Most of us have noticed the drastic difference between how we look at home compared to our appearance under the harsh lights in a public restroom. It’s easy to put blame on the lighting, but there are a lot of other factors at play as well.
So, why do you look different in different mirrors?
Different mirrors change your appearance because of the design and angle of the mirror, the lighting in the room, and even the materials used. The age of the mirror also changes how you look, as mirrors bend and become thinner with time. Finally, your own perception alters the way that you look in the mirror.
Below, we’ll dive into the many answers to the question, “Why do I look different in different mirrors?” I’ll also talk about how specific mirror traits alter your appearance and how to know whether the mirror or camera is telling the truth about how you look.
Why Do I Look Different in Different Mirrors?
The reason you look different in different mirrors comes down to the many ways that lighting, the material and build of the mirror, the age of the mirror, and even room size alters how you see yourself. Your mind also might not like images based on how you are used to seeing yourself, so sometimes it’s your own perception that alters your appearance. Let’s take a closer look.
Understanding How Mirrors Work
Before we jump into the many ways that mirrors can alter your appearance, it’s important to understand how mirrors work. Any flat, reflective surface can be a mirror. This is the reason you can catch glimpses of yourself in a pond, a puddle, or a store window.
Mirrors rely on an external source of light to make reflections visible. This light hits our face and body, then bounces off onto the mirror at an angle. In traditional mirrors, usually there is a glass surface with some type of metal inside or under it, which bounces back the light and creates the reflection.
The same light travels through the reflective surface and hits the solid surface on the other side and bounces back in our direction. Our eyes pick this up as our reflection. This explains why we can’t see our mirrored images on non-smooth surfaces- the light doesn’t bounce without reflective materials underneath.
The reason that not all flat surfaces work as mirrors is that some of them absorb light, rather than reflect it back. That’s why you never see mirrors made of porous materials like wood instead of glass.
Here’s a short Youtube video that explains this concept with some visuals.
Mirror Thickness and Quality
Everyone looks more attractive in higher-quality mirrors. Generally, a good quality mirror is made from thick, sturdy glass. When glass is thick like this, it offers a more accurate reflection because of the way that it bends light.
The way mirrors bend light when the light travels from one surface to another is called refraction. Mirrors of higher quality don’t bend light as much, so they give you a much more accurate representation of what you look like.
Most mirrors that you look at yourself in are considered plane mirrors. Plane mirrors exist on a completely flat surface. By contrast, convex mirrors bend slightly inward and concave mirrors bend slightly outward. While most mirrors are not made bent, they can bend slightly with time, especially if they are unframed or made from thinner glass.
Mirror Angles, Distance, and Size
The angle of the mirror and where you are standing also change your appearance. When the top of the mirror is tilted toward you slightly, it creates the illusion that your top half is bigger. By contrast, the bottom of a mirror being tilted toward you makes your bottom half look bigger and your top half look smaller.
How far you are standing away from the mirror will also alter how you see yourself a little. Standing farther back gives you an overall picture and the light in this case makes a big difference in how big or small you look. Being closer to the mirror draws your attention to the smaller details.
If you look at these three pictures, for example, the mirror is tilted toward the subject in the first picture, so she appears larger on top. The second photo shows the mirror flat against the wall, while the bottom is tilted in the final picture which makes the top half of the person look smaller and the bottom half larger. A lot of it has to do with perception.
Going along with this same idea, things like the frame around the mirror and the size of the mirror also make a big difference. For example, your makeup might look different once you’re outside compared to how the colors looked in your well-lit makeup mirror.
Lighting and Room Size
Have you ever noticed how your skin just looks better in certain kinds of light? For example, I look best in my bedroom mirror because it’s positioned where it picks up natural light from outside. However, if I were to look at my appearance under the harsh fluorescent lights in a bathroom, it’d be a lot different.
The reason harsh, overhead lights make everyone look bad is because they create shadows under bumps and blemishes, drawing attention to them. They also give you an overall paler appearance, which tends to make most people look washed up.
By contrast, soft light that surrounds you instead of coming from an overhead direction is much more flattering. Try positioning your favorite mirror at home somewhere that it takes in natural, flattering light so you can get a better idea of how you actually look.
While the lighting makes a big difference, your surroundings change how light is reflected around you. For example, some walls absorb color while others reflect it. Walls that reflect light are going to make your reflection appear brighter.
Additionally, a smaller room is going to reflect more light than a larger room. Something as simple as moving your mirror to a different room could drastically change the way that you look.
The Age of the Mirror
Even something like the age of the mirror you’re looking at yourself in makes a difference in your appearance. While mirrors are generally made from sturdy materials, they tend to bow or bend a little from supporting their weight over time.
As I mentioned earlier, when a mirror bends forward slightly, it creates the illusion that you are bigger on top than on the bottom. This natural bending over time can also create a slight curvature in the mirror that changes how it reflects light and alters your appearance.
Something else to remember with older mirrors is that they are made from materials that typically break down over time, even if this does happen for 5-10 years or longer. Glass gets thinner over time, especially when you use certain chemicals to clean it. If there’s any coating on the mirror, this gets thinner over time as well.
Since the way that light travels through materials like glass changes how it reflects back, it makes sense that mirror getting thinner over time slightly alters the way that it reflects light.
What Materials the Mirror is Made of
While cavemen have likely been using puddles and bodies of water to look at their reflection since the beginning of man, the first real mirrors were made by carving reflective stones like obsidian. Some earlier mirrors were also made from reflective metal like copper.
The type of material matters because materials that are thinner and cheaper often blur and distort your image. Additionally, thinner materials are more likely to become worn, scratched, or otherwise damaged with age. As I mentioned earlier, an older mirror could become distorted with time.
Some types of mirrors also have a coating on the outside of them. While this coating does serve its purpose, it also wears off with time and can change the way that you look.
Something else to consider is the type of metal laid under the glass to provide that reflection. Anything that has high levels of iron in it can give your skin a greenish-tinge, which isn’t really flattering.
Your Perception of Yourself
Most of us look at ourselves all the time. Whether we’re brushing our teeth, doing our hair, shaving our faces, or applying makeup, we get familiar with that face that is looking back at us. This familiarity (and preference) for the face that we’re familiar with is known as the mere exposure effect.
Once you have gotten familiar with yourself and how you look, it’s hard for your mind to accept that you look differently in different mirror. Therefore, there’s a good chance that when your face is in weird lighting or a lower quality mirror, you don’t necessarily love the way that you look.
This happens even when the differences are only minor. Think about how much harder it is to take a flattering selfie of yourself using your camera instead of your mirror. Even though people have symmetrical faces for the most part, the minor differences make you look different to yourself and your brain just doesn’t like it.
Your Facial Expression and Body Position
If you’re the type of person to spend a lot of time in front of the mirror, then your brain likely already knows what facial expression and mirror angles make you look attractive. It’s not uncommon for a person to make automatic adjustments to the way their body is positioned based on how they look in the mirror, and most of the time, they don’t even realize they are doing it.
When you alter your facial expression and body position, it brings you closer to that familiar appearance that your mind is used to. That being said, when you look in a mirror with different angles, size, lighting, or materials than you are used to and try to make those adjustments, they don’t always result in that picture in your head. This can cause some discord between how you look in your mind and how you actually look.
Why Do I Look Ugly in Dressing Room Mirrors?
While a lot of people have noticed that they look unattractive or fatter in certain mirrors, this actually changes based on where you are buying your clothes. Many dressing rooms have bright, unflattering lights that shine down from overhead and highlight all the imperfections on your body.
That being said, this isn’t true for every dressing room mirror. You’re likely to find that places with more expensive clothing actually have dressing room mirrors with soft, flattering lighting.
There is also a chance that you don’t look good in dressing room mirrors because the clothes you are wearing aren’t as flattering on your body as you are expecting. Whether they are poorly designed, don’t fit your body, or play tricks on the mind using stripes or other patterns, sometimes it’s the clothes that you are trying on that are changing how you feel about your appearance.
Why Do Some Mirrors Make You Look More Attractive?
Some mirrors make you look more attractive because they are designed with higher-quality glass and placed in rooms that offer flattering lighting. This makes a huge different in your overall appearance and your perception of the way that you look.
Not surprisingly, you’ll notice that higher-end boutiques and places that charge a little more for their clothes tend to offer better lighting and mirror quality in their dressing room. After all, it’d be hard to convince someone to pay a premium price for clothing if they don’t think they look great in the outfit.
Do Mirrors Make You Look Bigger or Smaller Than Real Life?
There is no straight answer to whether mirrors make you look bigger or smaller than real life, because there are so many factors that affect how you look in the mirror. A good quality mirror actually won’t make you look bigger or smaller- it’s going to give an accurate portrayal of how you look.
That being said, mirror quality isn’t the only factor at play. Whether or not the mirror is framed, the lighting, and how big the room you are standing in is all also change whether you appear bigger or smaller in the mirror.
Why Do I Look Fatter in Some Mirrors?
There are several reasons that you might look fatter in some mirrors, including poor lighting and bad mirror angles. If a mirror seems to make you look bigger around the middle, there’s a good chance that it’s been bent outward or bowed with time.
By contrast, a mirror that makes you look bigger on top is likely tilted toward you a little bit. You’ll also notice you look smaller on top (and bigger on the bottom) if you have your mirror leaning against a wall or it’s otherwise tilted.
Why Do I Look Skinnier in Some Mirrors?
Some mirrors make you look skinnier than others because they are in a better lit, more flattering environment. When you have softer, flattering lights, it doesn’t create deep shadows that make you look bigger than you are.
Some manufacturers have even made mirrors that purposely curve inward a little bit at the middle. This is meant to make the user look thinner because the middle of the mirror is a little bit farther back than the rest of it.
Do Mirrors Make You Look Better Than Pictures?
The reason that most of us find ourselves more attractive when we look in the mirror is that it’s the image we are most familiar with. It’s what we spend our time in front of when we get ready for the day.
The image in the mirror is reflected, while a picture is a moment that’s captured. Since most of us have slight differences between the sides of our face, our minds don’t always like the image in a picture because it’s reversed. We might not be able to call out these slight differences, but our minds notice.
Mirrors don’t necessarily make you look better, but it is the image you are most comfortable with. Since familiarity places such a big role in the things that we find attractive or “like”, it only makes sense that our minds would dislike seeing that image reversed when you snap a photo.
Are Mirrors or Cameras More Accurate?
Generally speaking, a good-quality mirror is going to show a more accurate portrayal of you than a good-quality camera. While there are factors like mirror quality and lighting to take into account, cameras also have factors like lens distortion, angles, lighting, and distance to take into account.
Additionally, mirrors reflect the 3D image in front of them, while cameras try to capture a 3D image and turn it into a 2-dimensional one. This skews the image and can create distortions that alter the way that you look.
Finally, as a general rule, you should trust whatever image makes you feel most confident. After all, research shows that the people who care about us generally find us more attractive than we find ourselves. Part of the reason this happens is that people become familiar with our face the more time we are together, and familiarity is something our minds like.
This also happens because they see things like our confidence, kindness, sense of humor, and other traits over those things we might nitpick at in the mirror. By being confident in your image, you naturally come off as more attractive.
There are a lot of factors that explain, “Why do I look different in different mirrors?” Sometimes the thickness, age, and quality of the mirror change how we look, while other times the size of the room, the lighting, and even the color of the walls alter our appearance.
The many different factors mean that it’s hard to know which mirror is tricking your mind and which is showing reality- believe whichever image makes you feel most confident. After all, there’s a lot more to how people see than the way that we physically look.