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.