Over the past few years I have begun to think about my relationship with the mirror. The act of looking is so very subjective. It is, by its very nature, deceiving. Yet, what truth lies within a reflection in a mirror? How is the image interpreted? To what extent do we interpret objectively if we locate signification within our own projections? Can the appropriation of mirrors in bodybuilding ever escape inherent narcissistic tendencies?
Everyone uses the mirrors in the gym to some extent. But why? It is often assumed that bodybuilders are narcissists. A complete discussion of narcissism requires an entirely separate blog entry, yet I would like to present some constructive justifications for the use of a mirror in bodybuilding, while also underscoring a few hazards. To some degree, people are not aware of the benefits and necessities of appropriating mirrors. To some degree, I am still discovering the depths of my relationship with my reflection. Certainly there are latent factors – something that further reflection may uncover. Regardless, I will attempt to record some initial thoughts here.
First, remember the mind-muscle connection. It is a visual process and for many bodybuilders the literal act of watching the muscles work (as opposed to imagining the muscles work) aids the mind-muscle connection and allows for better concentration on the muscle(s) being worked. Second, the mirror is a critical tool for observing one’s form. In learning to maintain proper form, the mirror provides a perspective that literally constructs a more intact view. Third, the mirror is a scale; it is a method of measurement in which the eye gauges change. Both the eye and the true scale are subjective and incomplete, but the latter provides only alterations in weight – it does not note the addition or loss of muscle, fat, or water; it does not spot which areas contain such variance. A trained eye knows much about its subject.
There is a fourth aspect that I find most interesting – an aspect that may, at times, intersect degrees of narcissism and self-intoxication, yet may also be appropriated objectively. The mirror reflects an instant, while containing numerous variables that construct and alter the image. Most people who work out know which mirrors in the gym reflect the most favorable image, or to use a double meaning, those which cast their subjects in the best light. Perhaps that particular mirror elongates or compresses our image slightly, giving the perception of a thinner or wider self. Perhaps the lighting of its location is prime (or forgiving). In this regard, one can choose the image, where any reading of that image has already been imbued with a certain subtext. Certainly the bodybuilder does/should find his/her best reflection. In part, this is the nature of bodybuilding; creating illusion by highlighting images, or parts of an image, which best reflect the strengths of a particular physique. Yet, individual agency over the reflection is never absolute, and any appearance thereof would unequivocally, and paradoxically, suggest the opposite, that is, that the subject has lost all objectivity in establishing and reflecting on the mirror image.
This mirror image is undoubtedly the snapshot of a particular moment. Yet, often the image in the gym mirror exposes prescience. The mirror allows one to visualize progress due to the body’s response to weight training. Training a muscle group creates a pump as blood fills the working muscles. For example: my triceps are asymmetrically small in comparison to my chest and shoulders. When training arms my triceps become engorged with blood and are thus significantly larger. I am then able to see what my overall physique looks like, in terms of size and symmetry, with temporarily larger triceps. One danger, of course, exists in the mind’s adjustment to the image, which, when found pleasing, has the capacity to establish a certain dissatisfaction when the muscle is in a more natural state.
Nevertheless, this reflection gives the impression of a glimpse into the future. It presents an immediate ‘improvement’ to many people who train with weights, which begins to explain the affinity for our own reflections in the gym. This image provides a preview (perhaps a teaser) of the continued benefits of proper training and nutrition. The danger here is that we chase our own unattainable reflection, unattainable because in the slow process of progression (acquired increase in size), the reflection of a pumped muscle will simultaneously present itself as larger.
Yet for me, the pursuit of progress is a constant factor in my physical and intellectual endeavors. In regards to bodybuilding, my mirror image is a point of convergence. The mirror is a tool that enables me to monitor progress and define goals. The relationship with my reflection is a conscious balancing act of desires and ambition, ‘reality’ and ‘illusion,’ admiration and criticism. I see myself, not in the reflection, but in the very process of reflecting.