Mirror for Measure

Well January is over, February is in full swing, and this morning I broke yet another of my new year’s resolutions as I enjoyed a deliciously calorific flapjack for breakfast. It was so bad, but it was so good! I don’t even regret it. The New Year can be tough. With the constant barrage of adverts for new diet plans, gym memberships, and other industries of self-improvement, fewer of us than before are looking in the mirror with a feeling of satisfaction. In view of the fact that the commercial world is trying to make me feel guilty for breaking my new year’s resolutions (in order to sell me detox tea or similar) I intend to, instead, congratulate myself on the resolutions I have kept. One of my best and most successful (across a measly four weeks- but this is an exercise in self-congratulation not flagellation) resolutions was to start exercising more. I’ve found a gym with no mirrors so I can actually bear to go on a regular basis, and I’ve started to go to a dance class. The Swing dance class I’ve been attending has been a revelation: finally I understand what people mean when they say that exercising actually gives them more energy!

Photograph by Peter Marsh at ashmorevisuals.

Usually when you go to a new dance or exercise class for adults you spend several weeks with the deep shame of being new, not knowing entirely what’s going on, and not being spoken to because you haven’t been initiated into whatever secret yoga cult that everyone else apparently knows all about! The swing dance class that I started going to in the New Year, as part of my fitness resolution, was totally different. From the very first class everyone was incredibly friendly and even invited me to the pub afterwards. The atmosphere of the class was fantastic, and, as you swap partners for each stage, you really get to know a lot of people. The structure of the class works very well, gently progressing so that no one is left behind, at the same time as keeping up the energy. Not only is it great cardio (for the resolutions tick box), it’s also the most exhilarating, joyful fun. I’ve come out of every class buzzing, and looking forward to the following week. Besides, the teacher is quite foxy, which always helps, right?

Despite the friendliness and the excellently structured teaching, initially the class did present one horrifying problem for me: a mirror. Not just any mirror, this is a floor to ceiling monstrosity stretching the entire length of the room (the sort you might expect to find in a dance studio). Each week there has been one dreaded component of the warm-up in which we face the mirror and go through the basic steps before putting them together. And there I see myself, hopping about like a loony, and I can’t help but stare in horror! Are my hips really that wide? Are my feet really so freakishly small? Who knew that t-shirt was really so awful, and why doesn’t what I’m doing look anything like what the demonstration looked like? These questions and many more were the fly in the ointment at the start of each class. I felt so self-conscious that, at first, I wasn’t able to enjoy myself, however, to learn the steps I had to concentrate, so it was quite difficult to mentally criticise the circumference of my thighs at the same time as executing a rock step, triple step combo without falling over! Of course pretty soon I was not only concentrating but having a fantastic time, so the mirror, although very much still there, paled into the background. I was having so much fun that I had forgotten to worry about what I looked like, or what people might think of me, and I was able to really enjoy the class. The fact that after an hour’s exercise I have a face like a radioactive tomato, rather than a Grace Kelly glow, had become irrelevant.

Overcoming my problem with the mirror at the swing class got me thinking about how I approach the rest of my life. Are there other things in life that I fail to enjoy because I’m worried about what others will think of me, or about how I look? Unfortunately, yes there are. I know I that I need to get over this, and concentrate on my lindy hop moves, metaphorically speaking of course. How can you live life to the full if you’re worried about your waistline, or whether other people think that you’re “cool”? You can’t. In Measure for Measure Angelo and Isabella discuss women’s supposed frailty.
Angelo. Nay, women are frail too.
Isabella. Ay, as the glasses where they view themselves;
Which are as easy broke as they make forms.
A mirror, Isabella explains, will break as easily as it can create a reflection. A woman is similarly fragile, and like a mirror will reflect whatever is in front of her. With the image of a woman looking in a mirror, Isabella also implies that one of women’s main frailties is vanity. These women are as illusory as the image they see in the mirror and as fragile as the glass itself. While Isabella’s lines here may reflect an early modern misogynist belief in women’s impressionability and gullibility, they also reflect a social truth. Women in Shakespeare’s day were forced to live by appearances. If others believed them to be immoral, that was enough to taint their reputation. Appearances were very important. Women then also had much less agency than many women enjoy today. Shakespeare’s Isabella is by no means frail. Her statements about how fragile and easily swayed women are become ironic as, throughout the play, she defies the enormous pressures around her and sticks to her own decision to preserve her virginity and the possibility of life as a nun. Despite Isabella’s strength and integrity, at the end of the play, she is forced to go against her resolution, as she must marry the Duke. Although not personally frail, Isabella’s position in society makes her so. Her resolve is cracked by the manipulations of the powerful men around her. Suddenly she is a reflection of their wishes rather than her own.

While we are lucky that we do not live in the same society that produced Measure for Measure, many women and men feel as if they are pressured and manipulated by the mirrors in their lives and have become slaves to how they appear.  If your identity is dependent upon reflections, be they from mirrors, or from the opinions of your friends and colleagues, then you are left with a frail and fractured identity. The problem is that nowadays it sometimes seems as if the whole world is a floor to ceiling dance studio mirror. Thanks to the advent of the smartphone everyone now has a ludicrously powerful camera in their pocket and the ability to upload those images to various online platforms, including Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. Once up there, these images or statements are open to comments. Suddenly we all know whether our peers think that what we’re up to is worthwhile, or whether that new fringe actually suits us. We can’t go by a day without seeing an advert showing us what we’re supposed to be doing or how we’re supposed to be looking, delivered straight into the phone in our hands or the screen we face all day at work. It’s not just celebrities now who feel they must carefully curate their public image, but also school children worried about, not only what their friends think, but future employers as well. Childline and the NSPCC havereported a dramatic increase in young people suffering from depression and low-self-esteem due to their interaction with social media. Aside from the new possibilities for bullying that social media affords, at the centre of the problem is the constant source of distorting mirrors that the internet offers. These children feel forced to constantly compare themselves to the images they see online, and to worry about their own online image. Despite all the exciting possibilities of the internet, I feel very lucky not to have grown up with such an abundance of technology and such pressures on my self-image. These children are indeed made as fragile as the mirrors in which they view themselves.

So what is the solution? How do we avoid the fragility caused by constructing our self-images on mirrors? One solution of course, is to step away from those mirrors, and like in my Swing dance class, enjoy concentrating on something else. I’ll concede, that may be easier said than done. It was easy in Swing dance to forget my appearance, or what others might be thinking, because everyone around me was doing so too and because everyone was so friendly and kind. We all know that a cruel comment can send anyone straight back to the mirror and to doubting themselves. To avoid being sucked into mirrors and comparisons, like the wicked Queen in Snow White, we need people to be kind to us. While I can’t ensure that people will be kind to me, and I’m pretty sure the advertising industry isn’t suddenly going to get any gentler, I can make sure that I am kind to others. My February resolution, and I invite you all to make it too, is to avoid becoming the kind of mirror to others that I’m trying to avoid myself. 

Photograph by Peter Marsh at ashmorevisuals.

P.S. If anyone in the Birmingham area is looking for a fun dance class, I heartily recommend classes by The Swing Era. 


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