Valerie Monroe stopped looking—for one very long weekend—and finally saw herself clearly.
Yearning for a change in routine but not quite able to fit a trip into my schedule, I recently decided to take a vacation from my face. After five decades, I figured I deserved a break. No peeks in the mirror, no stolen glances at reflective store windows. Even a glimpse into a handy piece of flatware would be tantamount to calling the office from a beach house in Negril. For a long weekend, I would go AWOL, facewise.
But I wondered, without the constant companionship of my reflection, would I be lonely? Curious? Confident? Relieved?
The morning of the first day that I awoke knowing I wouldn't be seeing myself, I felt surprisingly sad, as if I were being deprived of a good friend. Or maybe just a favorite sweater. Still, a loss. That undercurrent of withdrawal would persist throughout my visual fast. For all my recent complaining about aging, I apparently get more sustenance from my reflection than I'd realized.
There were practical problems, too. Just out of bed in the morning, I had no way of knowing how sleep had rearranged my face. No use asking my husband how I looked. His response to that question is always reassuringly the same: fine. Hair wrapped in a towel, mouthful of toothpaste, fine. Perfect chignon, high-drama makeup, fine.
Reconnecting in the mirror, I discovered, is one of the ways I orient myself for the day. Unable to check my face-mail, I smoothed my index finger over my eyebrows in a futile attempt to impose order. Applying moisturizer, I was reduced to presenting my face to my 17-year-old son—not an entirely dependable critic, to judge by the things he has failed to notice about his own appearance. "Is everything blended in?" I'd ask him. "Yes, yes," he'd say, though, like any teenage boy, he never looks right at his mother's face but somewhere just above and beyond it. Because I'm not facile enough at applying makeup to be sure I wasn't coloring outside the lines, it was easier for me to leave my makeup at home while taking a vacation from my face. So I wore nothing but that old transparent staple Carmex.
For three days, I was constantly forced to turn away from self-sightings. Sometimes it seemed as if a doppelgänger were following me and I was resolutely aware of avoiding her glance. Or as if I were living in the same town as my ex, and so needed always to be conscious of avoiding an uncomfortable confrontation. There was a lot of avoiding. So I was happy to be able to look into my friend Lizzie's eyes when I met her for lunch. She stared back at me unabashedly. "What?" I asked. "I don't think I've ever seen you without lipstick," she said. She stared some more. "Hunh," she said, seeming to understand the true nature of something for the first time. Plink, plink, plink went little shards of my self-esteem, hitting the floor.
There are more mirrors at my gym than at Versailles. Could I face my reflection for an hour every day and not look? I could. And feel noble about it, too. I can't stand people preening at the gym—unless you're in the boudoir, preening is for chimps. Having made a commitment to eschew looking altogether, I felt superior to those exercising their monkey business. I didn't need the reassurance of my reflected glory.
Like the tree falling in an empty forest, not looking in mirrors suggested some existential quandaries. I quit trying to blow-dry my hair and instead made an appointment for a blow-out (feeling geisha-like as I looked modestly down and away from the mirror during the process). But when it was over, I found myself staring straight into the unfamiliar face of a perplexing question: If I can't see myself, do I still look good? And conversely, on a rainy, bad-hair day, if I can't see myself, do I still look bad? The answer, of course, is subjective. And if the subject—that would be me—is absent, there's no definitive answer. Following that thought led me out of the forest into the shimmering dazzle of a bright idea. I sat there in the salon, blinking it into focus. Except for me, then, who cares?
In a moment, the machinery of my vanity ground to a stop. And in the stillness, less concerned about my physical presentation—or maybe, relying less on what I'd hoped was the pleasant distraction others might find in my appearance—I felt a raw, unadorned freedom.
For all of my adult life, looking in the mirror, I have objectified myself, wanting to recognize myself as the person I—somewhat literally—make myself up to be. I've then toted this image, heavy with expectation, around in my head. But I don't have similar expectations of the people I love—my friends, my husband. Some days he looks good. Some days he looks really good. But during those times when he hasn't appeared princely to me, has it made me depressed? Have I run out to buy him hair dye? Scheduled urgent appointments for eyebrow grooming or teeth whitening? I haven't. I love his face simply because it's my most vivid reminder of who he is. What if I chose to regard myself in the same way, without the burden of expectation?
By the time I'm ready to look into the glass again, I feel sanguine. After all, for the past several days I've either thought I looked a lot worse than I did or I've looked a lot worse than I thought I did. Both perspectives have their advantages.
I stand at the bathroom sink. I'm not wearing makeup. The light's kind of harsh. Here's what I see: a woman friendly and forgiving. And I'm plainly glad it's me.