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Here's Looking At You From John Walter's perspective, too many of us have our self-image backward. He hopes his 'True Mirror' will fix that.

November 23, 1998|By RICHARD O'MARA | RICHARD O'MARA,SUN STAFF

To both John and Catherine Walter, the True Mirror is more than a device that might make money (which it may if they succeed in automating production and bring the price down from the $200 to $300 to somewhere near $70 for the small one. There are no plans for the moment to automate production of the larger mirror, which reflects the image from head to waist. Whatever the price, it is, to the Walters, a machine capable of healing a stymied psyche by correcting a flawed self-perception. It promises restored self-confidence, they believe.

And some of it, at least, has to do with the way a person divides the hair on his head.

Skepticism about this is certainly permissible, though it is probably inadvisable to laugh out loud. John Walter is obviously balanced and well-integrated, not the sort easily led by fanciful notions. His training in physics and computer science inclines him to rational, analytical thought.

The flawed part

Walter's youth was none too happy, he admits. He was not shunned, but neither was he widely popular. "I had three or four friends to my name," he recalls. "I was leaning toward being a nerd. I was very introverted, spent lot of time by myself as opposed to being out and about."

He couldn't figure out what the problem was. He was amiable, good-looking. His mirror told him that.

Then one day, while looking in that mirror he realized that he parted his hair differently from most others. He parted on the right. Nearly everybody else parted on the left -- where the flat, reversing mirror showed his part to be.

Not knowing really why -- maybe he felt he might do better socially if he conformed -- he joined the majority and began parting his hair on the left. Life changed.

"I began having a great time," he said. "I had lots of friends. I was 19 at the time and it was very strange."

He was not entirely convinced by this experience that the way a person arranges his hair could so dramatically alter self-presentation. So he began observing people with this in mind. He collected photographs of the famous: actors, presidents, politicians. His sister got involved, and eventually they formulated a theory:

"A left hair part draws unconscious attention to the activities that are controlled by the left hemisphere of the brain, i.e. activities traditionally attributed to masculinity. A right hair part draws unconscious attention to the activities that are controlled by the right hemisphere of the brain, i.e. activities traditionally attributed to femininity."

The Walters deduced that men and women whose hair part is not in accord with their gender face difficulties. (Women are more favorably seen if they part on the right, except for women in high-powered jobs traditionally performed by men; for them a left part is acceptable.) Right-parting men, the Walters conclude, are less popular, among other things. "They are usually abnormal," says John Walter." Among American presidents, for instance, the small percentage with right parts were not universally loved: John Tyler, James Buchanan, Andrew Johnson, Chester Alan Arthur, Warren Harding.

Abraham Lincoln, Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan all had right parts, but switched to left. John Walter says he even wrote to President Carter in 1979 and urged him to switch from right to left, which he did a few weeks after Walter's letter. Not in time, apparently, to prevent being ousted by right-parter Ronald Reagan. Nor has he ever acknowledged that he made the switch the advice of a stranger. (Bill Clinton's hair part leans to the right.)

Actors with right hair parts, according to the Walters' theory, usually portray specific kinds of characters: scientists, artists, villains, mentally disturbed people. Most masculine heroes are left-parters, as are most people.

The Walters suspect that people in show business -- casting agents, directors, hair stylists -- are aware of this distinction, if only subconsciously. Why else, they ask, would Christopher Reeve have his hair parted on the right while playing Clark Kent and on the left while playing Superman? Why, indeed?

It's not easy to know what to conclude about all this. John Walter himself admits "most people think it's off the wall." (A subtle nod of assent is permissible.)

Seeing reality

More reasonable, perhaps, is Catherine Walter's argument that the false information provided by a standard mirror can lead to an imperfect perception of the physical self, and this in turn can produce social awkwardness. The True Mirror, they assert, clearly corrects that problem, if it is one.

It is also true that gazing into this mirror can be unsettling, to degrees that vary from person to person. (I felt slightly uncomfortable, and after about 10 seconds wouldn't look again. But I was uncertain whether my faint unease came from the unexpected view of myself or the fact that two people were watching me watch myself.)

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