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Why do we look in a mirror? Body image, or is it more?

Bespoke glass mirrors from Splashbacks of Distinction

It could be argued that we are all more obsessed with our appearance than we would like to admit. But is this really an indication of vanity? A vain person is meant to be conceited and have excessive pride in their appearance. There is nothing wrong with being concerned about ones appearance, as this is quite normal and understandable. In fact, studies have shown that attractive people have distinct advantages over less attractive people in our society. For example:

  • Attractive children tend to be more popular, both with classmates and teachers. Teachers have been known to give higher marks to the work of attractive children and have higher expectations of them.
  • Attractive applicants often have a better chance of getting jobs they apply for, and they often receive higher salaries.
  • In courts of law, attractive people are found guilty less often. Should they be found guilty, they usually receive less severe sentences.
  • This 'bias towards beauty' operates in almost all social situations all experiments show we react more favourably to physically attractive people.
  • Many people also believe in the 'what is beautiful is good' stereotype an irrational but deep seated belief that physically attractive people possess other desirable characteristics such as intelligence, competence, social skills, confidence, even moral virtue. Think about it, what film has an ugly good fairy or a beautiful wicked stepmother?

With the above in mind, it's not surprising that physical attractiveness is of such importance to us.

Concern with appearance is not just a modern western thing. Every period of history has had its own standards of what is and what is not beautiful, and every contemporary society has its own distinctive concept of the ideal physical attributes. In the 19th Century being beautiful meant wearing a corset. This practice caused the wearer breathing and digestive problems. Now we try to diet and exercise ourselves into the fashionable shape, sometimes with even more serious consequences.

But although we resemble our ancestors and other cultures in our concern about appearance, there is a difference in degree of concern. Advances in technology and in particular the rise of the mass media has caused normal concerns about how we look to become obsessions.

Three reasons why we obsess about our appearance:

  1. Thanks to the various forms of mass media, we have become accustomed to extremely rigid and uniform standards of beauty.
  2. TV, advertising posters and magazines mean that we see beautiful people all the time, more often than members of our own family, making exceptional good looks seem real, normal and attainable.
  3. Standards of beauty have in fact become harder and harder to attain, particularly for women. The current media ideal of thinness for women is achievable by less than 5% of the female population.

Take a long hard look at yourself in that mirror!

You would think that a beauty queen wouldn't feel the need to check the mirror every five minutes. The fact is that even very attractive people may not be looking in the mirror out of vanity, but out of insecurity. We forget that there are disadvantages to being attractive: attractive people are under much greater pressure to maintain their appearance. Also, studies show that attractive people don't benefit from the 'bias for beauty' in terms of self esteem. They often don't trust praise of their work or talents, believing positive evaluations to be influenced by their appearance.

Images and reactions: what we see and how we feel about it

What people see and how they react to their reflection in a mirror will vary according to: species, sex, age, ethnic group, sexual orientation, mood, eating disorders, what they've been watching on TV, what magazines they read, whether they're married or single, what kind of childhood they had, whether they take part in sports, what phase of the menstrual cycle they're in, whether they are pregnant, where they've been shopping and even what they had for lunch.

Species: Animals in the mirror

If you were a dog or a cat or a horse you wouldn't realise that the image in a mirror was a reflection of yourself. Most animals in this situation think that they are face to face with another member of their species.

The exception is the great apes. The chimps, gorillas and orang-utans are capable of recognising themselves in the mirror, and of course we can too.

What's interesting is what the other apes do when presented with a mirror: they use mirrors to groom themselves, pick food out of their teeth and make faces at themselves for entertainment. In short, exactly the same things that we do when looking into a mirror.

Is the mirror friend or foe? Well it depends what sex you are!

All research to date on body image shows that women are much more critical of their appearance than men, therefore they are much less likely to admire what they see in the mirror. Up to 8 out of 10 women will be dissatisfied with their reflection in the mirror, and more than half may see a distorted image.

Men looking in the mirror are more likely to be either pleased with what they see or indifferent. Research shows that men generally have a much more positive body image than women. If anything, they may tend to over estimate their attractiveness. Some men looking in the mirror may literally not see the flaws in their appearance.

Why are women so much more self critical than men when looking in a mirror?

Because generally women are judged on their appearance more than men, and standards of female beauty are considerably higher and more inflexible. Women are continually bombarded with images of the ideal face and figure. Constant exposure to idealised images of female beauty on TV, magazines and poster ads makes exceptional good looks seem normal and anything short of perfection seem abnormal and ugly. It has been estimated that young women now see more images of outstandingly beautiful women in one day than their mothers saw throughout their entire adolescence.

Also, most women are trying to achieve the impossible: standards of female beauty have in fact become progressively more unrealistic during the 20th century. In 1917, the physically perfect woman was about 5ft 4in tall and weighed nearly 10 stone. Even 25 years ago, top models and beauty queens weighed only 8% less than the average woman, now they weigh 23% less. The current media ideal for women is achievable by less than 5% of the female population and that's just in terms of weight and size. If you want the ideal shape and face, it's probably more like 1%. Scary eh?

We start looking into mirrors at a tender age

Children: Female dissatisfaction with appearance, otherwise known as poor body image, begins at a very early age. Human infants begin to recognise themselves in mirrors at about two years old. Female humans begin to dislike what they see only a few years later. The latest surveys show very young girls are going on diets because they think they are fat and unattractive. In one American survey, 81% of ten year old girls had already dieted at least once. A recent Swedish study found that 25% of 7 year old girls had dieted to lose weight, they were already suffering from body image distortion, estimating themselves to be larger than they really were. Similar studies in Japan have found that 41% of elementary school girls as young as 6, thought they were too fat. Even normal weight and underweight girls want to lose weight.

Boys were found to be significantly less critical of their appearance: in one study, normal weight girls expressed considerably more worries about their looks than obese boys.

Adolescents: Boys do go through a short phase of relative dissatisfaction with their appearance in early adolescence, but the physical changes associated with puberty soon bring them closer to the masculine ideal. Basically they get taller, broader in the shoulders and more muscular.

For girls, however, puberty only makes things worse. The normal physical changes like increase in weight and body fat, particularly on the hips and thighs, take them further from the cultural ideal of unnatural slimness. A Harvard University study showed that up to two thirds of underweight 12 year old girls considered themselves to be too fat. By 13, at least 50% of girls are significantly unhappy about their appearance. By 14, focused, specific dissatisfactions have intensified, particularly concerning hips and thighs. By 17, only 3 out of 10 girls have not been on a diet and up to 8 out of 10 will be unhappy with what they see in the mirror.

Adults: Among women over 18 looking at themselves in the mirror, research indicates that at least 80% are unhappy with what they see. Many will not even be seeing an accurate reflection in the mirror. Most of us have heard that anorexics see themselves in a mirror as larger than they really are, but some recent research indicates that this kind of distorted body image is by no means confined to those suffering from eating disorders. In some studies up to 80% of women over estimated their size. Increasing numbers of normal, attractive women, with no weight problems or clinical psychological disorders, look at themselves in the mirror and see ugliness and fat.

Research confirms what most of us already know: that the main focus of dissatisfaction for most women looking in the mirror is the size and shape of their bodies, particularly their hips, waists and thighs.

In the most recent research, there is some evidence of an increase in body dissatisfaction among males. As well as some early adolescent boys, men undergoing the so called male menopause or mid life crisis. So men between the ages of about 45 and 55 are most likely to be dissatisfied with their appearance when looking in a mirror.

When men are dissatisfied, the main focuses of concern are height, stomachs, chests and hair loss. We may see them surreptitiously drawing in their stomachs and walking taller as they pass a mirror.

Ethnic group often determines body self image

There appear to be some exceptions to these rules. Black and Asian women generally have a more positive body image than Caucasian women, although this depends on the degree to which they have accepted the beauty standards of the dominant culture.

A study of Mexican immigrants in America found that those who had immigrated after the age of 17 were less affected by the prevailing super thin ideal than those who were 16 or younger when they came to America. In a Washington University study, Black women with high self esteem and a strong sense of racial identity actually rated themselves more attractive than pictures of supposedly beautiful white fashion models. In another study about 40% of moderately and severely overweight Black women rated their figures to be attractive or very attractive. Other research indicates that this may be because African-American women are more flexible in their concepts of beauty than their white counterparts, who express rigid ideals and greater dissatisfaction with their own body shape.

In a study of British and Ugandan students evaluation of body shapes, the Ugandans rated an obese female figure much more attractive than the British. Another British study showed that Asian-British women were more content with their body size than white British women, despite the fact that the Asians ideal body size was as slim as that of the white women, suggesting that the Asian-British women were less concerned about matching the ideal than the white women.

Sexual orientation can also affect body self image

Gay men are more likely than straight men to be unhappy with their reflection in the mirror. But lesbians are likely to be more satisfied with their mirror image than straight women.

Recent studies show that homosexual men experience greater body dissatisfaction than heterosexual men, while homosexual women have a more positive body image than heterosexual women. This seems to be mainly due to the higher emphasis on appearance in gay male culture, although it is possible that stability of relationships may also be a factor.

TV and magazines have great influence on body self image

Peoples reactions to their reflection in the mirror may depend on recent exposure to idealised images of physical attractiveness. Experiments have shown that people become significantly more dissatisfied with their own appearance after being shown TV ads featuring exceptionally slim and beautiful people. Control groups shown non appearance related ads do not change their rating of their own attractiveness.

Although many TV programmes feature attractive people, ads tend to use the most idealised images, so people who've been watching a lot of ITV and C4 are likely to feel less positive about their image in the mirror. Programmes such as Baywatch are also likely to induce a sense of dissatisfaction when looking in the mirror.

The same applies to reading fashion magazines. Recent experiments have shown that exposure to magazine photographs of super-thin models produces depression, stress, guilt, shame, insecurity, body dissatisfaction and increased endorsement of the thin-ideal stereotype. Magazines like Vogue and Elle are banned in many eating-disorder clinics, because of their known negative effect on patients body image.

The mood you're in affects how you feel about your body

Experiments have shown that when people are feeling low or in a bad mood, they experience greater body dissatisfaction. Most studies have been on women, who also suffer body image distortion, estimating their size larger, when feeling low.

Childhood experiences can affect how you feel when looking in the mirror

Teasing factor: If you were teased about flaws in your appearance, particularly your size or weight as a child or teenager, your body image may have become permanently disturbed.

Married or single

Generally, people in stable, long term relationships have a more positive body image than singles. This applies to all ages, although a study of adolescent dating behaviour showed that teenagers who date in groups have a significantly better body image than those go out alone with their boyfriend or girlfriend.


Several studies have indicated that pregnant women have a more positive body image than non pregnant women. Although their ideal body shape remains in line with the ultra thin cultural ideal, their concerns about failing to match this ideal are reduced during pregnancy.

Eating disorder can result in a distorted reflection in the mirror

Anorexics and bulimics suffer from greater body dissatisfaction and greater body image disturbance than other women: these women are even more likely to be unhappy with their reflection in the mirror, and even more likely to see a distorted image.

Clothes shopping without a mirror on hand is unthinkable!

Surveys show that women who have just been trying on clothes in communal changing rooms of high street stores will be experiencing a higher level of body dissatisfaction and self criticism, and are more likely to have a negative reaction to their reflection in the mirror.

Body Dysmorphic Disorder sufferers will see the mirror as the enemy

This condition is also known as Dysmorphophobia and Imagined Ugliness Disorder. People suffering from this extreme level of body image disturbance, body dissatisfaction, self consciousness and preoccupation with appearance, will experience the most negative reactions to the mirror.

Acceptance of sociocultural standards

Most of us are aware of our societies emphasis on the importance of appearance, and we know what the socially sanctioned standards of beauty are. But not all of us accept or internalise these standards: strong minded individuals who reject current standards are more likely to have a positive body image when looking at themselves in a mirror.

Article based on source material from: Social Issues Research Centre

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Further Information

If you would like to know more or are interested in a quote we would be happy to help. Phone us on 01920 830 084, email us at or fill in our enquiry form and we will be in touch as soon as possible.

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