Home » Words from Rabbi » Rosh HaShanah Morning 5773

Mirror, Mirror Off the Wall

By Rabbi Carmit Harari

Temple Beth Ora — Edmonton, AB

“Mirror, Mirror on the wall, who is the fairest one of all?”  This famous line from Disney’s animated rendition of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs is likely familiar to us all.  Spoken by the evil queen who seeks to destroy Snow White for her own advantage, this line is repeated in various versions throughout the film as the she consults her trusty mirror / confidant.  In a more modern interpretation of the story called Mirror Mirror, named for the aforementioned quote, actress Julia Roberts interprets the question and her role a little differently.  In this film, she plays a middle-aged queen, consumed by the need to look younger.  And though she’s been somewhat outside of the spotlight since her marriage and the birth of her children, I can’t help but think of the irony of Roberts playing this role.  Named one of People magazine’s ‘fifty most beautiful people in the world’ in 1990, 1991, and 2000, Julia Roberts has served and continues to serve as an example of the ideal of beauty so often promoted in Hollywood.

Next month, she will celebrate her forty-fifth birthday.  I don’t know too many women who would complain if they looked like Julia Roberts – at any age…but the sad fact is that most women look at the images of celebrities on magazine covers, in the movies, and on television, and feel a sense of inadequacy.  According to her profile on the Internet Movie Database, IMDB, whenever she is having make up done for a film, Roberts lies on her back because she thinks it helps her look more relaxed. But when we see her image on the big screen, seldom do we take into account the hours of professional styling, lighting, and editing that have gone into producing the likeness before us.  Instead, we compare ourselves to her, and we do so to our detriment.

According to one statistic, 8 out of 10 women [in the United States] are not happy with their reflection.[1]  Another tells us that that more than 90% of girls – 15-17years [old] – want to change at least one aspect of their physical appearance…[2] And according to Dove Canada, the beauty products manufacturer, only 4% of women worldwide consider themselves beautiful.[3]  These figures, in and of themselves, are staggering, but they are only half the story.  Women aren’t the only ones who feel the pressure toward physical perfection.  In England, 29% of men surveyed, thought about their appearance at least five times a day, and more than four in five men [surveyed], talk in ways that promote anxiety about their body image by referring to perceived flaws and imperfections.[4]  In fact, so serious is this problem that anxiety about body image has led to some men [in England] – 38% of those surveyed – conceding they would exchange a year of their life for the perfect physique.[5]

We are a society intensely focused on physical perfection.  Beauty is only skin deep, so the saying goes, yet we are obsessed with achieving some sort of perceived ideal, spending thousands on clothing and cologne, make-up and miracle creams, all claiming they can heal what ails us.  But the truth is that what ails us can’t be cured, at least not physically. We spend more time and money shopping for wedding dresses and cakes than we do planning the content of the ceremony or preparing for marriage itself. We turn almost every life-experience into a competition, as is evidenced by the plethora of reality-TV shows, where the winners are almost always good looking and young.  Our focus is stuck at the surface and it seems to me, that’s not where it should be.

A few weeks ago, a video on Yahoo’s news stream caught my attention.   Entitled The Mirror Free Bride, the eight-minute clip told the story of twenty-nine year old Kjerstin Gruys who recently engaged in an unusual experiment.  It was an attempt, she says, to save her self-esteem.  “To avoid fixating on perfection, six month before her wedding, Kjerstin launched her project:  a year without mirrors, documented on her blog, Mirror, Mirror, Off the Wall.”[6]  Take a moment to imagine it:  every mirror in your home covered or taken down and stowed away, avoiding reflective surfaces wherever you go, and making a conscious decision not to look at yourself where mirrors are a necessity, such as a motor vehicle.  How many of us could survive one whole day, much less a whole year, without looking at our physical reflection?

Kjerstin is the survivor of an eating disorder.  Consumed with the need for physical perfection, as a teen, she literally drove herself to illness.  Today, she is a healthy and successful woman.  She decided to take on the mirror-free challenge “…to prove the obsession of her youth with her looks and her weight wasn’t going to rule her adult life.”[7] And so she began her experiment, learning how to put on make-up, for example, by feel, and reconnecting with her other senses.  She learned to trust that others wouldn’t let her walk out into public looking ridiculous, and she adapted her daily routines in order to make a genuine effort not to see her reflection.

When asked by the interviewer about criticism that her project was just a band-aid solution, a way to avoid dealing with the serious issues of body image and self-esteem, Kjerstin responded that she could understand why some might see it that way, but stood behind her experiment.  She admitted that this type of challenge isn’t for everyone, but says that for her, it proved successful.  “Michael [my husband] is my mirror,” Kjerstin now says, “because when he looks at me, he doesn’t see the things he wants to change.  He just sees the things he loves.”[8]

Today is Rosh HaShanah, the first day of a New Year, and the first of ten days known as the ten days of repentance, or the ten days of awe.  It is the beginning of a period of intense self-examination and reflection.  Today, I am particularly struck by the poignant story of Kjerstin Gruys and her year without looking in the mirror.  We are reliant upon external markers when we navigate our way through our daily lives, and we tend to forget that what really matters, what’s inside of us, cannot be so easily seen in aluminum coated glass.  Our characters, our values, our feelings, all of these qualities remain locked inside of us.  They are obscured by the physical, and often pushed aside or forgotten.  But what if we were to draw inspiration from Kjerstin and her mirror-free challenge?  Last night I challenged you to live this New Year free of the fears that control you.  And today, I’d like to pose a second challenge to you, this one a little more literal than the first.  I’d like to invite you to join me in a mirror-free challenge of our own.  In order to facilitate an honest and more meaningful experience of T’shuva, and in preparation of our spirits for Yom Kippur, I challenge us to live mirror free for the next ten days.  Think about your neshama, your spirit.  Re-examine your values, and take time to assess your interactions with others.  How are your relationships with family and friends?  What have you done for your community lately?  It’s who we are inside that really matters, and while we cannot change the focus on the package, the Days of Awe come to remind us that what others think of us, not our appearance, is what will ultimately determine our success in this world.

Dan Paul Roberts, writing on the website www.123FeelBetter.net, offers the a list of tips “…to help you,” in his words “(whether you’re male or female) [to] stop comparing yourself to media images and start feeling like a whole person.”[9]  What a fantastic choice of words he uses: a whole person.  How often do we think of ourselves in these terms?  It is interesting to note that when we find perceived flaws in our physical appearance, we are often quick to attribute them to imperfections in our character.  Yet when our character comes under examination, we easily disconnect our actions from our physical appearance.  Yet the Jewish tradition links body and spirit in the most profound of ways. “Judaism’s view of man as the crown of a “very good” creation entails a positive attitude towards the body, which is to be guided by the soul so as to sanctify the physical.”[10] The bodies we so desperately seek to improve, are the vehicle through which holiness can be achieved.  How we look and how we feel are profoundly linked to one another, and the manner in which we act in the world, has the potential to bring us close to or distance us from sanctity.  I am proud that I can characterize myself as a particularly poor liar.  It means that I am deeply committed to the notion of honesty, and I imagine the world is a better place when I choose to tell the truth, when we all do.  When we start to look inside ourselves, we find the key to feeling whole.

Are you proud of who you are? Of what you have achieved? Would you characterize yourself as a good person?  When you can answer a resounding yes to all of these questions, then, and only then, can you begin to explore the physical dimension of your existence.  God does not care what you look like, and frankly, neither do I.  It’s not about your looks at all.  It’s about who you are.  You should feel good about positive feedback you get from others, and not about the size printed on the tag on your clothing.  If you embrace goodness and kindness, generosity and thoughtfulness, you’ll find that you will feel good about you-the whole you.

This year at the Ten Days of Awe, I invite you to shed your skin, so to speak.  Join me in the challenge to enter into this period of reflection with an open heart and an open mind.  Cover your mirrors and in turn, uncover your potential for holiness. Focus on your inside, and engage in an act of genuine cheshbon Hanefesh, an authentic accounting of the soul. Unlike a period of shiva, the seven days following the death of a loved one, when mirrors are covered so that a mourner does not concern him or herself with physical appearance at the time of most intense grief, the act of covering our mirrors in spiritual preparation for Yom Kippur, serves as the catalyst for true metamorphosis. Like the caterpillar that goes into a darkened cocoon before emerging a magnificent butterfly, we too need to experience being in metaphorical darkness, before we can see the light and emerge whole.  “In the end,” writes Dan Paul Roberts, “no one deserves to feel bad about the way they look. Turn your attention to qualities you admire about yourself that have nothing to do with the way you look. Develop these attributes rather than letting your appearance define your worth. The truth is, everyone’s looks will fade, but your best attributes will last a lifetime.”[11]

“Mirror, mirror, on the wall, who’s the fairest one of them all?”  The next time you look in the mirror and ask yourself the infamous question, you’ll know that we all have the same answer, and that answer is me.

Shanah Tovah U’metuakah

I wish you a truly meaningful Ten-Days of Awe

[1] http://weighingthefacts.blogspot.ca/2010/02/body-image-statistics.html

[2] http://heartofleadership.com/statistics-on-body-image-self-esteem-parental-influence/

[3] http://www.dove.ca/en/Social-Mission/

[4] http://www.guardian.co.uk/lifestyle/2012/jan/06/body-image-concerns-men-more-than-women

[5] Ibid

[6] http://ca.shine.yahoo.com/video/mirror-free-bride-080000264.html

[7] Ibid

[8] Ibid

[9] Dan Paul Roberts, www.123FeelBetter.net

[10] http://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/jsource/judaica/ejud_0002_0004_0_03232.html

[11] Dan Paul Roberts, www.123FeelBetter.net