Mirrors and Distorted Body Image by Allison Jupiter, LCSW-R, CEDS
I thought I would start this post by relating how one of my favorite paintings by Pablo Picasso is similar to the issues many of my patients face. It is entitled ”Girl Before a Mirror.” The picture was painted by Picasso about his lover, Marie Therese Walter. One of the things the picture represents is how differently she sees herself from the way the rest of the world sees her. Her mirror image is dark, morose, and she even seems to have a tear streaming down her face, while Picasso sees her as the brighter and more angelic image outside of the mirror. Unfortunately, many of my patients view themselves more the way Marie Therese sees herself rather than how Picasso sees her.
In order to help my patients combat issues related to the distorted images they see in the mirror, I try to dispute their irrational beliefs with many theories and facts about mirrors. They are listed below:
1) The Venus Effect
The Venus Effect sheds light on the psychology of perception. The theory is named after paintings of Venus, a Roman goddess who embodies beauty, looking into mirrors. One painting particularly showing The Venus Effect is entitled “Rokeby Venus” by Velazquez (shown above). It is commonly discussed because it seems as Venus’s head is misshaped. The mirror image of her head looks much bigger than it does on her actual body. Critics claim Velazquez did not accurately depict Venus’s “real life” proportions to her reflection. The truth of the matter, explained by art historians, is her face would only be too big if the viewer assumes she was “seen” by someone standing close to Venus. The farther the observer steps away from the subject, however, the more space her face takes up in the frame. This is true for anyone who moves further away from a mirror. The image changes. I utilize this picture and the theory of the ”Venus Effect” to indicate how the large stomach, misshaped nose, or pointy ears my patients see in the mirror may not be the reality of the situation.
2) The Shape of the Mirror can alter the image we are seeing.
Have you ever gone to a carnival and utilized the fun house mirrors? If you did, you may notice a concave mirror makes you taller and a convex one will make you look shorter. If we take this theory and apply it to our every day lives we will notice that where we place a mirror in the room may change the image we see before ourselves. I try to have my patients realize that each mirror we look at may be distorted based upon where it is angled. The image above indicates how mirrors may be less objective than one would think when trying to get an accurate assessment of our bodies.
3) Magnifying mirrors by definition ENLARGE OBJECTS.
How many of you have looked into a magnifying mirror and seen a similar image? Magnifying mirrors are wonderful for people with low vision problems to help them see more clearly. For the average person, however, they may point out flaws that we would not normally see. Many of my patients will spend hours looking into a magnifying mirror trying to find their wrinkles, remove extra hair or try to determine if their nose is straight. Please keep in mind when you use a magnifying mirror its purpose is to ENLARGE OBJECTS. This means that whatever you are seeing is going to be bigger than it actually is to the naked eye. The average person will not be able to see what you are seeing in this type of mirror and definitely not at the same size you are looking at.
So next time you look in the mirror and do not like what you see, keep in mind that what you see in the mirror may be distorted by various factors. Maybe it is time to throw the mirror away and base our appearances on how we feel. Just a thought!