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. Interestingly, I was just thinking about this today. I’m sort-of OK with my image in the mirror (although I wish I could lose some weight, thank you clomipramine), but I really don’t like looking of photos of myself and I can’t work out why one is OK and the other isn’t. I don’t think I’ve ever taken a selfie, although I’ve been in some group selfies taken by family members, usually somewhat under duress.

      1. Yes I have the same thing. The mirror is not too bad .. if I suck it all in and have some makeup on. Photos are pretty awful I think. Why are they different? Selfies seem to be even worse!!! I am not a selfie fan.
        Claire x

  2. In the mirror I see how I feel. I don’t like it. Mental illness made me 10 years older in one swoop. It can be hard to see the distinguished fire in me. In my mind the mirror is quite honest.

      1. It ages you, it really does. It’s the worrying, the tiredness, the entire battle, the thinking that wears you out. All I do is try to put one step after the other and it takes me everything to do that.
        I push mountains every day, I guess it wears the body out.
        Wauw this is a good subject and post, the mirror and me. Very confrontational for me, a reality check.

  3. It’s interesting, isn’t it, how a reflection can become so twisted by our emotions, cultural standards and pressures, the various biases we hold. I’m sorry your parents aren’t more compassionate towards the ‘f’ word. I’d agree, there probably is a discrepancy for me too but it’s hard to look at ‘what is’ rather than what we think and feel we see. xx

    1. Actually, another angle is looking back at old photos – when I see ones of me in my High School uniform, when I felt hugely large and beyond ugly – I can’t help but think I was far smaller than I thought at the time. But no, I don’t like my reflection; never have, likely never will. x

  4. I personally don’t care to indulge what I see in the mirror. I pretty much shave, brush my teeth, throw my beanie on my head and get it all over with. Interesting point you make about the Rise of the Selfie. I think selfies and social media in general are advancing both narcissism and voyeurism. Imho both those phenomena are not friends of the overall culture. Thanks for another intriguing post — and I’m buying your book, btw.

    1. Thank you!

      I think in particular the combination of social media and selfies gets really problematic. Social media can potentially used in constructive ways, but start throwng all the selfies in and it’s a mess.

  5. Johnzelle Anderson

    Great post. I do agree that there’s a lot of distortion and pressure given social media. It’s part of why I bounce in and out of social media and currently don’t participate in any of the platforms. It’s never sat right with me, the whole putting something out there for judgement. But that could be the social anxiety and history of body image issues talking…

  6. What’s funny is that I’ve never thought of myself as attractive and yet I look back at old photos and think, hmm, I guess maybe I was. I had attractive boyfriends and husbands back then too. I don’t think I’m attractive now, but maybe I will think I am 15 years from now, if I live that long. I go by a combination of things. One, I can’t wear makeup to “brighten” my eyes because they’re always itchy, so I usually look tired. Two, for the past five years I have had pretty much no dates, even when I tried to show interest. Three, I look old and tired in photos. I used to obsess over weight, which I still do, but now it’s the “old & tired” that makes me feel I don’t look that good.

  7. Oh my word, I hate what I see; I’m getting old and all I see is lines and fat. Because I used to weigh 38kg, of course anything feels overweight, but I do believe I have body dysmorphia because I see huge.

    I know realistically I can’t be because I am an average uk size 10 on the bottom and a size 12 top (big boobs, which I also hate).

    People always tell me I look like a UK celeb and unfortunately her size goes up and down like a yoyo, bless her. But she’s normally a good size 14-16 so in my head, that’s how I feel as I wobble down the street.

    My illness gives me what’s called tight ‘banding’ round my torso and legs so they feel like I’m dragging around sacks of concrete instead of legs (picture that for a moment lol). So I feel much heavier than I am. AArrgghh……

    I’m sitting here eating a chocolate bar 🙁

  8. I like your authenticity in your writing. Triggering topic! I love food, love eating it! but have body parts that I wish were thinner. like my tummy. all my fat goes there. I think what I see in the mirror is pretty much the way i look. I wish I was thinner, but also trying to come to a form of acceptance about the way I look.

  9. I look much older than I actually am. I’ve heard (and I believe it too) that pain and illness age a person, and I’m living proof. It can be quite disconcerting to see that happen to one. My sympathies to you!

      1. I have a skewed view of myself… I think I’m small than I am. At 6′ I’m taller than most people. I have broad shoulders and I’m about 20 pounds overweight. I realize I’m big, but not how big.

        Whenever I see group pictures, or if I stand next to someone at a mirror, I am always shocked.

        I rarely actually LOOK at myself in mirrors. I’ll check to make sure my hair is okay to go in public, or I’ll look at the psoriasis patches on my nose, but never really look.🤔
        One time I saw my mother in the mirror and that scared the crap out of me😱

  10. Great post, this is such an interesting topic. My impression of my physical appearance became WAY worse after I started my new job. A lot of the women that I work with are quite “conventionally beautiful” and clearly put lots of time into their appearance. I would never spend that much time on my appearance, yet I’ve still internalized feelings of deficiency. And I like that you mentioned the depression-induced apathy; that may be a big part of why I don’t care enough to spend time on my appearance.

    1. It’s interesting the difference the work environment can make. I used to dress up more than most of my colleagues and would get positive feedback because of that, which boosted my self-image.

  11. We saw family members in our reflection for years. Because we saw them with our eyes frequently and rarely looked at ourself in a mirror, we mostly saw them in our reflection. It was terrorizing.

    Exploring gender non-conformity has provided some relief. We look at the parts of our face that are unlike the people in our family with the same “plumbing.”

    We read about the history of mirrors to discern if there was something else going on, something “ethereal.” Probably not.

    DID confuses us. If we think we are 6 or 16, that old face in the mirror can scare the fuck out of you. We generally avoid mirrors except essential grooming and rarely look at us unclothed, especially not our plumbing.

    Photos seem so jarring. We talk to old photos because that is who we think we are. It can sometimes engender self-compassion.

    We take photos of our face and crop to just eyes and eyebrows. We do this every week or two. We don’t post them. We like how that looks

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