Why Selfies and Mirrors Can Make You Feel Weird

What you see in the mirror isn't exactly what other people see when they look at you. (Photo: Mahony/Shutterstock).

We've all done it at one point or another — stared at ourselves in the mirror for long enough to freak ourselves out. Or if not that, seen a picture of ourselves that doesn't familiar ... at all. Or at least what we think we look like.

The second stanza of Laura Marling's song, "The Beast" (video below) is: "Did you catch yourself in the mirror? It's a sight I understand/You consider it all for a second and put it down to slight of hand." I think it captures the idea that what we see in mirrors (and pictures) sometimes seems like a trick of some kind — a trick we really don't understand, but we know is there.

Why does this happen? How is it possible that the face we should be most familiar with — our own — can seem so foreign sometimes?

It has to do with mirrors, lenses, and how our brain understands information. It all comes down to the distortion via whatever device you use to look at yourself.

First, it may be the camera lens that makes you look funky. "Camera sensors may be absorbing the same photons as our eyes, but they're doing so through a complex lens that can actually change the way you look. Most cameras, from the dumpiest point-and-shoots to high-end DSLRs, ship with lenses capable of adjusting to wide, zoom-ed out perspective, and tight, zoomed-in views. At both extremes, the lens plays weird — and potentially ugli-fying tricks," according to the Gizmodo article that explores this strange phenomenon.

A second reason you might appear strange in images is that it depends on which side of your face is caught by the camera (and this effect can be subtle, or more extreme, depending on the angle and the lenses). Almost everyone has an asymmetrical face — some more so than others. You can see how you would look if you were perfectly symmetrical by using the Echoism program, which takes a shot of your face, splits it into left and right sides, and duplicates them.

As you can see from my example, the two sides of my face are fairly different, and I would say that my left side (right image, above) is more attractive. Of course, I learned this years ago, just from seeing pictures of myself, so I have long turned my left side to the camera to get my "best angle." The combination of face asymmetry and camera angles means that most of us can easily have pictures of ourselves that look like different people.

Lastly, it could be the mirror you are looking into that's making you look strange in some way. Most people know that mirrors are variable (I call them "fat" and "skinny" mirrors because of how flattering or not they seem to be to my figure), but they also do some other odd things to your image. For one, you might remember that mirrors flip your face (and everything else) left to right — so when you look into them, you're seeing the opposite of what everyone else is. And then there's the fact that we stand a lot closer to mirrors than most other people stand together — outside our lovers/partners/family — and we are seeing ourselves from our exact same height as well. That perspective is rare; most people are going to be somewhat (or a lot) taller or shorter than you, all of which alters what you look like to other people. So you definitely aren't seeing what most other people see when you look in the mirror.

Is there any really good way of seeing yourself as others see you? Not really. Video taken by someone who doesn't know you can be helpful — many images and angles are offered and you might be able to cobble together an idea of what you look like from the outside. But we can only ever see ourselves in 2-D, and we see others in 3-D, so there's that huge caveat.

Ultimately, we can't really know what we look like; on some level we are always a mystery to ourselves.