By Priyanka Sacheti
Whenever I enter a beauty salon, I invariably find myself avoiding my reflection in its mirrors; it is almost akin to blanking an acquaintance you spot on the street, wishing to be spared the tedium of small talk and fruitless interaction. I look here, there, and everywhere apart from my reflection steadily gazing at me. However, when our eyes do collide, all I can see is a map of flaws imprinting my mirror face. And then I immediately look away, waiting for the beautician to began her ministrations.
Like many, if not most, women, the mirror and I have always shared a complicated relationship. Inhabiting a world which is constantly rewriting the language of feminine beauty and insisting others speak it too, the mirror has never particularly been much of an ally. Yet, that fact has never stopped me from looking into mirrors, leaving me to conclude that not all mirrors are the same. There are some mirrors whose reflected truths are undeniably discomfiting, harsh even, while there are others whose compliments I grudgingly accept. These are bad and good mirrors respectively, I declare, leaving no space for the grey, making beauty frighteningly binary.
I distinctly remember the first time I really saw myself in the mirror. I was five years old and had been giddily running down a hot tarmac road when I fell flat on my face. In addition to my badly scraped knees, I could feel my nose had been grazed too and I rushed to the bathroom to see the extent of the damage. I recall staring at my reflection in the mirror for a long time and becoming aware that I existed. I touched the bones which made up the architecture of my face; I traced my face with my fingertips in the mirror. The mirror and flesh faces were parallel universes, never destined to meet; yet, in that mirror face, I saw an alternate version of myself, a country of diverse possibilities.
The onset of adolescence however, robbed me that feeling of possibility. I saw the mirror as a mere mouthpiece of all those who dictated and determined exacting standards of beauty and which I would never be able to meet. However, after I got laser eye surgery done and permanently bid my glasses adieu, I started to see myself for the first time — yet again — in the mirror, so to speak. I began to experiment more with make-up and my clothing, emerging from the camouflage where I had had hid myself for so long. After so many years, I once more migrated to the country of possibility. Soon afterwards, when I got married and moved to the United States, one of the first items I purchased for my home was a hot-pink-rimmed full length mirror. Coinciding with the acquisition of my first smart phone, it also initiated my journey of mirror selfies. Much too self-conscious to post regular old selfies, I somehow felt more comfortable sharing mirror selfies though; those mirror selves were not really me so it was acceptable to present them to the world. Yet, even as I grew more comfortable with the mirror, I still could not bring myself to entirely believe it.
Over the past one year, I have put on weight due to multiple reasons. The realisation that I was becoming bigger was a gradual process though. The clothes became tighter, necessitating a wardrobe rehaul, people started to remark I looked ‘healthy’, and the salespersons would show me sizes larger than what I normally wore without being told to do so. “I don’t think this will fit you,” I recall one of them telling me when I asked how much a blouse cost. It was if they were speaking to someone else and not me. One day I was thin, and the next day, I no longer was. In a bid to reconcile with my changing body, I read article after article and scrolled through endless Instagram feeds celebrating body positivity. And yet, all I was aware of were my disappearing clavicles and cheekbones. Sifting through my photographs over the years, I remarked to my husband, “I used to be so thin.” He shook his head. “I used to tell you the same thing way back then but you never believed me. And you are fine the way you are now. But you still won’t believe me.”
In this time, I started to take more mirror selfies than ever, sometimes allowing them to extravagantly flatter me, believing all the untruths they relayed back to me. And then there were some days when I yearned to censor them and violently wish for a mirrorless world.
But there are many other mirrors apart from the shiny, glass kind: there are windows, phones in selfie modes, glossy, three-inch thick women’s magazines, and well-meaning commentators. And nowhere do I find the intersection of these different species of mirrors more apparent than in beauty salons. Having already become prickly around mirrors, loathing what I encountered, I felt even more self-conscious than ever in beauty salons, a space in which I had often felt like an interloper.
One hot, fervid April morning almost a decade ago, a relative of mine took me to a beauty salon in Kailash Colony, Delhi, for some pampering: Manicure, pedicure, perhaps even a facial. I had been in the city for a few weeks, ostensibly to work on my writing during an arts residency in Mehrauli. I instead developed severe allergic bronchitis, even necessitating a night’s stay in a hospital.
My reflection at that time was the last thing I wanted to look at, yet, I was equally keen to swan into something more presentable. When we were ushered into the fragrant, well-lit, peach-walled salon, I first decided to get a manicure. As the nail technician proceeded to clip, buff and shape my sorry looking nails, one of the attendants walked past us, paused, and then glanced at my feet. “You should get a pedicure too, Madam,” she said a little firmly. The three of us — the nail technician, the attendant, and I — subsequently examined my feet which were at that moment encased in my favourite pair of sandals. “I am all right, thank you,” I said. We both looked at each other. “Well, your shoes are very nice,” she said before walking away to tend to another customer. For the rest of my time in the salon, I constantly looked at my feet, wondering if I had in fact erred by refusing to get a pedicure done. The bland, immaculately made up, coiffed and perfect faces decorating the walls told me that perhaps I had. Once more, I avoided looking at myself in the mirror when I walked towards the exit, knowing that the metamorphosis I had hoped for had quite not happened.
I have always admired and dreaded beauty salons. For me, they are temples dedicated to beauty or rather, what they define and present as beauty; they are veritable palaces of illusions providing you are willing to be drawn into participating in their delusions. Their mirrors cajole you to think about adorning and decorating and metamorphosing into alternate selves and how wonderful that would be. If I diligently performed those rituals of beauty, worshipping it, I too would be initiated into that religion of impeccably groomed, slim, soigné ladies. But come outside and in the scalpel sharp sunlight, all our illusions fall away.
Now that it has been quite a while since I have embarked upon the journey of accepting this new, expanded version of myself, I look at mirrors with a more objective eye. Sometimes, I genuinely often don’t recognise the self that stares back at me. And yet, I relentlessly keep on searching for that self in mirrors through my mirror selfies. Why? If it weren’t for mirrors, wouldn’t we occasionally forget that we exist? To see yourself in the mirror is to know that yes, you exist — a living, breathing, dreaming, hoping human being, a definite corporeal presence rather than being just a cocktail of chemicals called the mind. And so I will continue to chase mirrors, locating my alternate self, uncaring of whether I like the truths it tells me, whether there is an exciting alternate self or not. I am there and that’s what matters.
In the beauty salon, after the beautician finishes threading my eyebrows, she hands me a small face mirror to examine myself in. I see myself doubly reflected, in the hand mirror and the large one facing me. I smile and look back, wondering how those parallel universes can sometimes coincide, if only for a moment, when those twin selves become one.
Priyanka Sacheti is an independent writer based in Bangalore. She has been published in numerous publications with a special focus on art, gender, diaspora, and identity. She’s currently an editor at Mashallah News. An author of three poetry volumes, she’s currently working on a novella. She also explores the intersection of her writing and photography at her blog, http://iamjustavisualperson.blogspot.com/ and instagram: @iamjustavisualperson.