Reflections on reflections


Where would mankind be without the mirror? The evil witch from Snow White wouldn’t know who was the fairest of them all, the centre parting would still be considered fashionable and we’d never pull out of a parking spot without being collected by a bus. But unlike the wheel, the hammer or even sliced bread – the mirror has never been acknowledged as one of humankind’s most significant feats… but it is.

Ever since Adam and Eve chowed down on that tasty apple of vanity, humans have been self-conscious creatures. Even the chiselled cheek-boned, squinty-eyed, walking temples of confidence reach for a paper bag of shame to put over their head should somebody point out a minor skin blemish.

It was only a few days ago that this became glaringly apparent to me, when walking down the street on my way to work. Several paces ahead of me was a young man, walking along as nonchalantly and inconspicuously as can be. Until he walked directly into a garbage bin. Luckily, the only injuries to report were bruising of the young man’s ego and my ribs as I struggled to contain a combustible torrent of laughter. Quite how he managed to simply walk directly into a bin though, had me perplexed. Until I passed the site of the accident. To my right was a building with particularly large and particularly reflective windows. It became clear that at the moment when shin met bin, the young lad could not resist the temptation to check his appearance with a sneaky side-glance.

But we’re all guilty of it. You will have strained your eyeballs to the verge of popping out to make sure that a barnacle hasn’t grown on your forehead since you last passed a shiny shop window. You might have even feigned a look over your shoulder when passing a parked van and checked your hairdo hadn’t afro-tised without your knowledge. It’s a natural, irresistible urge – and its all down to our reliance on the mirror.

So where would we be without that glass contraption? Well, it’s as old as humankind itself. Archaeologists have unearthed polished obsidian mirrors in Turkey that date back 6,000 years. That predates the comb by a millennium, so what the ancients were doing with them I’m not sure, but obviously the need to stare at yourself was far more urgent in evolution than the need for grooming. So without it, we’d probably not have made it out of the iron age, but even if we had, we’d be without some very important technologies. Nearly everything we know about the Universe would still be a mystery as Galileo would have not been peering though a mirrored-telescope but rather a rolled-up parchment. Photography would have never gotten off the ground, television would be a fantasy and discos would be somehow missing some atmosphere. Worst of all, we’d all have bad hair, bad sunglasses and poor-fitting pants… and, most depressing of all, magic shows the world over would be reduced to dicky card tricks and a wand that turns into plastic flowers.

So obviously we all know how important the mirror is to civilisation as it is today. But why, then, do we almost detach our retinas in order to surreptitiously catch a glimpse of our own reflection? At home we’ll unashamedly pore over ourselves for hours, but once in public, we come over all timid and shy, and risk walking into garbage bins. For 6,000 years we’ve used mirrors, it doesn’t make sense. We should embrace the mirror as one of human’s purest and best inventions. Stop and stare, don’t think of it as vanity, you’re looking at an important historical exhibit. (The mirror that is, not you, Mr Vain).

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