Broken Mirrors: Lessons in Self-Perception

“Love is what we were born with. Fear is what we learned here.” – Marianne Williamson

I learned a lot about fear from anorexia. It’s a terrifying disease that robs the sufferer of the ability to think or feel as herself, lies to and for her and, if given the opportunity, swallows up her entire life. Not until I reached my own full recovery did I realize how horrific its scariest moments can truly be.

I was living in Paris, weeks before a loss of consciousness led me to diagnosis and proper care, and working as a model. One day while working out at a local gym, I became mesmerized by a woman’s legs. Reflected in the mirror on an adjacent wall, they were long and thin—so thin that her knees bulged out like burls on trees. I felt an odd mix of envy and concern as I watched, part wishing I had the genes or “skills” to obtain such a physique, part worried for her wellbeing. From the angle, I figured she was running several treadmills to my right, and longed to see the rest of her. Instead, I continued exercising, fixating on fat and calorie burn as per usual.

Once finished, I stepped off of the treadmill, walked toward the drinking fountain on the mirror-topped wall and spotted the woman again. Those legs! Those long, lithe legs… Drawing closer, I observed bruises on her knees, like mine—exactly like mine. I stopped walking. She stopped walking. I started again, as did she.

In a fraction of a second, reality struck—or my sickened version of it. The woman wasn’t thin at all. Her thighs bulged outward even more than her knocky knees, below a round, bloated abdomen. Approaching the mirror, I confirmed the now obvious. The woman wasn’t thin; she was just plain, chubby me.

Perception_August McLaughlin

Had I imagined her? Wished so hard to be her that she’d appeared? Deep in my gut, I knew, or at least suspected, that I’d watched my own legs, and that my “reality” wasn’t real at all. It was a sickening, frightening thought, but not as scary as I found my body. A glance down at my flesh assured me: Whether I’d seen her or not, there was zero chance that Ms. Thin had been me.

Self-perception is a powerful, potentially terrifying thing. I’m grateful that when I look in the mirror today, I no longer see shape, size and mistakes. I make it a point to peer into my eyes with respect, whether I feel at my physical best or not. Most often, I simply see me—a soul in a body I’ve learned to embrace.

I don’t know if I see myself physically as others do (does any woman?), but I’ve learned not to care. I want to feel and appear attractive, like most folks, but the scale no longer measures my self-worth. And my thoughts and energy fuel worthy pursuits. These are some of the gifts healing from an eating disorder can bring—a realm of self-acceptance I feel too few people reach.

At its core, anorexia isn’t about aesthetics, but a desperate need to achieve and succeed, to compensate for inadequacy, to maintain control amidst chaos or to simply disappear. Like all eating disorders, it’s a complicated illness, influenced heavily by cultural standards and the role models we have or lack. Sadly, these issues have grown universal, and reach far beyond the grasp of full-fledged disease.

I was reminded of my Paris/mirror experience last week, when a friend alerted me to a video produced by Dove. I won’t ruin it for those of you who haven’t seen it. I can only say WATCH IT! Please. 🙂 I have a feeling you’ll not only relate, but feel inspired.

A mere four percent of women worldwide deem themselves beautiful, according to Dove. I imagine that many of the remaining 96 percent of us aren’t merely shunning our looks when we look in the mirror, but our selves.

Throughout my recovery, I’d often look in the mirror and spout affirmations, whether I believed them in my heart or not. I love you, You’re beautiful, and so forth. Over time, they felt less like lies, and more like promises. Eventually, they felt true. I can’t help but wonder if most women would benefit from similar practices, not simply in regard to physical appearance, but life. Many of us see ourselves as “less than,” flawed or not fully capable. If we let them, doubt and insecurity can really hold us back.

I’m grateful to Dove for reminding me that no matter how wonderful others might perceive us, it matters little if we fail to see the wonder ourselves. Simply knowing that, reminding ourselves of that, can go a long way toward personal empowerment. If there’s one thing that help heal our broken “mirrors” and allow us to reach our full potential, having a blast in the process, I’m pretty sure it’s that.

What experiences have led you to ponder or shift your self-perception? What’s your take on the Dove experiment? I love hearing your thoughts. 

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39 Comments

  1. Reblogged this on Doing ItTrue Diva Style and commented:
    Powerful post and a wonderful reminder that what we think of ourselves is so often not the truth. Learn to love yourself AS IS :-).

    Reply
  2. I am so glad you shared this. I have seen this video a couple of times now, and I can’t help but wonder what the differences would be for me…as I a teenager, though I couldn’t see it, I was a beautiful girl. Back then I thought I was fat and hid behind my clothes. Only upon seeing a picture of me in the so rare pair of shorts 5 years later made me really see myself as I was back then – much like you in the mirror, I wondered first, who it was in the photo. And as I have gotten older I see more and more imperfections, more droop, more freckles and struggle with it.This made me stop and think.

    Beyond that, my friend has 2 daughters, 12 and 13. She shared the whole video with them and asked that they watch it alone, without the distraction of music or media, to just focus on the perspectives of beauty. I think doing that has given them a gift, and I hope they can take some of that perspective and incorporate it into their own sense of self.

    Beautiful post.

    Reply
    • I’m so glad that you saw the video, and that it’s led you to ponder your own perceptions, Lynnette. I imagine most of us can see ourselves to some degree in the video–a sad common thread.

      Knowing how hard we on ourselves can really make a positive difference. And the more beautiful we feel (through self-embrace, pursuing our passions, etc.), the more lovely we appear to others and the happier we are. I find peace in that. Wishing you and those girls (sounds like a great mom!) endless joy.

      Reply
  3. Very powerful, August. The image of what/who is “perfect” has always bothered me given what it does to the self esteem of young women and how they take that forth into their adult lives. We all have those “imperfections” with our bodies that we judge ourselves on. When we are physically intimate with our partners (and we know we won’t be judged), we trust in letting someone see those “imperfections”….but I think that is what makes us human….as opposed to all the make-up/airbrushing, etc. that allow “celebrities” to appear to be “perfect”.

    It isn’t just women who are subjected to this (but it probably is by far and away given how unfair society can be towards a woman’s appearance). My wife and I recently watched the MTV Movie Awards. One of the awards was Best Shirtless Scene. A guy from the Twilight series won….because he was incredibly cut/ripped/shredded, etc. and probably had around 4% body fat when he filmed that movie. A trip into any men’s locker room at any gym will prove that. Just like almost all women don’t look like Kate Upton does in a bikini. Unfortunately, the entertainment industry dictates that’s how we all SHOULD look. Not only is that wrong, but it’s also sad. So here is to all of us and all of our “imperfections”….

    Reply
    • Excellent points, Steve. Men are continually under greater pressure to appear a certain way. If our culture and media embraced a broader, more accurate, definition of attractiveness, we’d all be better off. Working on that within our own lives and leading by example are primo ways to start. Thanks for chiming in!

      Reply
  4. I’ve been talking about this with blogger @KludgyMom for about a week. You might want to contact her, as she is looking for people who LOVE the campaign to do a broadcast tomorrow. If you can believe it, there are critics. I loved this video, and I actually cried when I watched it. We are so hard on ourselves. So very hard. Just this week, I bought THREE beauty products to try to stop the wrinkles around my mouth.

    Meanwhile, my best friend is like: “WHAT WRINKLES?”

    She doesn’t even see them.

    Reply
    • Thanks, Renee. I’ll definitely reach out. I’ve heard some of the criticism, and see where some of it comes from, but over all, I think those folks are missing the point. We should all celebrate works that aims to uplift women who beat themselves down (most of us). Dove does a heck of a lot more than others.

      Your wrinkle worry makes my heart ache a bit. I hope you see more and more of your endless beauty. You’re a stunner, inside and out.

      Reply
  5. I should’ve known this awesome video would show up on your blog! I caught it on Victoria Writes’ blog and I’ve been talking about it non-stop. Even my boyfriend thought it was cool. I think this video captures the broken spirit of so many women. We do emphasize on the negative and we’re constantly bombarded by what we need to change. I love that Dove did this project and I hope it challenged more women to think about their outer beauty in a new way and how it reflects their inner beauty. It definitely made me do so. Thanks for sharing it August, as well as your personal story with us. I know that our individual journeys take much longer than the few minutes to watch a video, but that’s why we gain and grow more from them. The confidence and beauty (inside AND out) that exude now is stunning! It is why I am such a fan of you, your writing, and your very generous, feminine power! Love you, Lady!

    Reply
    • Aw. Thanks so much, Jess! Your kudos, support, thoughtfulness and enthusiasm mean the world. 🙂 Keep shining, beautiful! We need more folks like you.

      Reply
  6. Great blog post August.
    It is certainly a modern day challenge for us women to love and accept ourselves unconditionally. Our grandmothers were more accepting of the passing years and the toll that would take on their skin, not to mention consecutive pregnancies wreaking havoc on their once trim waistlines. Now we know all about healthy eating and anti- aging products yet in many ways this has imposed its own tyranny and insanity!

    Fashion has always been about exaggeration – exaggerating a woman’s height, slimness, luminous skin, the height of a heel and now airbrushing already stunning women like Scarlet Johansson. The insane thing is that women have fallen for the media hype so many of us consider we never look pretty enough.

    I love this famous quote:-

    “I always say even I don’t wake up looking like Cindy Crawford! What people see on magazine covers is one moment that was perfect — the wind, the light, the hair, the makeup. That’s a two-hour process.” – Cindy Crawford

    Beauty is an inside job and we need to start loving ourselves from the inside out and at the same time value and compliment our friends and daughters on feminine attributes such as kindness, generosity and humor. It’s up to us to make that global shift in perception. Lets do it together!

    Reply
    • Excellent points, Mary. Media is a powerful, money-and-soul mongering machine. While there’ve been improvements, so much work remains. And Crawford’s insight is spot on! Not to mention the hundreds of shots photographers take, so to have a few great ones.

      “Beauty is an inside job” — I LOVE that! Thanks so much for weighing in.

      Reply
  7. SO powerful, and there was a time when that would have described me to a tee. I am so very glad you and I both found our way out of that spiral into darkness and are learning to be comfortable embracing the light. Hugs! Elle

    Reply
  8. August – We all see our faults or perceived faults. We all need to be reminded that others see us in a completely different light. Thank you for sharing.

    Reply
  9. The Dove experiment was cool. That would be something fun to experience. I think it would be really hard to describe myself the way he was asking questions (i.e. describe your chin, your jaw, etc.). I’ve never given specific areas much thought, just the overall face as a whole.

    Great lesson.

    Patricia Rickrode
    w/a Jansen Schmidt

    Reply
    • I’d find it fascinating too, Patricia. I imagine he prompted people the way he does eye witnesses. Of course, now we’re ruined for participating, knowing the “secret.” 😉 I’m grateful that the lesson carries over to us all.

      Reply
  10. This is the third post in a week that has had this video. It is wonderful. I read one person saying she got this post from a friend’s post, so that’s four.
    August, it amazes me. Since my stroke, I feel so much better about myself; it’s my view; I have turned off a lot of filters. What truly amazes me is your confession; I find you so very beautiful, both in looks and in attitude. I enjoy your posts and look forward to what you have to say. Just know that, anytime you feel a weakening at all, you can vent on me; I will remind you of how I feel and what I see.
    Scott

    Reply
    • Very sweet of you, Scott. Thank you! I think that illness and recovery give us all an opportunity to shift our perspectives, and feel grateful rather than critical. I really do feel beautiful most days now, and care less about aesthetics.

      Reply
  11. lynettemburrows

     /  April 22, 2013

    Wow. I’m in tears. Wonderful post, August. I LOVE the dove video. For different reasons, I’ve been on a journey of self discovery and even now I sometimes need someone else to remind me. Fortunately for me, my darling husband and dear friends hold up the reality mirror for me when I need it.

    Reply
    • I’m touched, Lynette. Thank you! I’m so glad you have a wonderful support system nearby. Best wishes on what sounds like an invaluable journey. 🙂

      Reply
  12. What a powerful message. Dove and the person who works for Dove who thought of this should be applauded. I think for many there is a misconception between liking ourselves and conceit. So we tend to over-compensate by going in the opposite direction which really does a number on our self-esteem. It’s hard to find the balance as is most things in life. No one said it was easy to be a woman. August, thank you for sharing this video. I hadn’t seen it and was touched deeply. 🙂

    Reply
    • Amen, Karen. I applaud anyone who works hard to empower those who need it, and sheesh–balance can really be tough. If we all cut ourselves a bit of slack, the world would be a brighter place.

      Reply
  13. August, your beauty, inside and out, leaves me speechless sometimes. Thank you for all that you do to boost other women’s self-esteem.

    Reply
  14. I think that is an amazing project. I cried the first time I saw it. It is so true and so sad that most women don’t see how beautiful they are. It seems that we can see the truth and beauty of each other so easily. Like you, I spent a lot of time working on loving myself and it has paid off. I remember feeling silly the first time I stood in front of the mirror and told my reflection, “I love you.” But, eventually it stopped being funny and started being true. I agree that everyone should do it. Now, no matter what shape my body is in, I can see myself totally naked in the mirror and love and accept myself just as I am. The love, and especially the beauty, isn’t on the outside. It’s deep within. We just have to keep digging until we can see it, too. I’m so glad you shared this and glad you keep sharing your story. We all need to keep sharing until everyone can fall in love with themselves. 🙂

    Reply
    • So true, Emma! One thing I love about the internet—when projects and messages like Dove’s go viral. 😉

      So glad you’ve prioritized self-love. It’s some of the most important work we can do. 🙂

      Reply
  15. I get chills when I read about your experiences and self-perception before recovery, August.

    I got chills when I saw this video. It’s the first time I’ve seen it, and it hammered home a lesson for me. While I’m generally okay with my face, my body image needs to be loved and embraced. I use a ton of self-deprecating humor to off-set perceptions — misplaced or not.

    When I quit drinking and substituted exercise and green tea addictions, I lost weight — a lot of weight. Yet, there’s still a chubby teenager (my perception; not reflected in pictures from back-in-the-day) who lives inside of me.

    I look around to see who’s behind me when people say, “you’re so tiny!” Me? Do they not see the belly bump I haven’t yet exercised into submission?

    More to the point, why does it matter? If I’m beautiful and caring on the inside, the “outer me” will shine — regardless of dress size. I should be embracing exercise for health, stress and feel-good reasons.

    KUDOs on another thought-provoking and actionable post. Key operative there is “actionable.” Hugs!

    Reply
    • You know what’s crazy awesome and beautiful about self-acceptance, your point about “why does it matter?” Once we stop caring so much about physical appearance and shun ourselves less, we feel and appear lovelier to everyone—ourselves included. We only have a certain amount of energy to utilize every day, and throughout our lives. I’d much prefer we use it to fuel worthier, passion-filled pursuits. 😉

      I’m so touched by your words and support, Gloria. Hugs back at ya!

      Reply
  16. I battle this daily. Although my chances of being anorexic (I love eating) and bulimic (I can’t stand to vomit) are slim, I still can’t accept when I fail to meet the standards I’ve set for myself. The other day, I was at a friend’s, changing. I suddenly looked down and thought, for the first time “Wow, I’m really tiny!”. It was just for a fleeting moment; soon after, the fat-vision crept back. I’m trying really hard to be better about this. One of the ways for me is to avoid pinterest: I don’t need pictures of toned women next to delicious looking cake pictures.

    Reply
    • My heart really goes out to you, Stephanie. Countless more women are in your situation, and regardless of whether one has an eating disorder or not, it’s worthy of attention and change.

      So happy to hear that you’re working on improving that negative self-talk, and have found ways to set important boundaries. I hope you’ll keep reminding yourself that you’re more beautiful than you realize, and can use those thoughts and energy for brilliant things. 😉

      Reply
  17. When I watched that video, I wondered what my sketches would look like. I do think we tend to focus on our flaws when we look in the mirror. And I was shocked by that 4% stat until I asked myself, “What would my answer be to the question: Are you beautiful?” I’m not sure I would say yes. I’m reasonably happy with my looks, but “beautiful”? How many women really feel beautiful?

    Great post.

    Reply
  18. Raani York

     /  April 26, 2013

    Having had a mother telling me from the age of 13 that I’m not pretty and still complaints about my looks every time she sees me – and being born with no thyroid gland which causes me weight issues, I am very realistic about my looks: I’m fat and ugly, period… there’s no denying, no talking it better…
    I am definitely eating healthy…
    But then I even am shy to eat in public… hearing “whispered” comments like “look at her… she should be eating an apple instead of ice cream”… HAHA
    There are days I’m just coming back from running errands, being close to tears.
    Asking myself “why me”?
    But then… one day I decided to let the world be world and get out of potato sacks and dress myself in pants, shirts and dresses I feel like a woman – and not like something that’s been left on the street to die…
    It makes me feel better… sometimes…
    But I doubt – that reality will ever change… about me being fat and ugly…

    Reply
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