My mind has been blown.
I don't know if a discovery of this magnitude has hit me since I realized that my parents used to be kids, too.
So, I was freefalling down one of those Internet rabbitholes--you know, where you click on one article in your Facebook newsfeed that looks interesting, and the next thing you know you're researching World War I?
Only this time, somehow, I stumbled across a recent Wired article called "What's Up With That: You Hate Pictures of Yourself."
In it, writer Nick Stockton explains an effect called "mere-exposure," which "basically says that people react more favorably to things they see more often." It explains why you might be attracted to people who look a lot like your family members, or why your ex is now dating someone who looks weirdly like the female version of him.
But here's the thing--I hate pictures of myself. I think most of us do. And not just because of the wrinkles or the dark circles under our eyes or the coffee-and-wine-stained teeth. It's very unsettling to me, because I spend a lot of time in front of a mirror doing my hair and makeup to my satisfaction, but when someone freezes an image of me--I suddenly hate everything about my face. I can't even pinpoint exactly what is wrong (unless I'm doing that self-conscious sneer-smile thing WHY DO I DO THAT). I just...simply...don't like it.
Apparently, THERE IS A SCIENTIFIC REASON WHY. Stockton explains that, "since we see ourselves most frequently in the mirror, this is our preferred self-image. According to the mere-exposure effect, when your slight facial asymmetries are left unflipped by the camera, you see an unappealing, alien version of yourself."
AN UNAPPEALING. ALIEN. VERSION. OF. YOURSELF.
This pretty much sums up how I have always felt about EVERY picture of me. EVER. I can't shake the thought, "Is that what I actually LOOK like??"
But if what Stockton is saying is true, I dislike the picture not for any specific quirk of vanity, but because it's not the face I see in the mirror every day.
BECAUSE IT IS FLIPPED.
To everyone else, it's not. To everyone else--that is exactly the Carrie they see every day. Which is why you may find yourself fighting with your friends and family over a picture you haaaaaaate but they insist "looks just fine, what is wrong with you?!"
But to you...you're accustomed to seeing THE INVERSE, the mirror image, of your face. Every day. Every time you apply makeup, or blow-dry your hair. You're staring at through-the-looking-glass You.
By some epic happenstance of fate, I just got new headshots done, and the unedited proofs had just popped up in my inbox. Normally, the first scroll through a batch of headshots is enough to make me break out the alcohol. This time was no different--a very talented professional hair-and-makeup artist had made me look fabulous, and a likewise talented professional photographer had posed and photographed me to ensure only my very best face was forward, and yet somehow I just felt icky looking at my pictures.
Could the reason I look so weird be because of the "mere-exposure" effect?
I decided to try it. I opened one of the images in FaceTune, and flipped it:
OK I KNOW YOU THINK I'M ABSOLUTELY INSANE RIGHT NOW BUT I SWEAR TO GOD THE IMAGE ON THE LEFT LOOKS "OFF" TO ME, WHILE THE IMAGE ON THE RIGHT LOOKS GREAT.
I started screaming to my dog (who is entirely unempathetic sometimes), and decided to try it again. I recently dyed my hair brown, so I had wanted to post a selfie to boast of my new fabulous hair on all the social medias. But because I experience an instant and gut-wrenching revulsion every time I see a selfie, I had taken about twenty in a row, attempting every angle and smile and squint I could think of in attempt to take a photo that didn't make me want to cry. (I didn't accomplish this, but I finally just posted one anyway, huge thanks to everyone who liked and commented so positively.)
Here's one that made me cringe and wonder why I am incapable of making a normal face in a photograph:
I opened it in FaceTune, flipped it, and went--oh. Well. Needs better lighting and some editing, but that's not so bad:
THAT'S NOT SO BAD.
BECAUSE MY FACE FINALLY LOOKS NORMAL.
IT LOOKS LIKE THE FACE I SEE EVERY GODDAMN DAY IN THE MIRROR.
This also explains why, when you're taking a selfie with the self-facing camera, you may feel pretty good about what you see, but when you then open the image from your camera roll, you experience a vague disappointment (and let's be honest, sometimes soul-crushing horror) because you thought it looked so much better as you were taking it.
It's entirely possible you don't feel the same way I do about photographs of yourself. If that's the case, I'm not sure why you're still reading. But if anything I've said resonates with how you feel looking at pictures of yourself, I'm telling you right now to go open a photo of you in the image-editing software of your choosing and FLIP THAT SHIT.
Update: Reader, author, and all-around science smartypants AJ Scudiere made two very important points on this subject.
First, OTHER PEOPLE WILL THINK THE FLIPPED PHOTO OF YOU LOOKS WEIRD so don't go posting it on social media! My mother actually texted me about this post and said, "I liked the original photos of you much better." OBVIOUSLY, MOM! Because other people are familiar with the "real" image of you, the "flipped" version of you will look just as weird as the "real" image looks to YOU! Get it? So, as AJ put it, flip the picture to soothe yourself, but "the very thing that soothes you won't process with others."
Second, AJ points out that most of us have asymmetrical features anyway--say, your nose is 7 degrees off-center. This deviates from the "ideal" anyway, and can produce a negative feeling on its own, but 7 degrees is practically nothing and probably won't even register with most people. HOWEVER, when you're viewing a non-mirror-image of yourself, you're suddenly seeing your nose flipped completely from what you're used to--meaning your nose appears actually 14 DEGREES from where it "should" be! As AJ says, "your faults are not only backward and 'off,' they are MAGNIFIED. And that's even more why you hate pictures of yourself."