Staring At Ourselves: On the Endless Mirrors of Pandemic Life
Liesl Schillinger Wonders What Lockdown Has Meant
For Individual Self-Image
How many times, before the spring of this year, were you in the habit of looking at your own face on a day-to-day basis? As a ballpark figure (assuming you’re not a pathological narcissist), let’s say that—between the bathroom mirror, the hall mirror, the rearview mirror, a shop window or two, the gym, the office lounge, the purse compact and maybe a stray selfie—it came to no more than a couple dozen times a day.
In mid-March, that changed. In the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, national lockdowns dominoed across the globe, extending their clattering fall into this country. All at once, hundreds of millions of people found themselves confined mostly to their homes; working, teaching and socializing in the virtual, not actual world, on the screens of iPhones, Androids, tablets, laptops and desktop computers; via Zoom, FaceTime, WhatsApp, and myriad teleconferencing apps. The spring wardrobes some of us had bought remained on their hangers, some still with tags on. Pants, skirts, shoes, and really, anything worn below the shoulders, stopped mattering very much, as continents of people abruptly found themselves conversing remotely with colleagues, students, friends and faraway family members for hours on end, through a screen only a foot or two (sometimes nearer) from their faces.
As we interacted with these beamed-in beings, eye-to-eye, absorbing multiple Hollywood Squares-style montages of faces, we were compelled to contemplate our own faces, too; lozenged among the others, unchanging, a constant reminder of our outward selves. This rattling reality of the Covid-19 crisis has produced an existential disruption that, so far, has gone largely unremarked. Many, many of us have had to get used to staring at ourselves in a succession of prolonged Panda Cam sessions, in which we are the pandas—without the cute jellicle effect. Guy Debord’s “society of the spectacle” has achieved its apotheosis (or rather, shrunk to its nucleus); appearance has replaced authentic presence at the individual level.
These days, looking at one’s own face onscreen is a universal pastime—a public spectacle occurring in a private space. And it’s a pastime that’s here to stay. This month, as Americans have begun emerging from lockdown—gathering at outdoor Black Lives Matters protests, and resuming some indoor public activities (shopping for clothes and housewares, getting pedicures, eating at distanced restaurants), Covid-19 cases are spiking in many states. It’s clear that mingling in public outside the home increases the chance of infection; but even those willing to risk exposure are maintaining the turbo-boosted hologram lifestyle that kicked off in March, to keep up their personal and professional ties.
What might this be doing to our psyches?
It’s a universal truth—though one that is rarely spoken aloud, and is not widely recognized (I’ll concede), that many of those who habitually splash out on new clothes, haircuts, make-up, and even (for some) cosmetic surgery, do so not because they want a new look, but because they want a new head. Or, as the Grand Duchess Swana puts it in Ninotchka, while looking with vexation into her mirror; “Oh, I’m so bored with this face. I wish I had someone else’s.” The shopaholic and the perpetual primper want, in some subconscious, ineffable way, to look into a mirror and have a stranger look back at them—just for variety.I haven’t felt this self-conscious about my appearance since junior high. I suspect this is a fairly common sensation.
A literal-minded exploration of this wish occurs in one of L. Frank Baum’s fairytales, “Ozma of Oz,” when a beautiful, imperious princess named Langwidere finds a way to shake the burden of always having to look like herself. Her dressing-room contains 30 velvet-lined cabinets (like the fez niches at Topkapi, but with doors), each holding a different head, “no two formed alike but all being of exceeding loveliness.” Whenever she likes, she chooses a different head to suit her fancy, attaching the tête du jour to her neck with a ruby key. That ruby key, which dangles from her wrist, is the only way any of her subjects can be sure that the person in front of them is indeed their ruler.
But the rest of us, in the dull, sublunary world, are locked to our own faces. Our own heads remain attached inexorably to our own necks, day after day, year after year and Zoom after Zoom; subject to the normal ravages of time and care. And the familiarity of the vision we see in the glass does not appear to us to be of “exceeding loveliness.” This may not be true for infants, caught up in the Lacanian stage of development (so Lacan would have it) who burble and coo with glee every time they encounter their own face in a mirror. Their rapture comes from the fact that they are making this wondrous association for the first hundred or so times: image = me; I = image. How exciting. Again and again the infant returns to the glass, exhilarated by the coincidence of the doppelgänger. But 20, 40, 60 years out of the nursery, the thrill of this coincidence fades; and the older we get, the faster it palls. Now, however, like it or not, young and old alike are trapped in a perpetual mirror stage.
It may be there are paragons of beauty, male and female, who incarnate such a banquet of attractions that they could never surfeit on the feast of their own reflections. To avoid attributing such self-regard to the living (who might resent it), consider a few icons of the past—Cary Grant and Jeanne Moreau, Beau Brummell and Cleopatra (who died before the camera was born, so we can only imagine her perfections). Did they ever grow weary of beholding their own images, reproduced on screens, stamps, luxury shaving accessories, coins? If they did, what hope can there be for the rest of us to make peace with our sudden proliferation? Yet they probably did grow weary.
It’s natural for a person to find flaws and feel misgivings when confronted with their own likeness. Even Queen Nefertiti, born more than a thousand years before Cleopatra, used kohl around her eyes and carmine on her lips to enhance her appearance, unsatisfied with the reflection that her bronze and silver mirrors gave her. Lately, though, you don’t need to be an Egyptian queen or a film idol to see your face everywhere reflected; nor do you need a bronze plate to check the arch of your brow. Sitting before a glowing screen, sharing your image with people you know and people you don’t, is a condition of everyday life. FaceTime is your mirror. It will “Reflect what you are, in case you don’t know.”
Today, the outside world may invade your socially-distanced household at any instant, not just through the phone (or the ring of the doorbell, as a masked UPS driver flings a package at the landing) but through video—Jetsons-style. Whether or not you want to look at your own face, other people are bound to. This means that, at any instant, the face you exhibit to remote visitors needs to be minimally presentable. Jane Jetson never appeared at her telescreen with circles under her eyes and frizz-flattened hair. But Jane Jetson was fictional, and a cartoon character to boot; she was drawn to be permanently presentable. Those of us who draw breath must work harder to preserve our outline. A virtual, highly visual new paradigm has arisen that is reshaping social and professional interactions. And each one of us is adapting differently to this new abnormal.
Given the limitations of lockdown, I can only share my own experience of this adjustment.
When New York closed its doors in March, I acquired a new habit, which by now is reflex. Every day, as I turn on my desktop computer, I open FaceTime, which throws my face onto the screen, permitting me to inspect the digital landscape of my physiognomy. After a brief reconnaissance, I reach to the right of the keyboard to deploy my cosmetics arsenal. A straw basket sits between the mousepad and the wall, holding lipsticks, concealer, mascara, and face powder; a tall jar holds a comb, hairbrush, and sheets of Nicorette gum (nicotine is said to reduce susceptibility to Covid-19, but who knows). These days, my desk is my purse, and my pre-Corona handbags hang empty on wall hooks. There’s little point to a purse when you only leave the house to go to the grocery, wearing a mask that moots cosmetics, and carrying an Apple Pay-ready smartphone that removes the need for a wallet.It may be there are paragons of beauty, male and female, who incarnate such a banquet of attractions that they could never surfeit on the feast of their own reflections.
This superficial state of affairs embarrasses me. I haven’t felt this self-conscious about my appearance since junior high. I suspect this is a fairly common sensation. That is because I, like everyone, have been thrust by the pandemic into the role of a freshman on the coronavirus campus, anxious to make the right impression. There has been no welcome mixer, no orientation. All of us have been forced to wing it; and the screen personas we construct are reinventing us, pixel by pixel. Purely social video gatherings don’t demand as much transformation. When you talk on video with friends, family members and others who know you well, it’s not crucial to look kempt and put-together. It’s merely a question of pride. (Sometimes pride resides in being the most bedraggled of the group.)
But when you interact online with colleagues or students, more consequences attach to the self you project. To hold the attention of a remote conference room or classroom for three hours (or however long), your disembodied face needs to transmit a consistency of mien and role that evokes (more or less) the energy and personality you formerly conveyed in person. Upon joining any virtual meeting, seminar, or class, you immediately sense the need to keep the audience watching, to keep them engaged. The face you compose on FaceTime for this purpose acts like a dramatic mask: FaceTime is showtime. Those of us who did not choose to make the stage our career now must scramble to invent a character; because the show—the job—the class—the country—must go on, despite the plague that now separates us from our real-world selves. And, as is true on the boards, we must take care not to let the mask fall.
From the start, uneasy about the vanity implicit in this existential artifice, I’ve taken pains to hide the armory of cosmetics on my desk. I don’t want my students and colleagues to spot them in our Zooms. Luckily, a bookshelf flanks my desk; and the tall volumes that protrude from its top shelf—Arendt and Tocqueville, the Mueller Report, and biographies of James Madison and Roger Ailes—block the view of my beauty battery. I make sure of this by checking the background that pops up on the FaceTime screen before I log into Zoom. In face-to-face (or rather, body-to-body) classes and meetings, a person has the liberty to race in late, somewhat disheveled, and to plaster over cracks in the facade with whatever brio can be mustered. These in-person, off-the-cuff encounters occur in real time, their imprint left only on the mind and, perhaps, in notes. But Zooms are forever. Remote gatherings can be recorded and inspected at leisure (“asynchronously,” in the current parlance) by anyone who has the access code.
Frank Baum’s Princess Langwidere probably would have reveled in the Covid 19-imposed epidemic of self-surveillance. If called to a Zoom, she would not have rushed to apply lipstick, groom her brows and discipline her tresses before logging in. She could have snapped on a new head for each call—subbing in different models if she craved variety. (Once, when Dorothy Gale dropped by, Langwidere offered to swap one of her heads for Dorothy’s, but Dorothy prudently said no). Given time, Langwidere likely would have found a way to rustle up others. Perhaps she could have had them Amazoned.
Those of us without recourse to sorcery have fewer options. As our wary return to society continues (if not, just yet, into classrooms, ball stadiums, and each other’s houses), we are constrained to accept the enlarged, unvarying imprint of our own digital reflections on our lives. Unless and until we receive the magical vaccine that can readmit us safely to the natural world, we will simply have to try to find a way to keep our heads.