There are plenty of reasons that you might look weird in selfies. Perhaps, for instance, you haven’t read up on our tips on how you can look better in photos. Or maybe you’re just sabotaging your chances of success by using the wrong angles and lighting. It could be that you’re using a smartphone with a severely under-performing camera system, or maybe you’re just overly critical of what’s probably a perfectly fine set of facial features. Perhaps you really do just have a strange-looking, unusually asymmetrical face that’s to blame after all. But for the purpose of ruling out that last reason, we’ve done some research to get to the bottom of the real reason why all of your selfies look weird.
1. You’re used to seeing yourself in the mirror
Nolan Feeney reports for The Atlantic that if all of your earnest selfies look “accidentally ugly,” you should blame your brain instead of your face. He notes that whether a selfie is reversed after being shot is a major factor in whether it’ll look weird to its subject. Because you’re used to seeing yourself in the mirror, selfies generated by apps, like Snapchat, that save your selfie as it would appear in the mirror, look much less jarring than apps that flip the image horizontally and save your selfie the way other people would see you.
So why does a selfie that doesn’t mimic the way you see yourself in the mirror look weird? A major factor is the fact that our faces are asymmetrical. The left side and the right side of your face may not seem all that different, but the asymmetry can be surprising. Feeney explains that when what you see in the mirror is flipped, “it looks alarming because we’re seeing rearranged halves of what are two very different faces. Your features don’t line up, curve, or tilt the way you’re used to viewing them.” Because you see yourself in the mirror everyday, you strongly prefer your mirror image to your real image.
2. You don’t really know what you look like
A theory related to the mirror-exposure hypothesis holds that people don’t really know how they look (which makes it pretty unsurprising that you may think that your selfies look weird). Nicholas Epley, a professor of behavioral science at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business, tells The Atlantic that “people don’t really know what they look like.” He explains that “the image you have of yourself in your mind is not quite the same as what actually exists.” According to Epley’s research, the image you have in your mind is more attractive than your face actually is.
In an experiment, researchers made images of participants’ faces more attractive by morphing their facial features to resemble composites of conventionally beautiful people. When asked to identify their face out of a lineup, participants selected the attractive versions of their faces more quickly. In particular, they were most likely to identify the faces that were made 20% more attractive. “They’re not wildly off—you don’t think you look like Brad Pitt,” Epley told The Atlantic. “You’re an expert at your own face, but that doesn’t mean you’re perfect at recognizing it.” Which means that you may think your selfies look a little strange because your mental image doesn’t 100% match up with how your face really looks.
3. Your face is too close to your smartphone
Daniel Baker, a lecturer in the Department of Psychology at the University of York, writes that many people incorrectly assume that selfies exaggerate specific facial features thanks to lens distortion. But he reports that simple geometry, not lens distortion, is to blame if your nose looks too big or your eyebrows look weird. The parts of your face that are closer to the camera appear larger than the features on the rest of your face (which explains why it’s your nose, not your ears, that looks disproportionately large in your selfies).
Baker explains, “The crazy thing about this is that it happens in real life too, we just don’t often notice it. If you look at yourself in the mirror from very close up (or get close to someone you’re intimate with), you get exactly the same distortions (closing one eye helps with this, as most people can’t maintain vergence that close).” The upshot is that you shouldn’t get too close to the camera if you want your selfies to look flattering.
4. You’re using the wrong lighting
Once you’ve gotten accustomed to the fact that the way you look in a selfie is probably different from the way you look in a mirror, and after you’ve reminded yourself not to put your face too close to your smartphone’s camera, there are some other easy ways to make your selfies more flattering. First and foremost is to always make sure that you look for bright, flattering lighting. Natural light is almost always best, particularly the kind of bright light you get from standing right next to a window. It’s also a good idea to look straight toward your light source to prevent unflattering shadows on your face.
You should also pay attention to the background to find something that adds interest without being too busy. When you’re scouting out the right spot to take a selfie, a major part of that will be choosing a location with plenty of bright, flattering light. But you should also look to the background to provide visual interest and to communicate why you’re taking a selfie. Think about the composition of the image and you’ll have a much better chance of taking an aesthetically appealing selfie.
5. You’re posing the wrong way
Another important step in taking a selfie that doesn’t look weird is to pose correctly. You already know that you shouldn’t hold the camera too close to your face. But there’s more to choosing the right pose than just picking any pose that doesn’t involve placing the phone two inches from your nose. You should also be wary of assuming an unflattering, twisted pose just for the sake of getting your phone far away from your face.
It’s also a great idea to experiment in order to find the poses that are flattering for your particular features. You should look at the camera relatively straight-on, for instance. And make sure that you aren’t taking the photo from either too high or too low of a vantage point. And whatever pose you choose, you should make sure that you aren’t taking yourself too seriously. Focusing too much on looking your best can get in the way of taking a fun selfie. And if selfies aren’t fun, then what’s the point?
6. You’re being overly critical
If you’ve completely rethought your approach to taking selfies and are still finding that they look weird, there’s another possibility. Perhaps you’re being overly critical of your selfies — which, strangely enough, you can probably fix by simply taking more selfies. People who routinely take selfies end up being more comfortable with the way they look in those selfies.
Learning to be okay with the way you look in selfies, and figuring out how you can get your photos to turn out the way you want them to, is a gradual process. As you get more accustomed to seeing photos that you’ve taken of yourself, you’ll probably find that they look more natural over time. And you’ll also likely find it easier to have fun while taking selfies, which is probably the point of taking a selfie anyway.