Yesterday morning, you looked good. Yesterday evening, before you went out, you’re pretty sure you looked real good. So who the hell is this schlub in the Facebook album from last night, tagged with your name?
It’s a phenomenon nestled somewhere between universal annoyance and urban legend: People see something different in the mirror than they do in photographs. More often than not, the former is controlled, predictable and palatable, while the latter is an endless source of nasty little surprises.
So, why the disparity? The answer is complicated, but it boils down to this: Your eyes, your brain, your mirror and your camera are all conspiring to sabotage your body image.
It’s the camera
The camera adds ten pounds! At a certain point, this obscure TV adage became folk wisdom. While this particular effect probably refers specifically to television, and in particular the distorting effect of the convex curvature of older TV sets, it seems to hold true for regular folks, sometimes in still pictures as well as video.
Cameras 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.
It’s the mirror
I don’t mean to imply that the camera is the only liar, here, because mirrors are just as guilty. For one, they flip your image. The You you’re most familiar with, then, is actually an exact opposite of how you look to others. Granted, it’s an intuitive reversal, so it doesn’t bother us when we see it, but it implants a self-image that’s intrinsically wrong.
On top of that, there’s the problem of perspective. People stand close to mirrors, but see their whole selves. This provides a reasonable perspective, but a unique one: it’s the perspective of a person standing near to you, eyes proportionately closer to your head than to your feet. This is the perspective of a partner in conversation, not a photographer. Looking a certain way from three feet away doesn’t mean you’ll look the same from 15.
The physics of lenses and mirrors offer solutions to specific problems, i.e. OH MY GOD SO THAT’S WHY MY WONDERFUL BUTT LOOKS SO FAT ON FILM! However, these explanations don’t speak to a more relatable weirdness about photography. It’s a feeling of uncanniness. It’s a sense that something about the photographed self seems unquantifiably different than the mirrored self. It’s in your head.
Think about the act of looking on a mirror. It’s incredibly limited You pretty much need to be facing forward, or else you can’t see. You will always be looking slightly down at the rest of your body. You will pose for yourself, to achieve the most flattering look. You will hide fat behind folds of clothes, or minimize a strange facial feature with a tilt of the head.
Lenses may distort, sure, but in a powerful way, these uncomfortable photographs are closer to reality than our carefully images in the mirror.
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