About Face: Women Write About What They See When They Look In the Mirror
Edited by Anne Burt & Christina Baker Kline
Too often, beauty and body image are dismissed as superficial issues. Courtney Martin recently wrote about an exchange she had with another feminist who told her, “I’m so sick of hearing young feminists talk about fashion and body image…What about the women in Afghanistan!?" I would encourage that feminist to read About Face—a collection of twenty-three essays written by women talking about what they see when they look in the mirror. This is certainly not fluff or frivolity. The writers in this anthology share deeply personal stories that build a compelling case for the central message of this collection: It’s complicated. It’s complicated because what we see in the mirror is subjective. As we come to new understandings about our lives and ourselves, the way we see our faces can change, too.
Meredith Maran exposes what se learned about her own beauty when she was photographed with her supermodel niece. Kym Ragusa approaches her reflection as ethnography, tracing her features through photos of her mother and grandmother, and the lines on maps revealing where her family has made its mark over the centuries. And in her essay “Souvenir,” Manijeh Nasrabadi describes how a trip to stay with her family in Iran transformed her reflection:
“Snagged by my own reflection, I stopped and stared. Nothing jarred. Nothing tweaked my consciousness painfully away from some imagined, whiter version of myself. It was as if the settings in my brain had changed and reconfigured what my mind could see. Oh, so that’s what I look like. I heard myself sigh in relief. There was nothing ugly or needed to be changed. There was nothing American, Jewish, Zoroastrian, or Iranian to hate or hide. I laughed with myself. I smiled, and it was me I saw smiling. Then I knew what it meant to feel at home.” I am one of those young feminists who believes it is critically important for women to talk about body image and beauty. We must explore how the reflection we see in the mirror is a reflection of our relationships, our experiences, our cultures, and our exposure to media messages—if not for ourselves, then for future generations.
According to the Girls Inc. “Supergirl Dilemma” study, we have made great progress in overcoming some gender stereotypes over the last six years. More girls now see that they can be good leaders and fewer girls believe that they should be expected to take care of housework and babysitting. The areas where stereotypes and pressures have gotten worse? Looks and appearance. In 2000, 74% of girls said that girls are under a lot of pressure to dress the right way; in 2006, that number jumped to 84%. Sixty percent of girls in the study believe that they must be thin to be popular; that’s up from 48% in 2000.
About Face is the kind of book that can prepare us to be the role models these girls need. The editors say that “looking in the mirror without turning away—and then talking about it honestly—is a radical act.” The women in this collection have taken that task to heart. I hope that others will read their words and be inspired to stage their own radical acts, whether in the bathroom mirror, in the rearview mirror, or even passing by a store window. These reflections offer opportunities for positive change. Let’s claim them as our own.