Mirror, Mirror

The Queen at her mirror. Illustration by W.C. Drupsteen, 1885

Now the queen was the most beautiful woman in all the land, and very proud of her beauty. She had a mirror, which she stood in front of every morning, and asked:

Mirror, mirror, on the wall,
Who in this land is fairest of all?

And the mirror always said:

You, my queen, are fairest of all.

And then she knew for certain that no one in the world was more beautiful than she.

— Brothers Grimm, Little Snow White (1812 version)

I’ve gotten to the age where I get Snow White. Or to be precise: I get the evil queen. When I was younger (young enough to be reading fairy tales for serious), the queen was the obligatory, generic villain. Kids don’t worry about motivation: stepparents hate their stepchildren, just because — that’s how it works. Why would the queen be jealous of Snow White? How can she possibly compare herself to Snow? She’s a mom! She’s old!

But I get it now.

Of course, the queen is an extreme case. In the original 1812 Grimm version (where the queen is Snow’s biological mother!), Snow White was only seven years old when the magic mirror switched loyalties, which does seem a bit early to be feeling the competition. I would imagine, given everyone’s ages, that the queen hadn’t hit thirty yet. That isn’t old, from where I’m sitting. What I see now, and didn’t really see back then, is that the queen didn’t feel old from where she was sitting, either.

Nonetheless, no matter how young you feel on the inside (and I do), there comes a point where the aesthetic judgements of mirrors (and people) seem a bit more critical than they used to.

From the day she saw the first little line around her eyes she thought of herself as an old woman, and the thought never left her for more than a few minutes at a time. Oh, when she was dressed up, and laughing, and receiving company, then I don’t say the faith in her beauty wouldn’t come back to her, and go to her head like champagne; but it wore off quicker than champagne, and I’ve seen her run upstairs with the foot of a girl, and then, before she’d tossed off her finery, sit down in a heap in front of one of her big looking glasses — it was looking glasses everywhere in her room — and stare and stare till the tears ran down over her powder.


What she wanted was a looking glass to stare into; and when her own people took enough notice of her to serve as looking glasses, which wasn’t often, she didn’t much fancy what she saw there.

— Edith Wharton, The Looking Glass

I’m also tickled by the idea that the queen had a favorite mirror, a trusted mirror. That is so true. Those of you who haven’t reached my stage yet — someday, you, too, will notice: angles matter. The angle of the light, the angle of the shadows, the angle of your face when you look in the mirror, the angle of the camera when someone takes your photo. I’ve found that certain mirrors smile upon me, and other mirrors aren’t so impressed. The medicine cabinet mirror in our bathroom is my best (inanimate) friend. Sure, there are certain hours of late morning, at certain times of the year, when it gets a bit cranky and points out the furrows on my forehead or the shadows and pouches under my eyes. For the most part, though, it assures me that I look perfectly fine.

“You haven’t aged a day all the years I’ve known you,” it tells me. “Dermatitis? Zits? Hardly notice ’em. Just smile, you look great!”

The mirrors in the bedroom are doubtful. The mirrors at my parents’ house are more doubtful yet. The mirror at my drycleaner’s thinks I’m permanently angry (those frown lines, again). The worst, though, is the mirror in the second floor ladies’ room in an office building in San Mateo, where two of our clients are headquartered. The walls of the restroom are painted a deep orange-red that makes the room glow crimson in the dim florescent lighting. A little factoid: blemishes are red-tinged. Red blemishes in a red light — not pretty.

He pressed his hands to his ears. His face reddened. In that moment, rising, he caught a glimpse of himself in the big blazing slab of the truck’s side-view mirror and it was as if he’d been punched in the chest. What he saw reflected there was the exact likeness of one of the pretas, the restive spirits doomed to parch and starve because of their attachments to past lives, his hair white as death and flung out to every point of the compass, his limbs like sticks, his face seared like a hot dog left too long on the grill.

–T.C. Boyle, The Silence

That just about sums up how I feel after a trip to the ladies’ room at the client site.

It was a superstition in many traditions that reflections (and photographs) are extensions of one’s soul, or essence. Vampires, for instance, have no soul, and hence, no reflection. The custom of covering all the mirrors (or turning them to a wall) in a house where someone has died is based in this belief. Supposedly, if the mirror captures the reflection of the dead person as they are carried out of the house, it might also capture their ghost, which will then haunt the house. (In Jewish tradition, the custom is pragmatic: it is to ensure that no one is facing a mirror during the prayers for the dead.)

Apparently, by this reasoning, there is an entire existence on the other side of the glass, Alice-style. Departed souls wander through it, using mirrors as windows to peer back at us. Bloody Mary, anyone?

Mirror scene from Below (2002), directed by David Twohy.
I couldn’t look in the bathroom mirror for days after the first time I saw this. It still creeps me out.

We have a dual relationship with our reflection. On the one hand, we believe that the mirror shows us what is.

I am silver and exact. I have no preconceptions.
Whatever I see, I swallow immediately.
Just as it is, unmisted by love or dislike
I am not cruel, only truthful –
The eye of a little god, four-cornered.

— Sylvia Plath, The Mirror

And at the same time we acknowledge the reflection’s unreality — it is “a placeless place”, “an unreal, virtual space that opens up behind the surface” (Michel Foucault, Of Other Spaces). Anything could lurk out beyond the edges of the mirror’s frame. It’s Opposite Land.

Then she began looking about, and noticed that what could be seen from the old room was quite common and uninteresting, but that all the rest was as different as possible. For instance, the pictures on the wall next the fire seemed to be all alive, and the very clock on the chimney-piece (you know you can only see the back of it in the Looking-glass) had got the face of a little old man, and grinned at her.

— Lewis Carroll, Through the Looking Glass
Ad infinitum: Dressing room at the Novellus Theatre, Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, San Francisco
Photo: Nina Zumel

Does the mirror show us what is? Can we ever see what other people see? We see what we fear: the young girl we drowned, the old woman that rises in her place like a terrible fish, as Sylvia Plath writes. It’s not what other people see. I’m often surprised when I see video of myself dancing, especially video that was taken in the studio, when I was dancing towards the mirror. Moves that looked fine in the glass look less so through the camera’s eye: too muddy, too loose. And the converse: moves that feel awkward often don’t look so bad. It’s like the difference between your voice, heard through your own ears, and a recording of you speaking. The mirror isn’t the dispassionate third person. The mirror is yourself.

4 thoughts on “Mirror, Mirror

  1. Very interesting perspective you have here. I found your blog while researching for resources on Cebuano witchcraft for my blog post on Filipino playwright Estrella D. Alfon’s “Forever Witches”. Great blog you have! 🙂

    1. Thanks! The writing has slowed a bit of late, but I do want to get back to a more frequent schedule.

      Looking forward to reading your post on “Forever Witches”!

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