When we look in the mirror, I suspect that very few of us see what’s objectively there in the reflection. So why is that?
Mirror recognition is not as simple as it may seem. The vast majority of animals, including my guinea pig munchkins, lack this ability. When we as humans look at the reflection in the mirror, we’re seeing a blend of what our eyes tell us, what our minds expect to see, and what our inner critic tells us we should (but don’t) look like.
The distortion between perception and objective reality is extreme in eating disorders and body dysmorphic disorder (which is classified as an OCD-related disorder in the DSM-5). However, there’s still plenty of room for “normal” degrees of body image distortion.
We’re bombarded our whole lives with images of what we are “supposed to” look like, to the extent that it would be difficult not to start to internalize them. When we look in the mirror, the discrepancy between what we see and the ideal we wish we saw kicks our cognitive distortions into high gear, including magnifying flaws, minimizing or disqualifying positives, and black-and-white thinking that we are either beautiful or ugly, with nothing in between.
Weight is probably one of the easiest things to distort when looking at our reflection in the mirror. Concern about health serves as a prettified, more palatable disguise for pervasive fat-shaming messages. My parents tend to be on the judgmental side to begin with, and they are very openly anti-fat. I’m not sure how they’ve reconciled that with the fact that I’m overweight now; maybe they’re prepared to accept my medications as an excuse, or maybe they’re disgusted by my current size. The latter is quite possible.
The rise of the selfie means that we’re looking at ourselves more and more. Instead of just transiently evaluating images of ourselves in the mirror, we (and everyone else) are plastering them all over social media. This intensifies the idea that how you look is of prime importance.
I’ve never been photogenic. As soon as I know there’s a camera, my face seems to automatically distort into bizarre expressions. Last summer I was trying to take a photo of myself to use as an author photo on book sites. It took a lot of time and effort (and makeup) to get a shot that I felt was acceptable. I was a bit annoyed with myself for making such a production out of it, but that annoyance didn’t translate into any less motivation to be picky over the image I eventually chose to use.
When I look in the mirror now, I see a strange hybrid of the body I have now and the body that I used to have. I care less about my body shape than I used to. I’ve noticed myself aging quite a bit over the last few years. I don’t think that’s subjective, but it’s hard to say. There are definitely deeper lines in my face, and my hair has started graying. But all of it falls under the depression-induced cloak of apathy. And who knows, perhaps because I care less I’m actually seeing a more accurate picture looking back at me.
Do you think there’s a big discrepancy between what you see in the mirror and what’s actually there?
My book Making Sense of Psychiatric Diagnosis breaks down the different categories of DSM-5 diagnoses, explaining the diagnostic criteria and providing first-hand stories of the various illnesses. It’s available on the MH@H Store, as well as Amazon and other online retailers.