Turn the lights off. Gaze into a mirror and repeat “Bloody Mary” three times. In its origin, the game was played as a bonding ritual among women. Urban legend had it that repeating the mantra would reveal a flash of their future husband’s face—or, alternatively, a nod from the Grim Reaper, a lonely death foretold. Modern interpretations of the game expose players to risk of summoning an evil ghost—Mary, covered in and dripping blood—ensuing death by curiosity. No matter: the mirror remains essential in divulging one’s destiny.
The intentions of a game anchored by a mirror have ostensibly evolved, but the crux remains the pursuit of phantasm. In a planar, or flat mirror, an object likely appears its same size at the same distance. However, the reflected image in a mirror is contingent on various conditions—from the most obvious variables being lighting, the type of mirror, and the objects facing it, to the latent, being cultural pressures, self-esteem, and trauma. Place an object containing type in front of mirror, and the text displays backwards in its reflection. If the object is a chubby, young twenty-something struggling with confidence, her flaws magnify—her thighs appear meatier, her hips wider, and her chins multiply, stacking atop one another like pancakes. Just as the game Bloody Mary banks on hallucinations triggered by low-light, the perception of the objective self depends on one’s mental self-image.
Bloody Mary. Bloody Mary. Bloody Mary.
Mirrors reflect light at 300,000 km per second. A happy accident that revealed itself in polished brass and copper around 6000 BC in modern-day Turkey became the silverback mirrors mass manufactured by German chemist Justus von Liebig in 1835, still used today. Think car-wash adventure meets spray tan: scrub the glass and rinse with demineralized water; add one layer of liquefied tin and silver and two layers of paint; seal with copper and dry at 71 degrees Celsius for 75 seconds; slide it into an oven preheated to 118 degrees Celsius, copper side up. Acid rinse. Cut. Release.
Throughout history, mirrors have satisfied various needs: during the Middle Ages, witches used divination mirrors to glimpse into the future; magicians use mirrors to create illusions in their vanishing acts; on college campuses, bathroom mirrors are likely scrawled with inspirational messages written in cherry red lipstick: women reminding one another that they are beautiful, despite living in a world that has conditioned them to believe they’re not enough; hand mirrors aid young women on their journey towards self-love and sexual self-discovery; and decorative mirrors are suggested to introduce beneficial feng shui energy to any room—or so our interior decorator said to justify their place in our home. The mirrors were meant to inspire calmness. They didn’t. The mirrors were meant to magnify the rooms in our home. They did.
Mirror placement and size are powerful enough to enhance or dampen the energy of any room, effecting the disposition of those occupying the space. Feng shui design theory suggests full-length mirrors increase self-esteem, while many small mirrors negatively influence self-perception, as the individual begins to identify themselves by their fragmented reflected parts rather than as a whole.
The Galerie des Glaces (Hall of Mirrors) at the Palace of Versailles, built in 1678, inspired many replicas, from Kanye West and Kim Kardashian’s Bel Air home to the small-scale Wall of Mirrors in my childhood bedroom—mirrored, sliding closet doors, stretching 12 feet across the room, towering four feet over my five foot frame. It wasn’t until much later that I learned these mirrors were not conducive to my self-esteem, and positioned facing my bed, they were a feng shui faux pas—contrary to our interior decorator’s suggestion—because the soul is believed to leave the body while asleep and your reflection may startle it.
At 24, and in a mirror, I no longer registered my face as my own. Jacques Lacan writes that infants are able to recognize themselves in a mirror between six and fifteen months—as can chimpanzees, orcas, elephants, orangutans, and bottlenose dolphins. Lacan’s “mirror stage” shatters the illusion of wholeness, signifying the birth of the ego and the fragmentation of the self. Our subjectiveness is born through this initial separation; when looking in a mirror, we become both subject and object; we become our divided selves. At 24, I resisted to identify with my objectivity as an act of resistance: my way of tempering the anxiety and guilt that ached in my marrow for the privilege that came with “passing,” for the whiteness reflected in my face, and its allure.
When most people grow frustrated with the monotony of everyday life, they move to New York, or sleep with the wrong person, or take a semester off college, or dye their hair pink, or buy new lingerie, or juice. It wouldn’t be out of character for me to spend $400 on a poorly made Betsey Johnson leather handbag, justifying it’d symbolize a new, more sophisticated adult me. I was always trying to reinvent myself. And 2013 was a rough year for me: I became a retail slave, ended a four-year relationship, and spent the summer visiting my family in Lebanon, paranoid that anyone with a pudgy tummy and every parked car could be a bomb. A new handbag wasn’t going to do it this time. I wanted a new face.
I caved. A few months after I turned 23, I got a nose job.
Growing up, I became hyper-aware of my body and of the way I was expected to present. Like many Arab mothers, my mother stressed that I should always look my best, and it was clear that she would help me achieve this goal in any capacity she could. My mother is the type of woman who takes her appearance as seriously as she takes her profession, always wearing a full face of makeup in case she gets called into the hospital for a delivery, which she conducts in wedge booties and with acrylic nails on; the nurses call her Jennifer Lopez because she too seems to be ageing in reverse. She stresses wearing clean underwear and cute pajamas to bed in case our house burns down and we make it out and the neighbors see us or we end up on the news or something. Almost every morning until my junior year in high school, she would help me pick out an outfit for the day, as I dozed off while she tugged at my hair with a round brush, blow-drying my thick curls straight. Often, without notice and without fail, she would interrupt me mid-sentence, as if distracted by my flaws, to say, “Turn your head, let me see your profile.” Her index finger would meet the tip of my nose, lifting it upwards. “We just need this to be a shorter and raised up a little bit with some filing down of the bridge,” she’d continue, moving her finger up and down along the bridge of my nose, as if filing it down, too impatient to wait until my eighteenth birthday, when she initially planned I’d undergo surgery. I often fantasized about having a different face and body, but they were just that, fantasies. There’s something disquieting about having your twisted thoughts validated by someone you love, when the option of aesthetic plastic surgery becomes available to you. It damages you, even when the intention is admirable. Imagine if each time you looked into the mirror, you thought your face was one not even your mother could love. At the time, it felt lonely. I know now, I was not alone in my experience.
My mother’s feedback is not unusual from parents in Middle Eastern culture. Because Arabs take great pride in their presentation, critique has become embedded in the cultural fabric. Each summer I’d visit family in Lebanon, my cousins would greet me at the airport with comments on my appearance almost immediately. Once, my cousin congratulated me on my slimmer waist, but told me I needed to tone my arms and thighs and tame my bushy eyebrows and get them to match. When I’m overseas, the locals view me as less Arab and more American. Perhaps my frizzy curls, casual clothes, and dull, vitamin-D-deficient skin give me away. In the States, I’m known as the put together friend, never leaving the house without at least concealer and tinted moisturizer, to even out my skin, and mascara, to plump and lift my lashes, though my essentials pale in comparison to those my age living in Lebanon. Lebanese women are as close to human Barbies as they come—long, silky black hair, tattooed eyebrows, sun-kissed skin, and colored contacts concealing their coffee-colored eyes (no cream!)—that is, if Barbie was brown.
In the Middle East, plastic surgery is less stigmatized than in the United States. Lebanon is known as the “Mecca” of plastic surgery because of its relatively inexpensive prices and is home to many of the top cosmetic surgeons in the world—those who earned a strong reputation after their reconstructive work on post-civil war mutilated patients. Cosmetic procedures have increased 13% annually since 2006, despite the country’s economic recession and political turmoil. Lebanon has a population of 4 million. Roughly 1.5 million operations are performed each year, with rhinoplasty ranking highest in demand amongst both men and women—so much so that banks offer cosmetic surgery loans up to $5,000. Lebanon draws in about 20-40% of foreigners for cosmetic procedures. Companies such as Image Concept—launched in 2009—specialize in Cosmetic Tourism in Lebanon, booking various procedures such as cosmetic surgery, aesthetic plastic surgery, liposuction, rhinoplasty, hair and breast implants, and more. Tourists are enticed by the low prices, expertise, and the normalization of the cosmetic procedures, allowing them the comfort to enjoy Lebanese tourism and nightlife as soon as two days after surgery. It’s not uncommon to see Lebanese people wearing their surgery splints proudly at restaurants, malls, night clubs, and at the beach.
After my surgery, performed here in the States, I hid in my room for days and when I regained the ability to chew, my mother took me out to breakfast at Bob Evans, certain we wouldn’t run into any of friends or family there; I was concerned about being seen disfigured, as my face was puffy and heavily bruised still, while my mother was more concerned with me being seen at all.
In a way, it is impossible to talk about my plastic surgery without talking about Brian Forrest. “You know, you could totally pass as white,” he’d say. “The only thing that gives you away is your nose.” Brian Forrest, at twenty-two, was my boyfriend of six months, and a native of a predominantly white town adjacent to Dearborn, yet world’s away. His real name is not Brian Forrest, but save for an ironic cartoon tattoo on his calf, he would be hard to distinguish in a lineup of scrawny, pale, Newport-smoking, vintage-cardigan-wearing, aspiring Pitchfork music critics with patchy, scruffy facial hair. You know, the kind of guy who eats organic but drinks Pabst Blue Ribbon, and would be much more attractive if he had a better relationship with his mother. I remember his features were sharp and his laugh was one he appropriated from an ex-girlfriend. He exists in my memory as in the overexposed photo I took of him wearing a crew-neck sweatshirt with a spider on it and the words MEET ME ON THE WEB one Halloween; his face expressionless, his blue eyes (or were they green?) piercing through the image as if responsible for the camera’s aperture. Brian spent the early part of our relationship crafting me Beatles mixtapes, leaving me notes and hand-drawn comics on my car’s windshield, and building the semi-permanent blanket fort we called Fort French Kiss, illuminated by Christmas lights and a television streaming all nine seasons of Seinfeld. Toward the end of our relationship, he became my unsolicited guide to whiteness:
“Do you know anything by Bruce Springsteen?” he asked.
“Not off the top of my head,” I replied.
“Here,” he said, handing me a stack of records, “This is the shit you should’ve listened to growing up. Brush up.”
When he wasn’t drinking and when we weren’t kissing, he’d remind me of all the ways in which I was not white—I wasn’t allowed to spend the night at his house like his ex-girlfriends did; I didn’t know how to order a drink at the bar, or much at all about alcohol because no one in my Muslim family drinks; I didn’t have ironic tattoos—or any at all; I didn’t listen to NPR. I was the first Arab girl he’d ever dated. Somehow I felt like the ambassador for Arab-American women; the entry ethnic dish white folks consume to feel worldly. Brian seemed pleased with my racial ambiguity and I felt fine being his store-bought tub of hummus.
Similarly, cosmetic surgery becomes a way to neutralize ethnic features. Body modifications are popular all around the world in various capacities, but with the rapid westernization of Eastern countries such as Lebanon, it’s hard to ignore which features qualify as the most beautiful.
The first time I met with my plastic surgeon for consultation, he suggested I narrow the bulb of my nose, and opt for a subtler version of the popular, Eurocentric ski-slope nose. He wanted to introduce sharpness to my round features, I refused. At the time of my consultation I wasn’t familiar with ethnic plastic surgery, the supply to the demand to understanding different cultural standards of beauty, instead of adhering to a Eurocentric one-size-fits-all model; rather than snipping away one’s heritage, plastic surgeons are becoming increasingly skilled in enhancing unique ethnic features. My interest in minor adjustments—primarily ridding my nose of its tiny bump and shortening it so my lips would appear fuller and I more confident wearing lipstick—had more to do with my fear of looking like Joan Rivers, than it did with preserving the integrity of my Middle Eastern features.
Before going into surgery, the doctor gave me a hand out with a list of things to expect after surgery. It warned of severe swelling and bruising underneath the eyes, of blood clots clogging the nose, congestion, inflammation for up to six weeks, and I’d have to wait six to eight months before seeing what my nose would really look like. I’d like to add: if you get the urge to pick the crusty blood crystals from your nose, be careful not to accidentally rip out of any stiches—even if you do, it’s unlikely that your nose will unravel and fall off like I feared it would; the swelling is not so severe that the healed nose will resemble a deflated giant bubblegum bubble on your face. Each time you tell someone about your nose job, it will feel like you’re telling some dirty little secret. Lovers you mention it to years later will change the way they kiss you, they won’t notice, but you will; proceeding with caution, as if your nose is still malleable. You will be expected to feel guilty. Your feminism will be challenged. You’ll feel like a fraud.
Undergoing rhinoplasty feels like getting your wisdom teeth pulled, only $3500 later and when the anesthesia wears off, you feel like shit and look less like a chipmunk and more like Sloth from The Goonies, even after the bruising fades. Many studies suggest that although body image satisfaction increases post-surgery, self-esteem doesn’t improve; that is, the problem area is no longer a problem, but the quick fix doesn’t make you any happier. For more than a year post-surgery, the divide between myself and reflection surged. I struggled to look in the mirror, not wanting to identify with my neutralized, white-washed face. Bloody Mary, Bloody Mary, Bloody Mary. I spent time preaching self-love to friends online, while loathing myself. I would cite feminist articles about resisting pressure to adhere to unrealistic beauty standards, but was complying to them offline. I portrayed myself as a proud Arab, but was secretly ashamed of my heritage. When I looked in the mirror, I saw my face as a canvas to paint, a foreign object, not an extension of myself. The minor changes in my nose neutralized my face. I felt immense guilt enjoying this neutrality, excited to have been able to escape my previous self yet maintain some distance from my new self. In a way, I was able to transcend my body, to find a mini vacation from real. Surgery tempers the ugly, crossing one insecurity of the list. Especially when its on your face, it’s a pretty big deal. When I look into a mirror, I no longer fixate on my nose. This feels liberating.
Looking in the mirror separates us from our physical selves, but our relationships with others act as mirrors, too. It is human error to believe the things we are not threaten the things we are. We see in others the qualities we do not want to identify with, what we desperately want to distance ourselves from. I’ve spent so long blaming others for my pain, not with the intention to play victim, but perhaps building my case to plead innocent. Identifying strongly and publicly against certain values fuels the blame we place onto others. By outing my mother for valuing aesthetics, I’m distancing myself from being perceived as shallow. By calling Brian out for his microaggressions, I’m ignoring the racism and judgment I’ve internalized and exhibited towards my own people. I doubt he hated me (at all really), the way or as much as I hated myself. Blaming others becomes a way to cope, to avoid accountability for self-perpetuated pain. It’s possible to feel hurt by those who never intended any malice, however miscommunication doesn’t invalidate your experience, or minimize your pain because truth is simply a matter of perspective. Learning compassion only empowers you to heal yourself just as your body heals itself.
Distancing myself from my objectivity became more clear – looking in the mirror I felt guilty that the face staring back at me is one that succumbed to whiteness because this type of surrender is not one my ego wants to identify with. I feel guilty because I feel shallow and I reprimand others for their vanity. I find myself feeling guilty for not regretting my nose job. I feel guilty with how terrible it sounds when I say neutralizing my face allows me to distance myself from my physical self, viewing it as a vehicle to carry me through various spaces instead of an object I’m imprisoned in.
Undergoing rhinoplasty some days feels temporarily liberating because I spend less time fixating on my flaws. My nose no longer gives me away. Is it possible to purchase white guilt? Because even as I tell others to celebrate their differences, I still think of ways to mute my own. And I’ve learned that the pain never really goes away. You just feel it ache someplace else.
I live in a house of mirrors; nearly every room has a mirror, or someone in it that comments on my appearance. In trying to protect me from her insecurities, my mother inadvertently instilled them in me. “I’m just giving you the same advice your grandmother gave to me,” she says.
The woman who raised me doesn’t believe in tattoos outside of permanent eyebrows and permanent makeup—choices that support what is considered conventionally attractive, while my peers view body alterations through piercings and tattoos as beautiful because they work to communicate individuality. When my feminist circle found out about my surgery, I could feel friends silently judging. As feminists, we admit our image-driven culture is problematic. We pride ourselves on being aware of the struggles men and women go through in hope to resemble the ideal and then reprimand them when they do.
Society tells you that you need work done, and if you believe it too and decide to alter your appearance, prepare for the ramifications, not necessarily of looking differently, but of being treated differently. For women, it seems mirrors serve as check-in platforms for comparison. What do mirrors compromise when it comes to women and their self-esteem? Women are forced to consider the way they look and the ways in which that can undermine their contribution to the world separate from their physicality—as if taking too much pride in the way you look means you’re only making a show out of your deep-rooted insecurities and have nothing valuable to offer. What is threatening about women feeling empowered enough to decide the ways in which they alter their bodies? Why do we as a society feel threatened by confident women? What’s wrong with wanting to feel and look pretty? Why are beauty and shallowness viewed as mutually exclusive—as if one cannot have sex-appeal and substance? Is it because in mirroring relationships and seeing the presence of all the desirable things makes us feel inferior?
The “love your flaws” model to life seems ineffective, as does the Nip/Tuck strategy. I think it’s important for people to self-reflect and find new ways to improve themselves, even if it’s just physically. Don’t “love your flaws,” but examine them.
Maya Younis is an award-winning Arab-American Muslim essayist, activist, and aerialist based in Dearborn, Michigan. She has a M.A. in Creative Writing from Wayne State University. Maya’s essays are a darkly comedic examination of the struggle to finding comfort in the perpetual discomfort of navigating between her Arab and American identities.