Mirrors. It’s hard to imagine life without them. I was reminded recently that a time existed when a mirror was considered a luxury rather than a necessity. While retrieving a vintage book from an old antique china cabinet that belonged to my grandmother, I saw the tapestry coin purse in the picture above sitting on a shelf. It had been given to me years ago by an aunt (my father’s sister) and she mentioned at the time that it had belonged to her husband’s side of the family.
I’ve only recently begun to appreciate antiques and the tiny glimpse they offer us into decades long forgotten. Out of curiosity, I wondered how old the coin purse might be, so I retrieved it from the shelf for further examination. To my surprise, I found a type-written note inside that hinted to its age. The note began with a brief timeline of ownership: “This purse belonged to Bryd Siglar Carey, mother of…” and so on and so on through the family tree, right down to my aunt’s husband. I’m assuming my uncle typed the note as he was the last person listed in the handy timeline. He ended the note with “The purse is now (1977) about 90 years old.”
So, I had my answer. The purse dates back to the 1880’s-1890’s. Aside from the coolness factor of the name “Byrd,” (Birdie, for short, perhaps?), there were a couple of other treasures tucked inside her purse: A hand-stitched satin coin purse and a small, compact mirror. While a compact mirror would not be a noteworthy discovery in a woman’s purse today, I imagine it was somewhat of a novelty in the late 1800’s. It reminded me of some interesting historical trivia I stumbled upon in my research while writing 5 Conversations You Must Have With Your Daughter.
In one of the books I read, The Body Project, author, Joan Brumberg researched girls’ diaries and journals from the late 1800’s to early 1900’s to track the shift in attitudes regarding appearance. She found that “Before World War I, girls rarely mentioned their bodies in terms of strategies for self-improvement or struggles for personal identity.”
“When girls in the nineteenth century thought about ways to improve themselves, they almost always focused on their internal character and how it was reflected in outward behavior. In 1882, the personal agenda of an adolescent diarist read: ‘Resolved, not to talk about myself or feelings. To think before speaking. To work seriously. To be self restrained in conversation and actions. Not to let my thoughts wander. To be dignified. Interest myself more in others.’” (Joan Brumberg, The Body Project)
Brumberg notes that girls from the 19th century were discouraged from showing too much attention to appearance—to do so would be vanity. The book notes that “character was built on attention to self-control, service to others, and belief in God.” No doubt, girls from the 19th century were familiar with the wisdom of Proverbs 31:30 which counsels, “Charm is deceptive, and beauty is fleeting; but a woman who fears the Lord is to be praised.” No doubt, to become a woman who fears the Lord was the end goal of women in the 19th century.
In a nutshell, they prized virtue over vanity.
A century later, the word “virtue” is long forgotten and certainly not part of the average girl’s vocabulary. So when and how, exactly, did the shift from virtue to vanity occur? Believe it or not, the mirror is partly to blame. In The Body Project, Brumberg states,
“When the mirror became a staple of the American middle-class home at the end of the nineteenth century, attention to adolescent acne escalated, as did sales of products for the face. Until then, pimples were primarily a tactile experience, at least for the girl who had them. But that all changed in the late 1800s with the widespread adoption in middle-class homes of a bathroom sink with running water and a mirror hung above it.”
She further notes that “Mirrors play a critical role in the way American girls have assessed their own faces and figures.”
As mirrors became popularized, women were able to compare and contrast their features with the women they saw in movies and magazines, not to mention each other.
In the 1920’s, American women began to take an interest in cosmetics. From facial powders to rouge, lipstick, and even eyelash curlers, women flocked to the local drugstores to stock up on these beauty accoutrements. The “flapper movement” further boosted sales of cosmetics among women and especially, teenage girls. Brumberg notes that, “Sales of compacts (small handheld mirrors with a compartment for powder) soared because they allowed women to scrutinize and reconstruct the face almost anywhere, in a moment’s notice.”
Fast-forward to today where girls have little need for compact mirrors. And why would they? They are everywhere we look. It would be an interesting exercise to count the number of mirrors we come in contact with on a daily basis, or better yet, take an inventory of the number of times we glance in a mirror throughout the day (ouch!).
Rather than extract a mirror from their purse to “reconstruct the face almost anywhere, in a moment’s notice,” girls today pull smartphones out of their pockets and turn the camera phone on themselves to post a steady stream of “selfies” to their favorite social media platforms. (Unfortunately, many adult women have also caved into this “look at me!,” “like me!,” “tell me I’m pretty!” annoying trend. I’m referring to those who post selfies in excess, of course.) Additionally, many girls have come to rely on filters and apps like Facetune that with a few taps or swipes to their image, can erase blemishes, whiten teeth, and in a nutshell, create an unrealistic airbrushed version of themselves to a viewing public.
So, back to the mirror.
We’ve all heard the saying, “the mirror doesn’t lie.” And it’s true. (Though, I’m sure someone is hard at work right now to create mirrors to the mass market that will only reflect ideal, air-brushed versions of ourselves. When you see it on Shark Tank, remember, I called it first!) At some point during the day, our girls will encounter a mirror. Multiple times, for that matter. And what will they think when they see their true selves staring back at them? We know that 93% of girls and young women report feeling anxiety or stress about some aspect of their looks when getting ready in the morning,* so it’s safe to say, they won’t like what they see. Plenty of adult women grumble at their God-given reflections, so they’ve been taught well. (Ahem, guilty as charged.)
Whether your daughter has already built a foundation on the culture’s beauty lies or is just beginning to be exposed to the brainwashing, trust me, the battle is not lost. Where God is present, there is always hope. Only by speaking up and addressing the lies head on, will we equip our daughters to resist the onslaught. Our daughters need to know that God’s standard for beauty is the only standard that matters. Many of us are hesitant to address the topic with our daughters because we too, have bought the lies. We’re waiting for a day when we can approach the topic from a vantage point of victory and alas, that moment never seems to arrive.
But, what if… you decided to be honest with your daughter and admit to your own struggle? Better yet, what if you vowed to fight together?
Since the time I began writing (a decade ago), I have been passionate about raising a generation of young women who see themselves through God’s eyes, rather than the eyes of the world. If you live anywhere near the Austin area, I will be speaking on this topic on Tuesday night, August 12th at our annual mother/daughter event, Mirror, Mirror. I know you’re crazy busy and caught up in the whirlwind of back-to-school mayhem, but this message is as necessary to her health and well-being as that doctor’s well check that’s probably on your to-do list.
What does your daughter see when she looks in the mirror? Mirror, Mirror is a great place to begin the conversation. Will you join us?
(If you are unable to make it, pray about facilitating a 5 Conversations Bible study at your church or in your home.)
*Source: The Dove Self-Esteem Fund/Seventeen Body Image Survey