What Do You See In The Mirror? Does Mental Illness Affect It?

drawing of woman looking at reflection in mirror

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?

Do we recognize what we see?

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.


Our whole lives, we’re bombarded 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.

At least back in the day when I was young, supposed perfection came from what we saw on the big screen, on tv, or in magazines, and while that was bad enough we always knew there was a distance between them and us. Now, in the age of social media, regular people can become Insta-famous. The divide between us and them seems to narrow, which likely creates even more to look a certain way. Humanity is so imperfect, and the great Instagram shot that took two hours to get plus the application of filters is just not representative of the genuine human experience.

Cameras, cameras everywhere

The rise of the selfie (Oxford Dictionary’s word of the year back in 2013) 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 (you can read about the psychology behind selfies here). 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.


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.

During the course of my illness, I’ve been skinny when I’ve been the sickest, and fat at my most medicated. It’s really made me challenge that culturally ingrained notion that skinnier is better. Based on BMI, I’m considered obese. But it is what it is, and going off meds isn’t an option for me.

I’m glad there are more plus-size models promoting body positivity whatever your size. It’s unfortunate that the average woman’s body is supposedly plus size, but it’s still a refreshing change to the size 0 models that we see so often. We need to see that people come in a wide range of shapes and sizes, and those differences do not in any way diminish anyone’s value.

Mental illness

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 pre-psych meds. I care less about my body shape than I used to.  I’ve noticed myself aging quite a bit over the last few years, and I feel like my illness had me look older. 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 greying. 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.

Makeup, hair, and clothes are things that I used to put some effort into, but I just don’t care anymore. My hair is always in a ponytail, my eyebrows are untamed, my legs are unshaven, and my daily uniform involves Gap maternity leggings. I no longer wear heels, and I haven’t worn a real bra in ages. The changes may be superficial, but they’ve happened because of deeper changes due to my illness.

How do you feel about what’s reflected back at you? Do you think there’s a big discrepancy between what you see in the mirror and what’s actually there?

65 thoughts on “What Do You See In The Mirror? Does Mental Illness Affect It?”

  1. I see myself as looking a bit like your picture on this article, which is quite funny. I hope I haven’t outed myself! Hairline less on the forehead and eye shape different but otherwise, spookily similar!
    Aren’t we supposed to NOT like our photos because its not the mirror image (so the wrong way round to real life), which we’re accustomed to seeing and which makes us think something is wrong? I get days I don’t look in the mirror and sometimes forget to brush my hair, but other days I have to see what I’m doing (drying hair) or I’ll honestly look like a scarecrow. I can’t decide how I look but I know there are plenty of photos that make me cringe.
    The scariest photo for me was one where I didn’t even recognise the clothes I was wearing, it didn’t look like my usual taste in clothes and I had no recollection of ever dressing myself like that – or where I was/who I was with. Even what year it would have been: a total blank!
    I can’t help wondering if the success of a mirror is probably linked to lighting. I think of professional photography and how they can glam up just about anybody with the right lighting.

      1. Haha. Well that’s because you need to flip the photo and then you’ll see the mirror image which could make you feel more relaxed about it! 😂 it amuses me that we all see ourselves one way in the mirror and not another single sole sees us ‘inside out’ like that!

  2. In that weird way of universal symmetry, I have a piece about this I’m working on. I liked this very much, especially the bit about animals lacking a self-image/mirror recognition. I didn’t know that. I guess that’s why cat’s attack themselves? I definitely have a skewed perception and dislike my reflection, but I also love mirrors in decorating. We are contrary, at times.

  3. Thanks for this, Ashley. This one REALLY hits some.

    “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.”

    I hadn’t thought of it broken down that way — eyes, expectation, critic. But I do that every time I look in the mirror.

    This is something I’ve struggled with my whole life.

  4. In all honesty: the look into the mirror is one of the main reasons I am actually capable of working out, even if I’m completely messed up otherwise. I just don’t want to ruin that look. I am that shallow, I know. But what can you do ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

  5. Congratulations on the book!
    The mirror can be cruel to some of us. Others, no matter how ugly or unattractive find themselves beautiful. And ugly is subjective, anyone can find anyone else attractive. Also, something that made sense to me was a meme that said “you’re not ugly, you’re just not your type”. It’s funny but it can be possible. And our type begins with an idealization, influenced by all the images we are bombarded with.
    We must be kind to ourselves and take care of ourselves. Shape doesn’t matter (unless it is detrimental to your health, be it too big or too small), what it matters is that you accept and love yourself as much as possible.

  6. Mirrors don’t like me but cameras hate me! This morning Suze took a photo of me in my PJ’s putting out the bin, unbeknownst to me and yet when she laughed and dhowed me l am always baffled who the hell tghe person is in the photo??

    In some l seemingly have no neck, in others 300 chins, in others still l seemed to be shaped like a barrel! It’s very quirksome – which is okay story of my life, but baffling all the same. I hate having my picture taking and always pull some goofy expression which only hampers and hinders it again .. ha ha – l am not fussed, l am who l am .. but yes BUT l wish the caeras would tell the truth a bit more ha ha .. oops dayum, maybe they are – maybe l really am Mr No Neck Barrel Bodied 300 Chins!

    Quality and provocative post Ashley – nicely done 🙂

  7. I’m glad I came across this post! I’m currently struggling with the connection between my brain and body. I hate looking in the mirror. I know I’m a good mom, good wife, good employee but I don’t love myself and I can’t figure out why or how to do so! That is why I started my blog. Just trying to figure out the disconnect and hopefully get advice from others!

  8. Really great post and intriguing topic. I find it interesting how many of us are here saying, you know I was just thinking about that, as I have been.

    First (before I rant a little) my relationship with the mirror is ever evolving and devolving and is absolutely influenced by lighting. In good lighting I might enjoy looking in the mirror as it provides me an opportunity to say hey, not too bad. In bad lighting I get kind of freaked out by how much my face has aged and what gaining more weight has done to my body (and will I be able to “work it back out”? My anxiety affects my image quite a bit. I too see old photos and say gosh I looked better than I felt back then (as many have said here) but it also points out what’s no longer there, like smooth skin. When I’m anxious I see changes and freak out. That’s not just an image thing for me but new things (they might have been there for a while but I’m just now targeting them) trigger obsessive circular thinking. I will get stuck in front of the mirror staring at the fine lines that litter my chin and mouth area. Tremendous amounts of stress and anxiety have certainly aged me in the last two years. I obsess about how my face is starting to sag, how my hair is thinning some around my face and on top. I obsess about how I cannot go back and change, I cannot be young again. And yet, it’s not all bad, really I have so much to be grateful and proud of. On a good day, I’m beautiful; on a bad day, I look old and unhealthy.

    The full length mirror I can handle better than close up because that I feel I can effect with a better diet and returning to exercise. It is motivational for me though it’s also kind of depressing.

    What’s been on my mind is how frustrated I am with the amount of makeup women wear and how accepted it is. Now I mean no offense to any man woman or otherwise who wears makeup. I’m not against makeup; I wear mascara from time to time, maybe some eyeshadow, liner or lipstick. I’m not saying don’t wear makeup, but why is it so okay to cover our faces? I don’t like hating my aging face. I want to age with grace. I want to learn to accept who I am becoming and hold my head a little bit higher. Then when my time comes I can reach back and help my nieces and nephews when their faces and bodies begin to change.

    I’m upset that we don’t encourage each other to accept imperfection, allow imperfection, and be imperfect. There’s so much pressure on women to be perfect. We rest our value on our youth and beauty instead of the quality of our lives, personalities, and knowledge. Whether or not I’m young and beautiful is not what will contribute to the future. It’s whatever gifts I draw out from within. Covering my rosacea because everyone has even skin tone will not teach me how to calm my anxiety or be a better writer. Try this product to even out your skin tone. Wear this to smooth out the fine lines and hide those crow’s feet. Then at the end of the day we clean it all off and guess what? We’re still there in our real form. Doesn’t that just amplify what you don’t like? If you walk around with a “filter” on your face doesn’t that hurt our mental health to then have to live with the real face alone in our own space? I think social media, IMHO, is hurting all of us in a lot of ways. We’re obsessed with people paying attention to us and we’re obsessed with paying attention to how we look. And then what?

    Again, I’m not anti-makeup and I know everyone is an individual. I know that you might have rosacea like me and it drives you nuts but you feel better if you don’t have to look at it all the time. Or maybe you have a scar that you’d rather not have people always ask you about. These are not the things I’m referring to. Some people are just happier with makeup, but should we be? I’m trying to look at the whole picture here, much like you’re talking about. I’m asking, why do we accept and perpetuate a culture that tries to banish the imperfect? What are we teaching each other?

    I hope you don’t mind my rant. I’ve made it a thing I’m working on, pieces here and there, about learning to accept my aging self. For noble and selfish reasons I just don’t want to hate my aging self because this is who I am. Anxiety has taught me it’s possible to spend so much time lost in mental space you lose sight of what other things you can do with that mental space. The time I spend poking at the fine lines that are present like stars in the night sky I could spend patting myself on the back for a story well-written. Or a novel like I did here. 😉

    1. Such an interesting point about lighting. When I was younger it didn’t really matter, but now it makes a huge difference.

      I agree that the idea that women should wear a full face of makeup is not okay. I used to wear eye makeup regularly, but it was because I wanted to emphasize my eyes rather than hide imperfections. Imperfections are what makes us human, and there’s no escaping from them even if we want to.

      1. Yes lighting sure takes on different importance as we age.

        Exactly. I think it’s one thing when used to emphasize. I don’t wear my fancy heels everywhere I go, might start to get kind of strange. 😉

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