Do You Cringe When You See a Photo of Yourself?

If you cringe at your own photos, you’re not alone. I have an immediate physical reaction of repulsion when looking at myself. I recently had professional videos created of myself for advertising purposes. It took me two weeks to even glance at the videos, then I couldn’t sit through the entire presentation. What’s going on here?

Some people have body dysmorphic disorder. It is an obsession with a part of your appearance that you think is flawed. People with this disorder can dislike any part of their body and will distort the importance of that flaw. The most common features people obsess about include face (nose, complexion, wrinkles, acne and other blemishes), hair (appearance, thinning and baldness), skin, breast size, muscle size, and genitalia. The flaw is more in their mind than in their body. While others may not notice it, the person with body dysmorphic disorder will obsess over it to the point of severe emotional pain and interference in their lives. Imagine how painful photos are for these people.

There are numerous other reasons that people may dislike their own photos. It could be the photographer’s fault in that the angle or lighting is bad, or you are caught with an unflattering facial expression. However, it can also be explained by the mirror. What we see in the mirror is different from what the photo captures. Most faces are asymmetrical and what we see in the mirror is reversed in a photo. We know that something is off. It doesn’t quite look like us. Robert Zajonc, psychologist, says that people react more favorably to things they see more often. Since we see ourselves most frequently in the mirror, this is our preferred self image. When we see a photo, we see an alien version of ourselves.

Cognitive dissonance is the mental discomfort we experience when we hold contradictory beliefs or ideas. For example, I know that I am in my 60’s but internally I feel like I’m in my 40’s. Photos are a harsh reality check that my body has aged. “I look like that?” We consciously or unconsciously hide what we don’t want to see. For example, we may not look in a full length mirror if we are uncomfortable with our bodies. And we certainly won’t look at our bodies in a full length mirror while naked!

Photos are still and don’t capture personality. When we speak to a person, our focus is on the eyes and mouth, not their moles, wrinkles or freckles. But we’re much more likely to see these aspects in a photo. The good news is that you probably look much better in real life when you are your normal animated self.

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