Saturday, January 2, 2010

What Do Cats See in The Mirror?

I have a cat. Her name is Mariah (after the song, not the singer), and the vet’s best guess puts her at just over six years old.

The reality behind the words “I have a cat” remains bizarre for me, even after six years. I’m a “dog person”. A “dog person” who has been deathly afraid of cats since being attacked by one at age 15 while babysitting at a neighbor's. Mariah hasn’t done much to allay my fears: she’s moody, pushy, independent, and at times downright nasty, lashing out with claws bared when things don’t go her way. In short, she’s everything people tend to hate about cats. And of course I adore her.

How she’s managed to steal my heart—or, for that matter, how on earth she ever came to be in my life—is fuel for another post, another day. Today my mind is on the mirror. While I was brushing my teeth this morning, Mariah assumed her usual perch atop the vanity (she loves drinking water from the faucet.) Watching her fascination with the specs of dust floating in the air, I was reminded of a conversation I’d had with some feline-owning co-workers. They said that cats can’t see themselves in the mirror, and silently I’d breathed a sigh of relief. My cat’s penchant for completely ignoring her reflection did not mean she was mentally deficient after all!

A little research was required to put my mind totally at ease (Jim firmly believes she’s a special needs kitty). Turns out there’s something called the mirror test, which was developed in 1970 by psychologist Gordon Gallup Jr. It attempts to gauge self-awareness by determining whether an animal can recognize its own reflection in a mirror. Numerous animals failed the test (including dogs), and human babies don’t usually pass it until they’re several months old. Apparently this cemented the notion that self-awareness is an advanced intellectual skill that is only possible with developed frontal lobes.

Well ain’t we the lucky ones! Don’t get me wrong: I’m big on self-awareness as a tool for creating a more satisfying and fulfilling life. But these days I’d be thrilled to gaze into a mirror and not give a damn about what I see. Imagine all the time, money and disappointment saved. Shampoo and skin care products! Eye shadow and contact lenses! Round brushes and flat irons! All of those credit card charges to! And best of all—an end to the anguish over cosmetic procedures!

I’m at an age where every woman I know is worrying about what her mirror reveals. We’ve heard and read the same blahblahblah about our faces not being a true reflection of who we are. But there is no ignoring the wrinkling and sagging and fading. Even the most self-confident women can’t pretend they don’t see the changes. They’re just better at not giving a hoot.

Jim tells me I'm way too critical of my appearance, and I'm sure he's right. It's not easy watching my face and body slide over the hill and down the other side, especially when it took so long to actually like them. But I can't stop time; I can only work harder at accepting the visual effects. To that end, I've taken a small step towards practicing Mariah's disinterest. I printed out a quote from Hal Rubenstein, longtime Fashion Director with InStyle, who spoke at this year’s Women’s Conference in California. It reads: “When you look in the mirror, stop looking at what you don't like. (You know you do.)”

It's taped to my mirror.

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