Often, I don't receive my reflection with grace. Mirrors, car windows, kitchen appliances and virtually any other reflective surfaces aren't usually cause for self-admiration, but a safety measure, a reminder to bear my imperfections in mind, and to limit and conceal them best I can. I know I'm far from alone in this consuming self-inspection; genetically, we are disposed to self consciousness and vanity. The average child begins to relate to, (and in turn admire or refute), their own image at the age of just twelve months. Our generation worships physicality; we post images of ourselves online by the hundred. We are suspicious, even fearful, of those who take little interest in their appearance.
I manage to apply my make up without a mirror, relying on plain-speaking friends to inform me of inevitable eye liner smudges. Once, I over-apply blusher, and exit our garden-shed -sized accommodation looking as though I've forfeited my factor 50 in the Southern sunshine. Apart from this, my mirror detox is surprisingly devoid of disaster...I think. I don't really care. Hell, sometimes I don't even wear make up!
I conclude that the atmosphere at Ta'ize plays a fundamental part in the ease with which I carry out my detox. Founded in 1940, the once derelict buildings of the Taize community provided refuge for fleeing Jews in the war years. The architecture of the retreat is based on the original concentration camps, a resemblance intended to remind the community of the compassion and consolidarity that blossomed in those otherwise desolate places. The seriousness of Taize's humanitarian mission shames the self-focused existence I ordinarily inhabit, of which my conception of my physical self dominates.
Not that Taize feels at all Austere; it feels like that boarding school I once dreamed of being sent to, when I was eight and reading Malory Towers, or like a particularly lovely prison. Surrounded by absorbing individuals from all over the world, I have little motivation to consider myself physically. And I don't have the time! From the moment I stumble off the coach, I'm roped into kitchen duty, followed by three hours of shared contemplation, before meeting my fellow retreaters at Oyak, the communes tiny bar.
However helpful the open-minded world of Taize may have been, the mirror-detox itself was equally contributory to my experience. Admittedly, many Taize goers are the dread-locked, harem-panted, new-age sort, for whom matters of appearance are ,understandably, secondary to matters of organic produce, energy fields, and Raiki. But despite this there was a good deal of image consciousness at Taize. Hair straighteners and curling tongs occupied the outdoor sockets at our wooden barracks. Prepping commenced for the evenings at Cafe Oyak, which became a nightly hub of flirtation, where provocative dancing commenced to a variety of hand-held instruments, despite the alcohol rationing (one unit, per person, per day). There might have been room for envy or feelings of inadequacy amid this beautification, not to mention the easy, bronzed gorgeousness of my willowy European sisters.
But, due to my relinquishing of the mirror, feelings of inadequacy could not cloud the richness of my Taize days. As my physical reflection, usually ever present in my minds eye from periodic scrutiny, faded somewhat, and it became easier to approach new faces, without this constant reminder of my perceived faults. Miraculous! Relieved, I felt my self-involvement decrease, and my interest in that outside myself was ignited. The beauty of the medieval villages surrounding Taize; the walls of hollyhocks, crumbling ruins and brightly painted window-shutters, appeared, in my refreshed observance, as if in high-saturation. In conversation, I forgot myself with ease, becoming fully engrossed in the words of my confidants.
Of course I missed it, the prinking and preening that I usually undergo before leaving my bedroom. I looked forward to resuming the decisions about lipstick colour and hem length which occupy so much of my time back in London. We ventured on to Paris, and my reflection greeted me; my endlessly fascinating companion, that unpredictable character, who is sometimes so admiring, and at other times pulls faces at me, begging me to alter.
I'm grateful for my mirrorless experience, and have come to relate the friendships of my Taize days to those sweet, soulful exchanges, in bars and bedrooms, sprawled on lawns or perched on kitchen tables, where one feels oneself open to another, self-consciousness all but diminished. Perhaps we are drink mellowed, or unfolding with mutual understanding- similarly, mirrorlessness left me far less guarded. I lost my inhibitions, and let down my hair.