Picture this scenario. You’ve just dolled up for a night out of town, and you’re proud of how you look. However, when you snap a pic, you’re greeted by a face that is definitely not what you see in the bathroom mirror. Why is that? Is what you see in the mirror what others see?
The answer is surprisingly complicated. There are a lot of fascinating components to human perception, especially your perception of yourself. And, believe it or not, your perception doesn’t match up to what you look like to others.
How Do You See Yourself in the Mirror?
Let’s be honest — we all care about our appearance. Even if you’re not a vain person, you probably still want to look good when you’re around people you care about. Therefore, it can be very frustrating when the person you see in the mirror doesn’t look like the person in photographs.
But don’t let that depress you. There is a very fascinating reason for this discrepancy. It mostly has to do with how mirrors work, as well as how your own brain processes those images.
1. Mirrors 101
For starters, let’s look at what mirrors are. Though you may associate them with giant pieces of glass, a mirror can be any surface that reflects all light that hits it. The key factor here is that this surface has to be smooth, to reflect the light instead of scattering it.
When an object casts rays of light, also known as photons, onto the smooth surface, they bounce back at the same angle. These reflected photons are what you see when you look in the mirror. In effect, mirrors show you images in reverse—that’s why when you see words in the mirror, they appear backward.
Despite the fact we get inverted images from them, we’ve been using mirrors since pretty much the beginning of time. Our hunter-gatherers used dark waters as a way to see themselves and perform basic, rudimentary tasks.
However, since we didn’t always have access to a convenient dark pool, our ancestors started making mirrors of their own. The first mirrors were pieces of refined stone, such as obsidian, or polished brass.
The mirror as we know it today is a fairly recent invention. It was European glassmakers that started coating clear glass with a thin layer of reflective metal sometime in the 15th and 16th century.
Modern-day mirrors are made in a similar way. Manufacturers coat clear glass with a thin layer of metal, to create what is known as a plane mirror. This is the kind of mirror that you’ll find in your home, restaurants, or shopping malls. They’re flat and reflect the objects fairly accurately, accounting for their size and position, despite them being flipped.
2. What You See in the Mirrors Vs Reality
The reverse image is a crucial part of your own perception of yourself. For one, human faces are not symmetrical. Maybe the left corner of your lips is slightly more lopsided than the right one. Or perhaps your nose is not perfectly centered.
Either way, the two sides of your face are not identical. Therefore when your face gets flipped in the mirror, it’s going to look much different than it does in real life. What’s more, since your brain is so accustomed to the reversed image, it can be jarring when you see the ‘corrected’ image in photos.
But don’t think that means photos show you exactly what you look like. Photos can be inaccurate as well because of angles, camera lens quality, lighting, etc. For example, wide-angle lenses tend to heavily distort your face, making it bigger than it actually is.
Lack of good light and too much lighting can make you look tired or too washed out.
Then there is also the fact that movement is vital to facial recognition. Recent research shows that our brains evolved to remember facial expressions, not faces themselves. And since photos are static, this kind of plays into the fact that we tend to look better in real life than we do in photos.
3. What You Think You See in The Mirror vs Reality
The last and possibly most neglected aspect of what you see in the mirror is your own bias. Though you may think you accurately assess what you look like, this isn’t the case. No matter how logical you may think you are, your perception of yourself will always be clouded by your own feelings and biases.
For example, if you have depression, then you’re far more likely to see yourself as less attractive than you actually are. The same goes for other mental health issues like anxiety and body dysmorphia.
Your own preferences, home life, and cultural background also play a vital role in how you perceive yourself. If you grew up in an Asian household, then your idea of beauty will greatly differ from someone from South Africa.
What’s more, if your parents were overly critical of an aspect of your appearance, then you likely grew up unjustly hating that part of yourself. This doesn’t just apply to appearance but to your personality as well. So no matter how hard you may try, all these details add up to create a distorted perception of yourself.
But what about others? Is what you see in the mirror what others see? Once again, the answer to that question is a little complicated.
Is What You See in the Mirror What Others See?
So, as we established, the “you” you see in the mirror is not identical to real life. But what about how others see you? There are actually two components to other people’s perceptions of you.
The first one has to do with the reverse image we discussed above. Since the image you see in the mirror is reversed, other people will obviously see your face flipped the correct way.
The second is, of course, subjectivity, more specifically, other people’s subjectivity. Just like you have your own personal bias, others do too. Therefore, every time you meet someone new, they will form a first impression of you.
In psychology, this is known as ‘person impression’, and it happens very quickly, based on minimal information. It’s also influenced by a variety of factors, like our expectations, past experiences and social norms.
For example, if you meet someone new while dressed in work attire, then they’ll likely assume you’re a put-together professional who works a desk job. Based on this profession, they will likely assign a set of characteristics to you. This is known as social categorization.
Social categorization is extremely useful, as it helps us make snap judgments. You simply don’t have time to get to know every person you meet in your life on a personal level. Making snap judgments of the people around you lets you make decisions on how to further interact with them and what to expect.
Sadly, the downside of this categorization is it can be wildly inaccurate. Plus, it can lead to negative stereotyping and prejudice. Such impressions can make you not only misjudge someone, but potentially lose out on a friendship with an incredible person.
Overall, a lot of factors play into how others see you. And ultimately, whether or not someone will perceive you as attractive, or nice largely depends on their personal preferences. Therefore, you shouldn’t really sweat it.
How to See Yourself the Way Others See You
So, now that you know that what you see in the mirror isn’t what others see, you may be wondering — is there a way to see how others see me? The answer is yes! Not only that, but there’s actually more than one.
1. True Mirror
Possibly the easiest way to see yourself from the ‘outside’ is to invest in a True mirror. A true mirror is exactly what its name suggests—a mirror that doesn’t reverse your image. When making it, manufacturers use two special front-surface mirrors and join them at a ninety-degree angle. The result is a clunky, box-like mirror that is reminiscent of those mirrors you see at carnival funhouses.
However, rather than offering a distorted image of you, this mirror creates a perfect, three-dimensional, non-reversed image. Therefore, it allows you to see exactly how you appear to others. All in all, it’s the ultimate way to put all your insecurities to rest.
The only downside to this mirror is that it costs a pretty penny. The most basic models start at $200, which may not be ideal if you’re on a budget.
2. Camera Tricks
The second trick you can employ to see the real you is much easier. Not to mention that it’s budget-friendly, since you probably have access to a smartphone right now.
Simply open up your camera app, snap a pic and use the reverse filter. Voila. You now have an accurate image of what you look like in real life. Okay, maybe not, since all the aforementioned downsides of photography still apply.
However, if you’re looking to answer that age-old question of ‘is what you see in the mirror what others see’, then this is a neat hack to get some idea of what you look like to the world.