The invisible woman

Life without mirrors is an unsettling experience.

I am just back from Italy. Anyone who thinks Italians eat an exemplary diet, all tomatoes, fresh fish and scatterings of basil eaten with torn, holey sourdough bread, has never been to any of the places I've been to. There, breakfast - if it's anything at all aside from un caffè (espresso) - is biscotti or brioche dunked into UHT milk. And the colour palette changes little. I saw a flash of green on day three. It was indeed some rather wonderful broccoli, but then the menu went back to what Farrow & Ball might call Biscuit's Breath. In other words, lots of refined carbohydrates.

It was probably just as well that this carbo-loading was accompanied by something fortuitous: I was in a house with no mirrors. I noticed this as I went to attend to my eyebrows, which I groom sometimes hourly. There were fittings above the bathroom sinks where mirrors might one day be placed, but only tiles stared back at me. I found one tiny, circular shaving mirror, which helped with seeing small portions of myself, but nothing that could confirm what I fear ed: that my waistband was growing very quickly indeed. After two days I gave up: I couldn't see how I looked, so I ceased to care. Moisturiser was applied by feel, I didn't wear make-up and I just wore what I had. It was liberating.

Except . . . As the days passed, I stopped feeling liberated and started feeling strangely disorientated, a bit like when you don't know what the time is and there are no clocks. Because I was horrified by how much food I was eating (I had eaten a whole pig's worth of salami to go with the carbs), in my mind's eye I had become this fat, red-faced monster with greasy hair and open pores. At a visit to an aunt's house (with a mirror) I ventured into the bathroom full of fear and was rather stunned to see that, actually, I looked completely familiar and rather well. I relaxed. My aunt was making zeppole (doughnuts), so I saw no harm at all in having three at different stages of cooling down (too hot, still too warm, just right). I went back to the house with no mirrors relieved and reassured.

The beauty of having a wardrobe consisting entirely of T-shirts (that is to say, no shirts with buttons), as I did, is that one's chest and stomach can expand with no obvious outward signs. Cotton is a genius fibre for this; it's so forgiving because it doesn't just give, it goes slightly baggy with the warmth and stretch of your body, so that, for those in very deep denial, they can convince themselves they're actually losing weight. Thus it was that four days later I found myself again in front of a mirror, only to discover that, yet again, my mental image was out of kilter with my real image. Only this time it was a fat, red-faced monster that stared back at me.

Annalisa Barbieri was in fashion PR for five years before going to the Observer to be fashion assistant. She has worked for the Evening Standard and the Times and was one of the fashion editors on the Independent on Sunday for five years, where she wrote the Dear Annie column. She was fishing correspondent of the Independent from 1997-2004.

This article first appeared in the 14 April 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Belief is back