This is Why You Look Different In Photos

Jon Hawkins

Familiarity is to blame, according to Psychologists.

Each of us has a perception of how they view ourselves. And, most of the time, that self-image is based on intentions. Whether we’re trying to appear cool or apologetic, we naturally assume those intentions come across.

We think we’re acting cool, so we must appear that way to other people.

According to Psychologist Saul McLeod, each of us carries a similar “self-concept.” It refers to how we think about, perceive, and evaluate ourselves. Unfortunately, that self-perception might be unfounded. We all carry biases about ourselves, and most of the time, they lead to us making the most charitable self-perception. We view ourselves in the best light.

Those distorted and biased self-perceptions leave us thinking we look different from how we actually do. So much so, that some Psychologists debate that if we were to see your doppelganger on a train, you wouldn’t even realize.

It’s no surprise that we sometimes don’t like the photos we see of ourselves. We build up an idealistic and positive self-image. When our true nature is revealed to us, that false perception is shattered.

According to Photographer Edith Leigh, up to 95% of people dislike photos of themselves, even when their peers think it presents them in a flattering light. Why might this be?

Familiarity Works Against Us

If you’re anything like me, you can’t stand photos of yourself in a certain light. The wrong angle, the wrong lighting, or the wrong hair day. All are enough to ruin the photo.

We assume we look abnormal, or different to how we usually do; because the photo we are looking at doesn’t match our pre-existing schema of ourselves.

But maybe it’s not that you’re having a bad hair day, or are standing in an unflattering light. What if you actually look like that? It could be that you’ve just become accustomed to seeing yourself a certain way, and you find any other perception weird.

The mere exposure effect (Zajonc, 1968,) states that the more we encounter a stimulus, the more we like it. Therefore, we find attractive what we are familiar with.

And we’re familiar with a certain self-perception. For years, we’ve told ourselves we look identical to the person we see in the mirror. When we see a version of ourselves that doesn’t match that, it throws us off as weird and unusual.

That’s not to say that we don’t look like the person in the photo, or that this version of ourselves is ugly. All it means is we’re not used to seeing ourselves in that light.

Mirror, Mirror (On the Wall)

We prefer objects, people, and thoughts that we are familiar with. And the self-image we know best is the one we see in the mirror. Our mirrored self is the version of ourselves we know best.

But when we look in the mirror, our image is reversed. It depicts an inaccurate and distorted reflection of your body.

The truth is, you’re not familiar with your face. All you’ve ever seen is a reverse of it. Yet photos present your face as it appears for real/not reversed, and that’s why you look different in them.

That’s not to say you look worse or less attractive than the person you see in the mirror. In fact, others often think our mirrored self is less attractive. As highlighted by research undergone by Mita et al (1977), found that, while most of us prefer our mirror image, others prefer photos of that individual that show your “true image.”

On this account, it’s not that you look worse in a photo. You just look different.

We Exaggerate How Attractive We Are

It’s not that we’re ugly or unattractive. But, according to Social Psychologist, Madeleine A. Fugère Ph.D., one reason we dislike the person we see in photos is that we’re prone to a bias called self-enhancement. It causes us to view ourselves as more attractive than we are. We end up:

“[Judging] our own traits and abilities more favorably than is objectively warranted” — Epley and Whitchurch

Therefore, one reason you might be disappointed with your photo is that it doesn’t meet your false and idealistic self-image.

Of course, modern culture is to blame. Social Media frequently depicts picture-perfect airbrushed models — and you start to think it’s actually possible to look like that naturally. But the truth is, without filters, airbrush, and the right angle, that level of perfection can’t be achieved.

Evidence for this form of bias comes from Epley and Whitchurch (2008). They presented participants with two photos — one of their real self, and a manipulated photo that made them more or less attractive. When asked which photo they preferred, participants consistently chose photos that were manipulated to make themselves look more attractive.

If the self-enhancement bias is true, then it’s no surprise that we’re disappointed by photos of ourselves. In our heads, we’ve bigged ourselves up to a standard that’s impossible to achieve — of course photos don’t reflect that.

Final Thoughts

Unless your face is perfectly symmetrical, you’re bound to think the person you see in photos looks weird and strange. That’s not to say that version of yourself is ugly, instead, according to the mere exposure effect, it’s because we’re so used to seeing a different version of ourselves in the mirror.

Despite this, according to Fugère, there are a few things you can do to adapt your self-schema and learn to love the photos of yourself.

Do so by exposing yourself to your real self more often. Rather than relying on mirrors to define how you look, become familiar with how you really do. One way to do so is to include a photo of yourself as your Phone wallpaper (or if you’re not that vain, a group photo). That way, you’re seeing your true self on a regular basis.

In doing so, you’re learning to love your real self, rather than an idealistic or false version. And remember:

“You yourself, as much as anybody in the entire universe, deserve your love and affection.” - Buddha

I write about self-improvement, life lessons, philosophy, psychology & business — to help you reach your full potential.

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Asking questions, seeking answers. I write articles that help you better understand the Universe. Durham University.


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