Facing the Mirror

How many mirrors is too many? Or, to put it another way, why have mirrors at all? There isn’t a room in my house without a mirror so I’m forced, daily, to confront or avoid or blanche at my own image. Would I be better off not putting myself through this, as- even when I’m warned (I hung the things, I know where they are)- my reflection can still take me by surprise. 


When John was here, he was my mirror, too. Everything I wore, perhaps more especially everything I took off, was through the prism of his gaze. 


We loved looking at each other- across a table, across a room, in bed. Seeing him come home was always a highlight- not in a Fifties housewife sort of way, I was perfectly capable of managing without him,  but because of that visual acknowledgement: I love you. I see you. When you see what you love, your pupils dilate and you flood with dopamine. It’s the feel-good hormone and it’s designed to make you want more. It combines with oxytocin and serotonin in a veritable cocktail of happiness. 


What happens, then, when you’re not seen like that any more? Losing John- he died three years ago- has been a terrible education in what widowhood entails. I could go on about the big stuff and the little details, they’re all too familiar to everyone on this particular path, but this is about how it looks. More significantly, how it feels when your most important, most special person isn’t looking at you any more. 


I love clothes and make-up. I’ve always got a big thrill from a new lipstick or discovering just the right shade of foundation. Or trying new mascara. Or- I could go on, I’d love to, but you get my drift. Playing with make-up is just that to me- a lovely freedom to play, to experiment, to see how new things look or how older or more unadventurous styles might be improved. But if your partner, the one who loved your face in all its moods and down the ages, is no longer around to admire your handiwork, who is it all for? Sure, my kids and friends notice changes or just tell me that I look nice (that’s enough, I’m not asking for paeans of praise)  but how I miss that particular gaze. 


Back, then, to the mirrors. In some cultures and, here, in older times, they are covered after a death. Sometimes through superstition or association but perhaps, too, as nothing seems worth reflecting any more.  Certainly meeting my face again after John died was a stark experience. This, then, is how you look, I thought. And from now on nobody will know this face as he did. In my work, mirrors are often unavoidable - from the make-up chair to the studio, I am very seen. But the most important ‘How do I look?’ was reserved for John. Now it would be a host of other opinions if anyone bothered at all and none of them would matter very much. 


Except for one very important opinion. I’m still here inside and the outside still matters to me. I can’t imagine a time when a slick of lipstick wouldn’t both lift me and make me feel ready for the world. I was reassured that this didn’t stop. Neither did the buzz of choosing and, yes, playing with - cosmetics. If John wasn’t going to be the one noticing my appearance - or reacting when I pointed it out, it wasn’t all him gazing in wonderment, to be fair  - and if other people would have to be actually sought out for an opinion or a compliment and that’s not always either possible or appropriate, then I could turn to the next, most consistent person in my life, the one who has known my face since I first cut my own fringe (too much too young). 


In a way, staying in touch with how I look is, to me, an acknowledgement of our happy relationship. He liked what he saw and that made me feel secure and optimistic. I have tried not to change other habits too much where I can because it would be a disservice to us, to how we felt and what we did. Now, the same goes for my appearance. I can hear his appreciation and relish what I’m looking at. It isn’t vanity (although everyone should allow that to creep in sometimes, because why not?).  It isn’t about being fancied or fanciable. It isn’t about the worry about being invisible as you age- I’ve long thought that invisibility is a superpower and as I grow older the more convinced I am. You can be highly seen when you choose to be but it’s in your gift to retreat. Brilliant! It’s about acknowledgement. The effort it takes to smile at my reflection is rewarded by feeling better about life, for a moment. It’s a good start to the day. 


It’s about knowing that you still take up your place and letting everyone see that you matter. If you care about how you look, it stands to reason you’ll care about other things, too. It’s also about love.  I love seeing the world. I still love seeing myself, because I was - and I still am - loved.  


So- try it yourself. Face the mirror. Smile. And say hello to you from me.


Janet Ellis x


Janet Ellis is a writer, presenter and the host of Twice Upon A Time, a podcast which asks well-known people to choose and re-read their favourite childhood book.

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