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Face off

Have you ever thought about what a baby sees when she looks at herself in the mirror? Does she wonder who this other little person is staring back at her? Does she puzzle over the fact that she can’t touch this person even when both of them are reaching for one another? Seema Goswami writes...

brunch Updated: Oct 31, 2011 10:35 IST
Seema Goswami

Have you ever thought about what a baby sees when she looks at herself in the mirror? Does she wonder who this other little person is staring back at her? Does she puzzle over the fact that she can’t touch this person even when both of them are reaching for one another? Does she look down on her clothes and wonder why the baby in the mirror is wearing the same thing? Or does she, by some intuitive leap, understand that the face looking back at her so solemnly from the mirror is her own? And if she does, then at what stage does this understanding dawn?

WomanI was trying to work this out as I idly watched my friend’s young daughter sitting transfixed in front of a full-length mirror. She smiled uncertainly at her reflection; she tapped experimentally on the glass to see if she could get to the other side; she pressed her nose against it and then snapped back looking startled at the distorted image reflected back at her; and finally she summoned me over with an imperious finger to help her solve this new mystery the world had presented to her.

I sat down next to her on the floor, pointed to my reflection in the mirror and then at myself. She looked back and forth, a glimmer of understanding in her eye. I pointed to her reflection and then back at her. Suddenly, her face lit up with the glow of recognition. That baby in the mirror. It was her. That was what she looked like. That was what the world saw when it looked at her.

We soon tired of this game and moved on to something else. But the little interlude got me thinking. As we grow older, what do we see in the mirror? Is that how the world sees us as well? And how accurate a reflection is it of how we feel inside?

As a child, the mirror was my best friend. I would spend hours preening in front of it, trying on my mother’s make-up, my elder sister’s grown-up clothes, my grandmother’s saris, my father’s clunky reading glasses. Every new item made me look a little bit different; it was almost like trying on personas for size before I decided on which one suited me best.

GirlAs I grew a little older, my relationship with the mirror evolved as well. The only child in a family of grown-ups, the mirror became almost a playmate. I would conjure up imaginary friends and set up a dialogue with them as I sat in front of the dressing table. I would try on expressions, a laugh here, a frown there, a giggle for punctuation and try and work out how I appeared to people I met in the real world.

Then, teenage struck and the mirror turned into my enemy. Suddenly, all I saw in the mirror were my flaws. My forehead was too short, my nose too stubby, my cheeks too fat, and was that a fresh pimple sprouting on my chin? It seemed to be growing larger every minute I stared at it.

No matter how hard I tried, I found it impossible to love the image reflected back at me. And even though now I marvel at the thin waist and pert bum of my teen years – and don’t even start me on my perfectly-toned arms – at the time I hated, just hated, what I saw in the mirror.

Did things change? Of course they did. The raging hormones of teenage calmed down and I began to see myself for what I was. Not great, but not absolutely vile either. And thinking back, I can faintly remember about a nanosecond in my late 20s when I was actually happy with what I saw in the mirror. It was as if I had finally grown into my face, all the bits and pieces had made peace with one another, and I could smile back at the mirror when I looked into it. And that self-confidence helped me through the next decade or so.

But now with incipient middle-age creeping through the lines on my face (and my neck, oh God, I’d hoped you’ve have the decency not to bring up my neck!) I think that equanimity is not long for my world. Of late, I find myself re-arranging my features before I risk a look in the mirror. Cheeks ever so slightly sucked in, neck held straight, jowls tightened, lips raised in a half-smile. And it seems safer to do my make-up one feature at a time – a quick fix of kohl pencil, a smudge of under-eye concealer, a dash of lipstick – and then risk a look at the sum of my parts. Aha, not so bad after all!

And no, I’m not really deluded. It’s just that Nature comes to the rescue of women like me. Your eyesight becomes a little less perfect to go with the general decline of your features. And all those flaws that are so apparent in the harsh light of day are softened just a bit as you gaze at the ever-so-slightly blurred image in the mirror. It’s a bit like looking at a picture shot through a soft-focus lens. It is real all right, but just a tiny bit better for being a tad diffused.

Take my advice. Accept it as the truth. In these matters, it’s best not to investigate too closely.

Follow Seema on Twitter at twitter.com/seemagoswami

From HT Brunch, October 30

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