Mirror, Mirror
October 5, 2011 8:23 AM   Subscribe

Why can't I "see" what I really look like?

This is a somewhat shallow question that is kind of vanity-based, but I am still really curious: why can't I really "see" what I like look like?

Recently two people I've met through internet dating told me I look much younger in person than in my photos. I can't see it at all. I've had others look at certain photos of me and be like, "wow, is that you?". Again, I can't tell when I take a photo if it "really" looks like me or not, though I do think I look really different in different photos. (whereas I think some people look exactly the same in all photos, and their photos look like who they are in person.)

Does anyone have an explanation for this phenomenon? Can we never know what we really look like because we only see our reflection or photo? Is their some psychological phenonenon whereby you have a certain unchanging image of yourself in your head? Are there certain people who just look different than their real self in photos? Maybe I am one of them?
posted by bearette to Grab Bag (29 answers total) 14 users marked this as a favorite
Do you dress "young"? It could be that, and not your face.
posted by roomthreeseventeen at 8:24 AM on October 5, 2011

Perhaps your body language, expressions and the general way you carry yourself come across as more youthful than your static photos appear.
posted by The Deej at 8:27 AM on October 5, 2011 [3 favorites]

Left gaze bias is part of it. We "read" emotions differently on our own faces (because of mirrors reversing left-right) than others do. The me I think of as "me" is not, actually, what others see. Pictures of me don't look like me either, and I hate having my picture taken. It's entirely possible that some of us are worse about it than others.

Also, pictures are deceiving, because they freeze one instant in time. Your expressions might be much more fluid, fixed poses are the worst for it.
posted by lydhre at 8:31 AM on October 5, 2011 [2 favorites]

A few factors that make it difficult to see yourself "accurately" and make photos look different from the way you look in real life:
- When you see yourself in a mirror, you see yourself backwards, so when you look at photos of yourself, any asymmetries are reversed, making the photos look weird to you, and making your facial expressions look much different to others.
- Your mirror image is half your actual size, so you may think you look different than the way people who see you in person see you.
- Other people see you moving around, making faces, doing stuff. You usually see yourself either still (in photos) or posing (in mirrors), so unless you watch a lot of candid video of yourself, you don't know what you look like doing stuff in normal life, or what your natural facial expressions and gestures look like.
- Photos are two dimensional. People are three dimensional. Some people "flatten out" better than others. It's the reason that a lot of fashion models who look great in photos look really angular and unusual in person. It also explains why some people "don't photograph well"; they may have features that don't flatten as well.
posted by decathecting at 8:34 AM on October 5, 2011 [7 favorites]

Recently two people I've met through internet dating told me I look much younger in person than in my photos.

Better than the opposite, I'd say. Consider it a kind compliment and don't read too much into it.
posted by three blind mice at 8:35 AM on October 5, 2011 [4 favorites]

Are there certain people who just look different than their real self in photos? Maybe I am one of them?

Absolutely, there are. I've seen models (as well as non-models) who look really unimpressive in person, but on film something just "works" very well. I have friends who are very pretty in person, and OK, but not as pretty, on film. I am shockingly unphotogenic; I don't look that great in person either, but I'm told that my nose, for example, looks much bigger in pictures. I basically look like a droopy blob. (I think photos tend to benefit those with sharp/angular features.) On the other hand, I know other people who always look pretty much just like their photos. I can imagine a picture emphasizing something (wrinkles? dark circles? skin tone?) which read "old" but which are such a minor part of your real appearance that you'd look much younger face to face.
posted by DestinationUnknown at 8:36 AM on October 5, 2011 [1 favorite]

Your mirror image is half your actual size

Really? 'Cause when I see other people in the mirror, they don't look half their size to me.
posted by bearette at 8:43 AM on October 5, 2011 [5 favorites]

I've also been told that none of my photos look anything like each other (by people who haven't met me and are trying to figure out what I look like from my OKCupid profile). I was also recently told that I look much younger in person than in my OKCupid photos. Now, that might not be surprising if I had chosen photos to make myself look older, which could be desirable for a man. But I didn't try to do that; in fact, some of my photos are 2 and even 4 years old, and if anything they look young-ish to me.

One major bias is that even if you have lots of photos/video of yourself, you get used to the idea that the basic, default, present-tense way you look is what you see in the mirror. But the way you act when you look in the mirror is different from the way you often act when you're hanging out with friends, talking, laughing, etc. You're usually much more somber in front of the mirror, and maybe you try to find exactly the right angle to create a flattering mirror image (consciously or subconsciously).

I've also been surprised by how often someone I meet through a dating site will be much more attractive in person than in her photos, even though the conventional wisdom is that people post unrealistically flattering photos. Some people just don't photograph that well. Conversely, I know people who can't help looking great in every photo even though I'd consider them just average-looking in person. So yes, I think it's very hard to see what you "really look like," since photos and mirrors only give a rough representation of a moment.
posted by John Cohen at 8:46 AM on October 5, 2011 [1 favorite]

I've felt this way my whole life. I think it's because when I look in the mirror, I am just checking parts of myself. Does my hair look too flat, too messy, too ... ? Is my makeup okay. Pimples? How does this top fit? etc, etc, etc? So that I never really see myself in totality.

I'm always surprised to see a photo of myself. I can conjur up images of most people in my life, but not of myself. Although, something else strange. The more time I spend with someone, the less definite their image in my head becomes. I think maybe that's because I have so many more images to meld together, where people I see less frequently and always in the same time/place give me less images and the images tend to have more similiarity and are easier to put together in a cohesive picture. Thus it's hard for me to picture my parents faces, but teachers, co-workers, etc who I've spent less time with have more clearly defined faces in my head. So, this is probably another reason that I have such a hard time knowing what I look like too.
posted by marsha56 at 8:46 AM on October 5, 2011

Your mirror image is half your actual size

This was thoroughly debated already in the old "you were doing it wrong" thread. The mirror will show you as half your real size if you're a certain distance away from it, but it will show you as less or more than half your real size if, respectively, you're further or closer to it. For instance, your nose is touching the mirror, it's showing you at your actual size. If you're a mile away from the mirror, it will show you as a tiny speck.
posted by John Cohen at 8:48 AM on October 5, 2011 [2 favorites]

Sometimes I don't recognize my own reflection if I'm not looking straight at it. I'll react with "shit, someone's standing too close to me at the ATM" or "I wish my hair looked like that person's." So, it's normal. Or I'm weird too.

You see yourself only in the mirror, in photos, and occasionally on film. People who see you are looking at you over time and see sort of a composite of all those snapshots and reflections. Not only do others get to see the way you carry yourself and move, but they see you in a variety of different lights and at different times of the day and so on. You may see the bored-looking face on your driver's license and the grinning face in your Facebook profile and have trouble connecting the two; others get to see all the points between bored face and happy face, from several different angles.

It's sort of like how you can tell how much a kid has grown from their annual yearbook pictures, but if you live with the kid you don't notice the transition.
posted by Metroid Baby at 8:49 AM on October 5, 2011

I've wondered the same thing. And I think this happens with how we hear our voices as well. In photos, I wonder if I was born with fetal alcohol syndrome because I look really weird. In voicemails my voice is unappealing and nasal.

I do remember an episode of Radio Lab that mentioned the flipped image of ourselves that are reflected back at us when we look in the mirror. If you get two mirrors and place them at a 90 degree angle, you get to see a truer(?) image of yourself. That was really interesting and freaks people out.

Generally I just try not to look in the mirror or at photos of myself for too long. Unfortunately, sometimes that is very obvious.
posted by mokeydraws at 8:59 AM on October 5, 2011

Sometimes I don't recognize my own reflection if I'm not looking straight at it.

I have walked (bumped) into large mirrors, not even realizing that I was about to walk into myself. Still trying to figure that one out.
posted by mokeydraws at 9:02 AM on October 5, 2011

I can't explain the phenomenon (beyond what people have said here already) but just to let you know that you are not alone. I think I look reasonable in the mirror, but have never seen a photo of me that I liked, with a very few exceptions.
posted by altolinguistic at 9:05 AM on October 5, 2011 [2 favorites]

I am curious too, but I also know that if I really knew how I looked and carried myself to other people I would probably be horrified and try and change it all. And then people who knew me before would get confused.

The ignorance is not quite bliss, but I wager it gives me a bit less anxiety than knowing.
posted by TheRedArmy at 9:10 AM on October 5, 2011

If you're a distance x from a mirror, it portrays you as being a distance x on the other side -- that is, as if you were at distance 2x from your image. Whether you want to interpret that as "half your size" is up to you but I find it quite silly.
posted by StoneSpace at 9:13 AM on October 5, 2011

The radiolab episode "symmetry" deals with this in one of the segments. They talk about a mirror setup at exactly right angles so you can see the reversed reversed you. Shocking to most people who look at it.
posted by Wolfie at 9:15 AM on October 5, 2011 [3 favorites]

And about the question, you can't look at yourself and not see who you are under the surface, with your emotions and turmoil and your lifelong built self-image. Looking at other people allows you to concentrate on their physical features because it allows you to be superficial. To me, the longer I know someone, the harder it becomes to tell if they are particularly good looking, young looking, whatever, because I know them as a person so well, so I'm guessing it's a similar phenomenon.
posted by StoneSpace at 9:18 AM on October 5, 2011 [2 favorites]

If you're a distance x from a mirror, it portrays you as being a distance x on the other side -- that is, as if you were at distance 2x from your image. Whether you want to interpret that as "half your size" is up to you but I find it quite silly.

When this was first discussed on that thread, I instinctively thought the idea of your image in a mirror being half size was silly too. However, I was wrong, and you are wrong. Go up close to a mirror that you are also able to get reasonably distant from. Take some lipstick, for example, and outline the rough outline of your head. From top to bottom (and from left to right) this outline will be half the size of your real head. Go up even closer, till your nose is touching the mirror, and your reflection will still exactly fit that outline. Back up ten feet, or a hundred feet, and the reflection in the mirror again will fit that outline, i.e. whatever your distance from a mirror, your reflection takes up exactly half your body's real size on that mirror's surface.

I think the baffling logic of mirrors is one reason why people (such as OP) don't feel they can quite see themselves.

Another reason is that photographs present one angle and one, unmoving, expression at a time. The way we see others involves us aggregating all angles and full animation. I used to not have a clue how I looked. However, a period in which I was recorded for long periods on video soon sorted that out. Since then, I've had a very good idea of how I look, albeit I still find it difficult to connect the reality to the distorting lens of the camera and the weird puzzlement of mirrors.
posted by cincinnatus c at 9:36 AM on October 5, 2011

I think movement has a lot to do with it. The way your face changes as it goes in and out of expressions, the way you stand, your posture, gestures you make when you are speaking, etc. Those things don't show up in photographs.
posted by bluefly at 9:37 AM on October 5, 2011

Isn't the mirror question just one of distance and proportion? I feel like most people realize that since they stand a certain distance from a mirror, they are not the "exact" size that they appear in the mirror.....just like any other object you see in the mirror- you can guess it's actual size by adjusting for proportion/distance. I was reading the original comment to mean that people appeared thinner in a mirror (which I know is sometimes true but again, when I look at others in the mirror they seem to look pretty much the same, or close enough, to how they look in real life).

that was a derail but thanks for the interesting responses to my question!
posted by bearette at 9:43 AM on October 5, 2011

at Burning Man, there's a camp called True Mirror Palace filled with mirrors that reversed your reflection, like the one Wolfie described above. they are absolutely fascinating. we know ourselves best as mirror reflections, and reversing them -- even though it's how everyone else sees us! -- is just unfamiliar enough to feel a bit uncanny, like an identical twin who's not quite you.
posted by changeling at 9:59 AM on October 5, 2011

maybe you try to find exactly the right angle to create a flattering mirror image (consciously or subconsciously).

I know I do something like this. Anytime I see my face in a mirror, I automatically raise my eyebrows just a tiny bit, which has the effect of a mini-brow-lift. It makes me look younger and prettier. I don't do it on purpose, but noticing that I do it hasn't made me stop doing it either.

Unfortunately, I never think to do it when I'm getting my picture taken and I suspect that is one reason I don't like the way I look in photos.

For what it's worth, my husband thinks I am much more attractive than I photograph. For the longest time after we got together he kept trying to get a "good" picture of me that looked like I really look to him. Eventually he gave up and agrees with me that I am just not a person who photographs well.

Oh, and here's something odd. I look better in photos if my smile is fake than if it is genuine, which I believe is the opposite of most people. A real smile gives me squinty eyes and a double chin.
posted by Serene Empress Dork at 10:28 AM on October 5, 2011 [1 favorite]

I think probably most people have some version of this? I was just at an event where I saw some friends I hadn't seen in years, and one of them was all, "You look great!" (which, you know, thanks! you look great too!) but then he went on to say "You looked so great in those facebook photos from your vacation!" And I don't even think those photos look a) flattering or b) much like me. I was mildly bewildered.

I definitely do "mirror tricks" that make me look better in the mirror than in photos, but for some reason I cannot get them to work even on a mirror-image webcam. I do not like the way I look in photos, although apparently other people think I look good in them, so I guess I just need to let it go.
posted by mskyle at 11:59 AM on October 5, 2011

I am exactly the same way, OP. I was recently visiting some of my boyfriend's family with him and he was showing them pictures on our digitial camera while I sat 6 feet away. Two of his three family members asked, "Who's that?" when they came to a specific picture of the boyfriend with his arm around me (a picture which I think is decent and fairly life-like), to which he responded, "Uh, it's jabes."

I have also had my mother not recognize me in candid, everyday photos.
posted by jabes at 1:03 PM on October 5, 2011

Like jabes, I am often literally unrecognizable in photos. A couple of professional photographers have told me why, but there's nothing to be done so I try not to think about it.
posted by Lesser Shrew at 1:38 PM on October 5, 2011

Take some well-lit pictures of yourself; print them full size. Put a picture into an image editor, even MSPaint will do, and flip it. You'll like the flipped photo better than the correct one, because that's what you see in the mirror. it's subtle but quite real. as far as people thinking you look younger, maybe you need better photos to post. Bad lighting can make anybody look old, ill and awful.
posted by theora55 at 3:21 PM on October 5, 2011

This girl is probably asking herself the same question.
posted by peppermintfreddo at 5:24 PM on October 5, 2011 [2 favorites]

great answers; they're all "best answer".

peppermintfreddo: interesting! bad photo skills....another reason why I find online dating tiresome...
posted by bearette at 9:28 PM on October 5, 2011

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