Mirror Mirror

‘I am silver and exact. I have no preconceptions.
Whatever I see I swallow immediately
Just as it is, unmisted by love or dislike.
I am not cruel, only truthful‚
The eye of a little god, four-cornered.’

‘Mirror’

By Sylvia Plath.

Todd Sampson is full of shit.

Mirror Mirror is a confusing melange of pseudo-science and here-say, designed to do god-knows-what. Part tearjerker and part train wreck, it indulges the voyeurism of its viewer, providing the thrills of gazing at freaks and then absolving the sins of voyeurism through pity.

The show is comprised of clearly edited and manipulated interviews, in which people struggling to achieve the ‘body beautiful’ ideal reveal their efforts to be driven by concealed depression, distress and dysfunction.  

It straddles a simple dichotomy: on one side are the psychologically unstable, addicted, self-obsessed freaks; on the other side are the fat, weak, meek and ugly nerds whose unexceptional blandness seems to have delivered them from both torment and interest.

The hypocrisy is like a layer of grease on the lens. Sampson admits that he has worked in the advertising industry, and also reveals his cover shoot for the ‘Fitness First’ gym chain, in which he displays a conspicuously airbrushed set of abs.

At the beginning of the first episode, we are introduced to Tara, who explains that her obsession with plastic surgery is driven by a deep compulsion, which Sampson identifies as addiction.

Interestingly, every single ad break features an ad for gambling.   

Completely absent from the discussion is the value of exercise and diet for making a healthy body the platform for a stable, healthy mind. The show says that diets don’t work, which is complete and utter bullshit, a lie that for this viewer, completely undermined any other idea put forward.

Clearly, the people featured are extreme; their physical ‘beauty’ (not the word this commentator would employ to describe that much make up, fake tan, steroids, silicon, botox, collagen, tattoos and surgery) is relatively rare in the wider community.

The problem with the documentary begins with its title, Mirror Mirror. A screen is not a mirror. A mirror is not electrical. Its face is light, not dark. A mirror does not speak. It is not not a field where various forms of discourse enter and converge.

A screen is something far more sinister.

Ugliness and suffering have long been attendant upon the crucible of art. The poet Charles Bukowski describes a brutal childhood in Ham on Rye, caught between his abusive father and an acne condition that was so bad, the nurses at the hospital would literally cry with pity for him when he came for treatment.

While Sylvia Plath was quite conventionally beautiful, her poetry charts a descent into madness. That descent is paved with a cascading lexicon of striking images that can only be described as beautiful.

Bukowski and Plath are complex characters whose work doesn’t fit neatly into either bin of voyeurism or pity. Their lives were not simple or painless, nor is their poetry safe or easy.

The price they extract is that you have to make the effort to read. Just like you have to make the effort to go to the gym and train once you’re there. Just like you have to make the effort to follow a disciplined diet, rather than just sitting in front of your television, passive and turning into a slug.

Suffering is the price of true, lasting beauty. If we are strong enough to countenance that, its monuments will celebrate us, and guide us.

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