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Why Your Photos Don't Look Like You

For one thing, a camera is not a mirror.

Source: Steven Andres / Shutterstock

Have you ever seen a photo of yourself and thought, “That looks nothing like me,” but your friends and family love the picture and think it looks just how you always look to them?

This experience is actually quite common. Why does it occur? The answer is simple: Mirrors.

There’s a difference between your image in the mirror and in photos. The image you see in the mirror is reversed compared to the image that others see face-to-face with you. Your friends are familiar with your non-reversed image, while you are familiar with your reversed image in a regular mirror.

One reason we don’t particularly like photographs of ourselves is that those pictures present a view of our faces less familiar to us. In fact, researchers have shown that individuals prefer photos showing their mirror images, while others prefer photographs of those same individuals showing their “true” images (Mita et al., 1977). This phenomenon is likely due to the mere exposure effect, which is the consistent finding that we’re more comfortable with and favorable toward things we see frequently (Zajonc, 1968).

Why does it matter? Research on the psychology of mirrors and reflection, detailed in my latest book, Mirror Meditation, finds that many people don’t like their image in the mirror—and like their non-reversed image even less!

Beyond being unsettling, one’s image in the mirror can be an impetus for improvement plans. Many people consider cosmetic surgery because they struggle with their appearance in the mirror. People often seek cosmetic surgery to correct facial asymmetries, such as one eye being bigger than the other or a slightly crooked nose. These asymmetries can be disturbing to a patient because they believe it affects the impression that others may have of them. But other people are seeing their non-reversed image, not the image that the patient faces in the mirror.

This issue is further complicated because cosmetic surgeons use facial photos extensively to treat patients. As patients go through the consultations and procedures, they look at photos of themselves, which is their non-reversed image. If patients are not used to seeing their non-reversed mirror image, it may make it even harder for them to accept their facial appearance before and after their treatment.

One study found that participants scored significantly better on the FACE-Q Age Appraisal and Appearance-Related Psychosocial Distress scales when looking in a standard mirror than in a non-reversing mirror (NRM). In addition, most reported that their faces seemed less symmetric and less balanced in the NRM. Overall, 83 percent reported seeing a qualitative difference in their appearance, with 30 percent responding that looking in the NRM had changed their facial aesthetic goals (Frautschi, et al, 2021).

Thus, non-reversing mirrors can bridge the familiarity of the patient’s reversed reflection and their less-familiar, non-reversed, true image. It may be a useful physician-patient communication tool when discussing goals and expectations for facial aesthetic procedures.

If you find looking at photos of yourself unsettling or are contemplating cosmetic facial surgery, getting familiar with your non-reversed image can be beneficial.

Use the mere exposure effect to your advantage. Repeated exposure to a stimulus facilitates liking, so you can leverage the mere exposure effect to increase your liking for your own photographs. Research also shows that exposures of shorter durations are more effective at increasing liking than longer-duration exposures (Bornstein, 1989).

You can use a photograph as a background photo on your cell phone or rapidly scan through photographs of yourself, which may provide repeated short exposures and may increase your appreciation for those photographs.

Alternatively, get a True Mirror, a non-reversing mirror in a display box developed by John Walter. The True Mirror has led to many revelations in how people view themselves. Notably, you may have heard of the True Mirror from a popular TED Talk, “The Art of Being Yourself” by Caroline McHugh. Perhaps both images are true in knowing yourself and should be accepted and appreciated.

Copyright 2022 Tara Well Ph.D.

Facebook/LinkedIn image: Halfpoint/Shutterstock

References

Bornstein, R. F. (1989). Exposure and affect: Overview and meta-analysis of research, 1968–1987. Psychological Bulletin, 106(2), 265–289. https://doi.org/10.1037/0033-2909.106.2.265

Frautschi, R. S. MD, Orfahli, L. M., Zins, J.E. MD, FACS, Reflecting on Your Reflection: Examining the Effect of a Non-Reversing Mirror on Self-Perception, Aesthetic Surgery Journal, Volume 41, Issue 12, December 2021, Pages NP1989–NP1993, https://doi.org/10.1093/asj/sjab179

Mita, T. H., Dermer, M., & Knight, J. (1977). Reversed facial images and the mere-exposure hypothesis. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 35(8), 597–601. https://doi.org/10.1037/0022-3514.35.8.597

Zajonc, R. B. (1968) Attitudinal Effects of Mere Exposure. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. 9 (2, Pt.2): 1–27. doi:10.1037/h0025848. ISSN 1939-1315.

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