Mirrors and Webcams Don’t Accurately Tell Us How We Look

From her practice in Wellesley, Massachusetts, Sherrie Delinsky does battle daily against the dishonesty campaign of the household mirror. Delinsky, a psychologist who specializes in perceptual disorders like body dysmorphia, conducts clinical work in which she asks patients to describe their appearance in the mirror using only neutral assessments. In the local dialect of this particular corner of greater Boston, a shoulder is not weird or bulging but “rounded, spherical;” pores are not so huge that they could host a dip party in which everybody brings a dip and the person with the best one gets to slide down that enormous beak you call a nose, but they may “exist in higher concentration” around your “prominent nostrils.”In other words, the mirror realm can be a safe place to learn about how you look, but the journey there should be guided by a board-certified sherpa, like Delinsky, who can point out pitfalls and poisonous snakes along the way.Besides: Our image of our selves is not merely a mirror one, says Delinsky, but is cribbed from a lifetime of memories, hundreds of thousands of photos and videos and mirror encounters. As humans age, a gulf can open up between the image in the mirror and the image we have spent our lifetimes carefully sketching. Both Delinsky and Reiss mention anecdotes of older persons whose mental image of how they look is often at odds with the person they see reflected back at them. (We also tend to think we’re hotter than we are, according to a 2008 study.)”You look at somebody as a whole, their features, their face, their body language, the tone and sound of their voice, their mannerisms,” qualities that are missing from a static image, Delinsky says. And how one person perceives another is a dynamic process, constantly mediated by a variety of factors, ebbing and flowing like the tide.The rest, for better and for worse, comes from the observations of others. If you insist on knowing what you look like, simply ask a friend or lover. “It can be useful to pay more attention to the feedback you’re getting from other people,” says Delinsky, “especially if it’s consistent.” The problems with this tactic are that 1) Requesting constant feedback on how you look can be a grating exercise for your friends, and 2) Their responses will probably be mediated with how they think of you as a person, whether or not they realize. (Asking a friend “Am I hot?” and having them respond with “You’re so funny!” is an absolutely devastating burn.)I suppose the solution suggested here is to stop worrying about how I look in the mirror, which I am unfortunately unable to do at press time. When severed from my hot friends and their compliments, the majority of my self-esteem is dictated by the thoughts and observations that occur to me when gazing at myself in a reflective surface. And those are not my friends.There is only one perfect mirror in existence, according to entrepreneur John Walter: The one he currently sells.Adapting the technology of a non-reversing mirror, Walter’s True Mirror is built using two mirrors placed at a right angle and set in a shallow box frame. To the beholder, the resulting presentation feels less like a mirror image than if you had encountered your clone face to face.Walter describes the genesis of his mirror, when, in his 20s, he was confronted with his reflection in a bathroom while deliriously high on marijuana. “When you look in a mirror, your face is altered — not just physically but informationally. The way you present is altered by being backwards. We believe what we see, and there’s nothing more intense about seeing yourself in a mirror, and looking different.”

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