When UST senior Angela Deeney first saw a news story about a woman who gave up looking in the mirror for an entire year, her first thought was that she could never do the same. But then her competitive spirit began to wonder – "Why can't I?"
A trip to Venezuela during J-Term exposed Deeney to a culture that lived very differently from what she was accustomed to. She thought, "I want to be accepted here," she said, but also noted that it was difficult at first. "There was no hair and makeup," she said. "Being able to let go of that, I really felt how accepting they were in that culture. It reflected back on what I thought beauty really was. How simply they lived and how happy they were made me see beauty in a new light."
When she returned to St. Thomas for spring semester, she felt a bit of culture shock that made her feel somewhat detached from her peers. "We have beautiful, really well-dressed women here and I think that's awesome, but there's more to us," she said. "I wanted to discover that."
She decided she would make it her Lenten sacrifice to not look at herself in the mirror. Not only would she challenger herself, but she asked others to join in, encouraging them by telling her own story on her personal blog, titled Paint the Mirrors.
Since declaring her challenge, Deeney's story has been featured on KARE 11, Bring Me the News, The Catholic Spirit and Tommie Media. While she was surprised by the attention, she understood why it might be an attractive idea. "Where we live, it is really countercultural to take the focus off of physical beauty," she said, acknowledging that there are many other bloggers who are taking part in a larger movement. "We're being more open to the fact that cultures see beauty in different ways."
The night before Ash Wednesday, the first day of Lent, Deeney described her last look in the mirror as a minibreak-up. "It was hard when I had to take the mirror down," she said. In a blog post she titled "Mirror, Mirror Off the Wall," she described what she was feeling. "(It was) just me and the mirror, and God. 'Am I really going to do this?' ... The excitement I had felt up until now, turned to uncertainty and fear."
To help find resolution, she prayed. "There's a message here that may touch other women and at that time it became the Lord's message, not mine," she said.
Deeney describes her first few days without mirrors as the honeymoon phase. She started out determined. "I knew it was going to be a challenge, but I was excited to challenge myself," she said. She discovered that while her morning routine was difficult to get used to at first, it actually began to take less time than before. A self-described perfectionist, she was able to let go of some of the obsession she had with making herself look a certain way. "I don't sit there in the mirror trying to change this or that," she said. "It has become more about the function of getting it done and then going back into my life."
The most difficult part for Deeney was the temptation that surrounded her all the time. "I had prepared for mirrors, but I didn't realize just how many reflective surfaces there are," she said. Places like the Anderson Student Center, which has several windows and glass walls, present a challenge that she did not anticipate. "That caught me off guard," she said.
In one day, she counted more than 50 times that she typically would have taken a glance at herself. "I thought, 'This is ridiculous! Why would I need to look at myself right then?' I'd even take a second or third look," she said.
After the first week, her excitement faded. "It was really difficult because I started seeing that I wanted affirmation. I didn't want to ask someone how I look, I wanted to know myself," she said. During that time, she admits to cheating a few times. "I would justify it and say things like 'that didn't count.' I really learned that it takes a while to break a habit," she said.
She needed to refocus. "I went through a few days of asking why I'm actually doing this," she said. "I realized I have to be patient with myself." As she refocused, she looked at photos of herself. "Since I can't look at myself, sometimes I would pull up pictures on Facebook, even photos from the past," she said. "This is still the same thing but I'm somehow justifying it."
That was when she had a realization: "I want to forget what I look like."
In a recent blog post, Deeney declared, "Goodbye photos, hello freedom!" In it, she writes, "I want to forget my appearance for a time to therefore reflect beauty from my soul." To her, that meant removing images of herself that she can avoid and also ignoring when others tag her in photos online. "No more selfies with my friends," she said.
So far, the challenge has been freeing for Deeney. "I've been able to be more comfortable and accepting of myself because I'm focused on others," she said.
For now, Deeney's journey continues until Easter Sunday, when she plans to take a good, long look at herself for the first time in 40 days. And she's looking forward to it. "There's a lot of consolation in seeing what I've learned. I really want to reflect on that and what I see in the mirror," she said.
Beyond Lent, she hopes to continue blogging about the true meaning of beauty. "This 40 days was the kickoff, but there's more I want to do with it," she said. As for whether she will ever avoid mirrors again, "I think it's important not to make this a permanent thing, but it might be something that I do again to help me refresh the meaning of beauty for myself."
While she appreciates when someone compliments her on how she looks, she has learned that affirmation is not something she craves as much as she once did. "I'm discovering that life isn't about me looking for affirmation. It's a lesson I've always been taught, but this process is showing me what that's about and living it," she said. "Beauty is really at the heart of all of us."
Follow Deeney's journey on her blog at PaintTheMirrors.com.