heaven desires all his kids to live the fullest life possible. That doesn’t mean all of us will have “perfect bodies”. Some people have lost limbs, vision, or hearing but it doesn’t mean they aren’t valuable or beautiful. Your “imperfections,” make you…you. 

What is the thing that is preventing you from embracing the skin you are in? How about you give that to God and ask for help in loving yourself as HE loves you? Don’t let what you see reflected in the mirror cause you to feel disappointed. 

It took me many years to fully embrace my body and I’m no stranger to body shame. I still have good days and bad days but I have learned to be content in my own skin. If you want to learn a few of the tips that helped me get there, check out my 5-Quick Habits to Build Body Confidence Series. I pray that no matter what you find a way to trust God’s opinion of you over all others. 

Mucho Love,

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