We’re Obsessed With Our Reflections, But Aren’t Actually Reflecting

February 26, 2018
A photo of two women with mirrors where their faces should be.
Art by Kirsten Hemrich

Pretty much everyone hates the new Snapchat update. You don’t even have to use Snapchat to know this--so many users have been sharing their displeasure on social media. I have yet to update the app, so while I’m not suffering from the new version it did get me thinking about what it even means to update something. In this case, the content of the app didn’t really change, just the appearance. And we see this trend a lot. In our increasingly fast-paced world, there is mounting pressure to update ourselves, not just the software on our devices. Can we move things around, alter the physical package of content and really call it an improvement? We can see pretty clearly that superficial change doesn’t always have benefits, so why do we insist on “bettering” ourselves?

The pressure to look a certain way and paint a certain image has always been there, but today it just keeps getting more intense. Every day there is something new to keep up with. Whether it’s seeing new posts from your friends every day, new arrivals every day on online shopping websites, new skincare regimens and products, or new diets for losing weight/gaining health, the constant need to refresh our images feels overwhelming.

All of this overconsumption and obsession can burn us out, and affect other areas of our life. It’s enough to make anyone’s brain spin to the point where we’re not even really sure why we spend $50 on new clothes or why we buy new skin care when we probably should stick to our old and trusted routine. It turns vapid, and we lose a sense of agency and independent action in the process. Maybe, when we get so wrapped up in updating our outer appearance, we lose a sense of ourselves and our innate desires. And maybe that’s exactly why we do obsess over upgrading our presentation--we seek something to replace the effort it takes to figure out what we really want in life.

This can mean sacrificing internal reflection and growth simply because it isn’t easy. Not everyone is like this, but many of us jump into a trend without really thinking about why or without wondering how such reflexive action affects our own self-understanding. Yes, taking care of our physical appearance is worthwhile, especially if it helps with self-esteem or offers a relaxing outlet. But we can’t simply alter our outside and expect interior growth and change to follow.

And what about on an even deeper level, when we’re not just jumping into a trend about our looks, but jumping on a bandwagon about a cultural or political issue? How simple is it, for example, to share an article denouncing a certain celebrity, without actually analyzing the situation in relation to your own point of view? And then the scandal dies down, and we’re on to the next wrongdoing. Don’t get me wrong, exposure to new ideas is healthy and critiquing problematic celebrities or politicians is more than necessary. But I can’t help but think that some people only share things to curate an image of performative “wokeness.”

Being so immersed in this culture myself, I find it difficult to envision an end, or even a slowing to this hyperactive pressure to appear better, prettier, smarter, more woke. I think that when we misplace ourselves and value the physical at the price of the emotional or inner life, we lose what’s really real, what’s really true, what’s really beautiful. For me personally, at some point I want to be content with my appearance, with my material possessions, while still striving towards growth and purpose in life. However, at a young age the two so often go hand-in-hand that they get muddled. And changing my outer appearance is much easier than challenging and shaping my inner life.

Sometimes I really want to throw everything I own away and start over. I feel this itch or inclination when I browse websites or read about the newest trend. I feel unhappy and dissatisfied. I get restless--I want new this and new that. I start to think, are any of the things I own things I actually want? And why do I want them? However, I also feel paralyzed at the sheer quantity of options available to me.

Interestingly enough, this same feeling creeps up when I think about the looming of an unknown future. I’m young, I’m privileged, and I still have no singular idea about where I want my life to take me. And it freaks me out.

 

 

On nights where I can’t sleep, I feel my brain working overtime as I think about the tests I have to study for, different internships I want to apply for, and where the hell I am going to be in two years. I think about my family and my relationships with my friends. The thoughts run through my head like they’re all contestants in a track race, and often the one that wins is, “Am I happy?” When all of this gets to be too much, I turn the light on and pluck my eyebrows or paint my nails. After all, it’s a lot less mentally challenging to click “add to cart” than it is to face the scary reality of an unknown future or an imperfect life.

 

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