Even the most rational of people feel a sense of unease when it comes to broken mirrors. And, as someone who recently bought a new unicycle because “my other two unicycles aren’t great for my commute,” I’m clearly not the most rational of people. So when I dropped my bathroom cabinet while moving into my new apartment, smashing the glass on its door, I worried that it was an omen, an ill start to my home.
I still had plenty of stuff to bring in from the van, so I propped the cabinet up on the sink, shards of glass still stuck in the frame. I continued shuttling my possessions up eight flights of stairs, tried not to consider just living in the street rather than continue punishing my quads, attempted to forget about the broken mirror.
Putting mirrors out of my mind has been tricky for the past few years. I’m not a vain person, but I am a transgender woman. I learned early on that there is a danger that can come with not looking your best. It’s only in the past few months that I’ve been able to leave the house without a half-dozen once-overs in the hallway mirror, or the webcam on my laptop, or the shiny surface of my neighbor’s silver SUV. I like to check my make-up and my hair, ensure my clothes look feminine enough (whatever that means), even tense the muscles above my ears so that the shape of my face changes ever-so-slightly.
These behaviors are paranoid, yes, but they’re also the behaviors of somebody who has been attacked in the street (not as bad as it sounds — the “assailant” was a twelve year-old drunk on cider who was disturbed by the incongruity of my voice and my gender presentation) . They are the safeguards of a girl who still has trouble inspecting her face and seeing anything but a boy, albeit a boy who used to get teased for looking like a girl. It’s complicated.
As happy and comfortable as I am as a woman (and believe me, I feel better now, five years after coming out, than I ever did as a man), there’s still the issue of re-training my brain, making it acknowledge that what it spies in every reflective surface is accepted by the world as just another female member of the species. I was nineteen when I transitioned, and I’m only twenty-four now, so for the majority of my life I was referred to by my male name. My instinct is still to respond to it if I hear someone call it out. Similarly, nineteen years of people looking at me and treating me as a dude means I have a tendency to sub-consciously treat myself that way too.
But when I returned to that broken mirror, that smashed and dented cabinet, I saw something new. Each small section of glass reflected a different fraction of my face, and each of those slivers looked utterly feminine. I saw myself in a way I hadn’t before, the pieces of the whole more true to me than my complete face ever was.
I remembered reading about a woman with prosopagnosia (face blindness, for those of you not addicted to Wikipedia) who couldn’t recognize her own appearance. She had echoes of Capgras Delusion, at times convinced that the person in the mirror was an impostor, that she had been replaced. She suffered from this disorder for years, until her doctor noticed that she could apply lipstick with no problems, and surmised that smaller mirrors presented her with no difficulties. He assembled close to a hundred mirrors in escalating sizes, so the patient could work her way up from the tiny recognizance of her mouth to the acceptance of her full-length image.
I experienced the same effect. I was observing the individual aspects of my face and acknowledging their womanliness without the years of associations that my complete visage carried. After I’d finished inspecting my eyes and lips and eyebrows individually, I could look in an unbroken mirror and see how they came together to make a woman’s face. I saw the girl everybody else did.
It wouldn’t be smart to keep a broken mirror in the house, as tempting as it is to end this story with my accepting the smashed cabinet as part of my life. It’s a bathroom piece, after all, and that’s the one room in the apartment where you’re guaranteed to spend most of your time barefoot. I threw it out, and now I have nowhere to store spare tubes of toothpaste.
I did keep a small shard, though. I sanded down the edges, stored it in a pocket in my purse. When I’m feeling self-conscious I can take it out and study my features. I can look. And I can see.
Illustration by Elizabeth Simins