Mirror, Mirror

THE BALTIMORE SUN

So you're sauntering along in your new Christmas turtleneck and - you can't officially confirm this, but - you're pretty sure you look good. So good that you begin to pity those less blessed, like the chubby somebody walking beside you. Poor wretch. Cute turtleneck, though.

Oh, God.

You backtrack a few steps, and so does the porker. You cock an eyebrow. Fatso follows suit.

The post-holiday season is filled with nasty run-ins with one's own reflection. But before swearing off mince pies or mounting the Stairmaster, reflect on this: The mirror may be the problem.

Even in our contemporary - and decidedly unenchanted - society, there is such a thing as a cursed mirror, as sure as Snow White ate poisoned apples. There are good mirrors and bad mirrors, fat mirrors and skinny mirrors, mirrors that laud the looker as the fairest in the land and those that beg to differ.

Skeptics need only ask the countless American women, and at least a couple men, who daily risk life and limb by balancing on bathtub rims to see themselves full-length in a favorite glass, or who hustle past the dreaded hallway mirror that does a lot for the foyer's decor but not, unfortunately, for the human figure.

Left home alone, Jess Curry of Hamilton sneaks into her roommate's bedroom to ogle herself in the mirror there.

"She doesn't know," said Curry, who is mildly embarrassed. Even so, "if I'm going out, I definitely need to see it." It presents "a brand-new vision" of the self.

Conversely, Heather Magee, an aesthetician at a Towson day spa, has learned to shun the mirror in the room where she gives facials - mostly, thank goodness, in the dark.

But "when you flip the lights on, every girl flips out," she said. "You can see every pore. It's bad."

Perhaps modern egomania is partially to blame, but mirror dramas have played out for centuries, at least since the 1500s, when clearer tin- and mercury-backed mirrors replaced the murky "flattering glass," a primitive form of mirror that fudged imperfections. Presented with a true mirror that revealed her rotten teeth and acne-ridden skin, the original Queen Elizabeth "was furious," according to Mark Pendergrast, author of Mirror, Mirror, a recently published history of the mirror. The monarch quickly reverted to the flattering glass.

And so, at times, do we. When Donya Mir of College Park shopped a mirror-liquidation sale in September, "I went for the most warped one," she said. Her find, she believes, "elongates" her body.

Some women would plate whole houses in these so-called "skinny mirrors" if they weren't so hard to find, said Gina Leavey, president of Rainbow Design, an Owings Mills decorating company.

"Custom mirrors, all kinds of frames, high-end, antique, contemporary, beveled, not beveled, and there's never just one I can order that makes people look thin," she said. "If there was, I would so order it. It's a mystery."

Physics and kind lighting are contributing factors, but the good mirror is mostly a psychological phenomenon. A mirror, after all, is simply "a reflective surface," said William Blair, a research professor in the physics department of the Johns Hopkins University.

When you see yourself reflected, "what happens is that light is illuminating you. Light bounces off of you, hits the mirror, and bounces back to your eye," he said.

Some mirrors are more accurate than others. Narcissus fell in love with his image as seen in a pool of water, which reflects only "10 or 15 percent of the light," Blair estimates. Faced with a modern glass mirror - which pours back an unforgiving 90 percent or 95 percent - Narcissus might have been somewhat less enamored.

Until glass manufacturing processes were refined a few decades ago, mirrors could legitimately be blamed for their imperfect reflections. Glass surfaces of antique mirrors in particular were often irregular, and silvered backings tarnished over time, creating a distorted or foggy-looking likeness.

Of course, some lookers like this.

"People say they make them look younger," said John McKenna, vice president of the Maryland Glass and Mirror Co.

Although nowadays a displeasing reflection usually means "you need more makeup," according to Mayer Gerstein, a manager at Caplan Brothers Glass in Baltimore, modern mirrors are still subject to a degree of warping. It turns out that the coveted "skinny" mirror is often thin in the literal sense - glass, in sheets an 1/8 -inch thick or less, can bow for a fun-houselike effect. Even thicker, more expensive mirrors can bend and distort if mounted on uneven walls.

Also, some mirrors are actually engineered to be flattering through lighting, hanging angles and other techniques. In the mid-'90s, Water, Water Everywhere, the Owings Mills-based bathing-suit chain, used bronzed mirrors in its dressing rooms to simulate a tan. The sun-kissed glasses were removed in 1996, due to complaints, according to Andy Cohen, the company's president.

"There were people who felt we were trying to deceive them," he said, although he added that many customers loved the mirrors.

"A lot of people knew it wasn't a real mirror, but they liked how they looked anyway," he said.

After all, a mirror may reflect nothing so much as mood, suggests Rhonda Rone of Highlandtown.

"If I'm in a good mood, every mirror looks good," she said.

Some people, of course, are immune to these subtleties. "I don't look bad in any mirror," said Randy Rix, a hairstylist who works in Canton.

Give it time. When Steve Black, owner of Chesapeake Closets in Baltimore, overheard his female friends discussing skinny mirrors, "I just thought they were being overly sensitive."

Then he stayed this fall at a fancy Washington hotel. On the back of the bathroom door was a "fat mirror."

"I looked like I was 5 feet by 5 feet," he said. "I said, 'I believe you now. I saw the mirror. I saw the light.' "

People learn to cope with the malicious mirrors in their lives. Alyssa Brouse ambushes the full-length mirror on the second floor of her Catonsville home from the side, averting her eyes until she's fully in front of it. Her hips look smaller this way, she claims.

Emily Johnson likes the bad mirror in her Canton apartment, which she and her roommate call "the reality mirror." They soberly observe themselves in this before preening in front of the "skinny mirror" that they also share. The combination, she said, helps them keep perspective.

But who needs perspective? Allisun Thompson is done with mirrors, particularly the abominable one on the back of her bedroom door, which forced her to leave the room open at all times, lest she catch a glimpse of herself. About a month ago, she finally moved the mirror - to the curb in front of her Butcher's Hill home.

Before the trashman could collect it, though, an unlucky someone scavenged the mirror.

"It's still out there somewhere," she said.

So, narcissists, keep your eyes open. Or, better yet, closed.

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