Trick Mirror | Jia Tolentino

Summary of: Trick Mirror: Reflections on Self-Delusion
By: Jia Tolentino


In Trick Mirror: Reflections on Self-Delusion, Jia Tolentino examines the impact of the internet on our sense of self, the influence of mainstream feminism on women’s beauty standards, and the complex representations of women in literature. She also explores the history and role of religion and drug use, the prevalence of scams in modern society, and the commercialization of the institution of marriage. Through these themes, Tolentino encourages readers to critically examine the forces that shape our identities and challenge the societal norms imposed upon us.

The Web’s Narcissistic Influence

The internet has turned us all into performers, showcasing only the best parts of our lives online and aligning ourselves with trendy political causes while companies profit by selling our identities, relationships, and data. The Web 2.0’s interconnectedness has made it harder to participate in society without an online presence, and our online selves are expected to be on display all the time. Our narcissism has turned into big business.

Reality TV and Self-Delusion

Jia’s appearance on a reality TV show when she was 16 led her to indulge in self-delusion, thinking that her life was a movie. She competed against a team of four boys in physical challenges for a prize of $50,000. The show, which cast them as recognizable teenage archetypes, made Jia uncomfortable when she saw the exaggerated version of herself that she played. However, the experience prepared her well for the internet as she learned to amplify her traits to get attention. The key takeaway here is that appearing on a reality TV show can make you reckon with your self-delusion.

Beauty Ideals: The Unchanging Standards of a Shapeshifted Concept

Mainstream feminism has to play within the systems of capitalism and patriarchy. While it fosters individual success, it devalues collective action. One such area where it fails us is in female beauty standards. The traditional expectations for women’s appearances have only evolved in language; lip fillers and athletic apparel, among other self-care rituals, remain central. In reality, the pressure to be “naturally” beautiful has become all the more intense because good looks convert to both social and economic capital in today’s digital economy. Instead of discussion around devaluing the idea of beauty altogether, the emphasis has shifted to optimizing ourselves from the inside out.

Women in Literature

The lives of heroines in literature follow a familiar trajectory, from curious and resilient children to resigned and bitter adults. As feminist philosopher Simone de Beauvoir observed, girls in literature are allowed to be human before becoming women. Adolescent heroines are often isolated and struggling against unfair systems, while adult heroines are trapped in loveless marriages out of economic necessity. The narratives of classic literary heroines provide a template for understanding our own lives, but their stories are confined by marriage, sex, and motherhood in ways that ours need not be. For young Jia, the limitations of identifying with exclusively white characters became clear, and she sees these literary heroines now as mother figures, grateful but determined to be more than what they were allowed to be. The art for being a woman, according to essayist Rebecca Solnit, may lie in how we refuse the question.

From Religious Ecstasy to Chemical Ecstasy

Jia’s journey from the “Repentagon” to Ecstasy and the parallels between religious and drug-induced highs.

Jia grew up attending a megachurch in Texas, but doubts about her conservative Christian education grew as she reached middle school. She tried to avoid organized religion entirely in high school and in college, she tried ecstasy for the first time. Jia realized that both religion and ecstasy allowed her to feel like part of something bigger, with both experiences containing a bit of sin and salvation.

The book provides the key message that religious ecstasy is quite similar to chemical ecstasy. Both provide a way to transcend oneself and feel connected to something larger. Ecstasy (MDMA) is an empathogen that creates feelings of compassion, sensitivity, empathy, and connection between oneself and others. However, after eight people died from overdoses, the drug was banned by the US government and placed in the same risk category as heroin.

Throughout history, people have described spiritual highs and drug highs in similar ways – including the comedown. Jia experienced religion and ecstasy as two different but similar ways of reaching spiritual heights. As a kid in church, God felt like everything to her. As an adult on ecstasy, everything felt like God to her.

The book seeks to explore and highlight the parallels between the two kinds of ecstasy and the way that both can provide a sense of connection and transcendence.

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