Looking past the woman in the selfie

NEW YORK • What do you see when you look in the mirror?

My grandmother loved to ask me that question.

She was, by any measure, an entertaining woman.

One of her standard party tricks was asking me, at the height of an evening's hilarity, if she had "ever told the story of the night your father was conceived". Which, of course, she had.

But she had a serious side as well. I remember her standing me on top of a stool before the bathroom mirror when I was 10 or so, and asking me: "What do you see?"

And before I could even reply with the obvious, "Myself", she'd cut me off with a firm declaration: "That's not you."

"It's not?" I asked and she pointed to herself. "And that's not me."

Then she pointed to her heart. "The real you is in here," she said.

And then, as if I had somehow missed her meaning, she said: "In your bosom."

I thought about this story a couple of months ago as I was driving back from Rochester after spending a night at the university there, observing my son Sean's improv troupe.

As I pulled over on the Massachusetts Turnpike at a rest stop, I noticed a woman at the Burger King counter wearing a lovely formal dress, her hair meticulously styled.

She wore heels and a pair of stockings with seams running up the back.

In one hand, she carried a long white cane. Because she was blind.

As I looked at her, I thought what in retrospect is something I'm ashamed of: If I were blind, I wouldn't be wearing all that cr**.

I didn't even have time to tell myself that what I was thinking was wrongheaded before the woman raised her mobile phone and, to complete my astonishment, took a selfie.

As I watched her, I wondered about that question again: Who is it we see when we look in the mirror? And when we share selfies - and I post photos of myself all day long, I admit - what version of ourselves is it we are sharing?

In the stranger's case, a selfie represented, more than anything else, a work of the imagination.

Recently, I took part in a meditation practice pioneered by a colleague at Barnard, Tara Well, called "mirror meditation", which is pretty much what it sounds like: You sit before a mirror with your face (and body) at rest, with the deceptively simple goal of "being in the present moment with open awareness and having a kind intention towards yourself".

When I first embarked on this practice, I feared it would be too - well, I believe the technical term is "woo-woo".

But it was a revelation. There before me was my 59-year-old face: a vertical line on my forehead, marionette lines around my mouth, small creases lining my lips. At first, I thought, ugh, this is not the face of a young person.

But then, as the session continued, I thought - well, it's not a young face, but it's mine.

The lines on my forehead are a result, in part, of contemplation; the ones around my eyes are from laughter; the ones around my mouth from my incessant habit of whistling.

All those lines have made me myself and, mostly, as I looked at them, I felt grateful for all the years that have left their marks on my face.

"You're lucky - that's not the response most women have," Dr Well told me later.

"We typically use the mirror to take an observer's perspective (what psychologists call self-objectification). We focus on how we look and often disregard how we feel."

Her words put me in mind of that blind woman I saw at the rest stop. There she was, in her dark, stylish world, eating her Whopper Jr. Who was it she imagined she had photographed when she raised her camera in the air?

My grandmother's voice haunts me still: "That's not you. And that's not me."

I got home after my long drive that night and crawled into bed. I thought about my son Sean and the world that awaits him when he graduates this spring.

I thought about the person I had been when I was his age and the person I have since become, these many decades later.

What did I see when I turned out the light? I can't tell you, but I know it's mine.


• The writer is a professor of English at Barnard College and the author of the novel, Long Black Veil.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on March 11, 2018, with the headline 'Looking past the woman in the selfie'. Print Edition | Subscribe