The Mirror of Erised (desire backwards) featured in Harry Potter and in the new Fantastic Beasts 2 is a magic mirror. It shows ‘not your face but your heart’s desire’. When Harry – the neglected, lonely orphan boy – looks in the magic mirror he sees himself surrounded by a happy, loving family. His heart’s desire is to be beloved and not alone.
Ron has five older and accomplished brothers: Bill, high-achieving, once head boy and now curse breaker for Gringotts Bank (very successful), Charlie the dragon trainer (very cool), Percy the Head Boy (not quite so cool but he has the smarts) and the twins Fred and George, who are both sportsmen and comics (ticking the other boxes). There is not a lot left for Ron, whose fate is to be the sidekick (‘why the note of surprise?’ is a repeated phrase every time he does or says something that matters). When Ron looks in the Mirror, he sees himself having achieved more than any of his brothers. Ron’s heart’s desire is to be successful and powerful, someone who people notice, not the little brother or the sidekick. The moral of the Mirror of Erised – and Harry Potter is full of morals (‘kindness is underrated’, ‘without love there is nothing to fight for’ etc,) – is that the truly happy person sees only themselves as they really are.
But could many of us do this? In our increasingly visual and virtual culture what many of us would likely see if we looked in the Mirror of Erised is an improved, perfected body, the imagined self, the Perfect Me. This is the self we are constantly working on. The self we imagine we will attain if only we stick to our diets, go to the gym and perform the tasks of body work: brushing, pumping, plucking, creaming, firming, smoothing and erasing. This is the self we seek to invoke in our doctored and digitally remastered selfies. The thinner, firmer, smoother, younger, you. Still you but the better, best or even – if you believe the language of the beauty business – the real you.
As the demands of beauty rise and appearance matters more, we increasingly believe our bodies are ourselves and that the better body really is the better self (think of our New Year’s resolutions). If only we could achieve a better body, we believe not only would we look better, but we’d actually be better, we would (to use the language of philosophy) achieve the ‘goods of the good life’. In the words of one 16-year-old:
‘I think people think “oh I have to look like that because they think that they will have a perfect life as well. If I‘m beautiful, if I‘m attractive, if I‘m skinny then everything else in my life has to come up as well, like my school grades will come up, I‘ll get a boyfriend, you know I‘ll have a great social life”’
In the Mirror of Erised we’d be thin, smooth, firm and young, but by contrast when we look in real mirrors we see someone we are dissatisfied with; a failing body of one sort or another. Perhaps we hate parts of our bodies and think we’ve ‘let ourselves go’ or perhaps we just think we could be better, firmer, higher and tighter. But it is very unlikely we see ourselves as we really are and that we are happy with our reflection. We see our unwanted fat (our muffin tops and bingo wings), our ageing faces (our wrinkles and jowls), or our imperfect skin (blemished, marked and with large pores).
Indeed, so critical are we of our bodies that we think it is abnormal not to be dissatisfied. We regard someone who is happy with their body as unusual and perhaps even think this is not ok. How have we got to a point where it is normal to be so dissatisfied, anxious and unhappy? We are in a moment where body image anxiety is of epidemic proportions and this has all kinds of negative effects. This is not something unimportant or trivial, but devastating, debilitating and a genuine public health concern. If such harms could be tracked to a new drug or pollutant, we would address it as a public health issue; instead, we accept it as if this were just normal.
In Fantastic Beasts 2 even Dumbledore is no longer the archetypal lined, ageing and old wizard, Dumbledore too – played by Jude Law – is decidedly, younger, firmer and smoother!
The current prevalence of body image anxiety experienced, particularly but not only by the young, and its negative effects (increased anxiety, low self-esteem, reduced physical activity, and lower social and educational involvement) is of epidemic proportions. This is not about what individuals do or don’t do but what we do together. If thought of this as a public health issue we would focus not on ‘choice’ but on the context and culture. How we approach harms changes what we think we should do. The classic example is the shift the construction of the harms of smoking; once regarded a matter of individual freedom and choice and now regarded as a public health issue. If beauty harms were regarded as public health issue – which surely the epidemic of anxiety should be – then wouldn’t we be doing something collectively rather than leaving it to individual’s to resist or succumb (neither of which are good options).
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