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Mirror, Mirror

There are more ways to see ourselves now than ever before — but are we seeing ourselves any more clearly?

Last month, at a sample sale in Soho, I pulled on some high-waisted straight-leg AG jeans. They felt like they fit like a glove, but when I walked out of the makeshift fitting room onto the fluorescent floor of the temporary retail space, my reflection in the disposable dorm room mirror was so wonky that I had no idea how the pants looked. I looked in another mirror, which elongated me into a string bean. I tried a third; it created a convex bulge somewhere between my shoulder and my waist. I left empty-handed. The mirrors had failed me and the retailer alike.

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Mirrors, however well they’re made, are a flawed technology, capable of playing tricks on even the most clear-eyed observer. We routinely see ourselves in reverse, from a distance, and, depending on the time of day, shorter, taller, thinner, fatter, darker, lighter, younger, older, and so on. And I don’t trust them. There seems to me to be no consistency between the fingers, skin, eyes, and thighs in one mirror and the ones I see in another. I have a general idea of what I look like, of course; I don’t appear to myself as a complete stranger. But I have been bewildered by what I’ve seen, in ways both good and bad.

Mirrors, however well they’re made, are a flawed technology.

And that’s the rub. It’s not a matter of blanket positives or negatives, of extreme vanity or mind-bending dysmorphia. The range of possible mirror images seems too vast for me to take any of my reflections at face value. There is simply no way I can look as good and as bad and as familiar and as foreign as I do to myself every day, in mirrors of all shapes and sizes.

If you accept that you contain multitudes, the only reasonable position toward your reflection is one of partial disbelief.

Have you ever tried on clothes at a store, thought they looked great, then brought them home and wondered, in the cold light of your bedroom, what the hell you were thinking — or worse, what you thought you were seeing? According to one survey, people reported returning clothes they bought online 23 percent of the time; that’s not that much more than the 22 percent who said they returned clothes they bought in stores. That suggests there’s something wrong with how we see things, and Seinfeld captures the sentiment perfectly in a sixth season episode where Elaine buys a dress that turns out to be a huge miss. "Why did I buy it? Because in the mirror, at Barneys, I looked fabulous," she complains. "Barneys has skinny mirrors, they make you look, like, ten pounds lighter. Do you think I would have bought this dress if I looked like this at Barneys?"

Fashion bloggers, like Elaine, have grown skeptical of their reflections in stores. A band of mirror skeptics have taken to touring fitting rooms to see which ones have the best light and positioning, then taking selfies to illustrate their findings. (Never mind that mirror selfies add yet another layer of media, distorting the images in a new way.) These experiments carry a conspiratorial undertone: After all, the easiest way to sell you something is to make you look good, even if you really don’t.

Fashion bloggers have grown skeptical of their reflections in stores.

"There's not a female shopper over 30 who doesn't carry an internal retail map of the thin and fat mirrors the length of the high street," proclaimed the British Daily Mirror in 2007. "We know which malevolent mirrors will instantly transform a bare thigh into a side of ham, which looking-glasses will draw us, like Alice, into a parallel universe where we all look like Jabberwockies — and which mirrors will proclaim us the fairest of them all and have us trotting off to the till triumphantly waving a pair of ill-advised pinstriped culottes."

A more recent appraisal of 20 fitting room mirrors from BuzzFeed sought to empirically solve the mystery of how we are supposed to look in "real life." "If a dressing room has harsh overhead lighting — dude, you do not look that lumpy and horrible in real life, I promise," writes Kristin Chirico, who found vast inconsistencies in the way she appeared in stores like Topshop and American Eagle ("Hello, everything about your body and face is terrible! Please buy some cozy sweaters!") and TJ Maxx ("Very nice… but it isn’t me.")

At the same time, "don’t let beautiful lighting talk you into clothes you’re only 50% excited about," she warns. Similar stories have since been published by outlets ranging from Bustle to the Daily Mail.

The age of mirror skepticism, it appears, is upon us.

Robin Kramer, a consultant who’s helped design fitting rooms for brands such as Journelle, rejects the idea that there’s a grand conspiracy to get women to buy more stuff (it could also mean she’s just part of it). "I really believe that more than manipulating the experience to make you look good, the opposite happens: More often, the lighting is so bad, the mirror quality is so bad, the placement is so bad that it’s a turnoff," she says. Besides, "you can’t manipulate it to make someone look so spectacular that they look awful" once they leave the store, she adds.

"Likeness does not make things ‘one’ as much as unlikeness makes them ‘other.’"

Kramer has nevertheless noticed retailers increasing the attention they pay to the layout, lighting, and in-store real estate that fitting rooms and mirrors occupy — in part because the mirror selfie, disseminated via group text or social media, has begun to figure more heavily into our shopping calculus. But our new visual culture presents a paradox. If the multitude of images we swim in — selfies, photos, reflections, snaps — had the same effect as images of, say, trees, they should theoretically give us a composite image, bringing us closer to knowing what trees can and should look like. Instead, the media multiplies the forms in which we see ourselves. Instead of bringing us closer to understanding how we appear, they seem to have lessened our ability to do so, and our eyes immediately fly to incongruity.

Michel de Montaigne said it best: "Likeness does not make things ‘one’ as much as unlikeness makes them ‘other.’"

Throughout history, mirrors have had an array of social, political, and religious functions. In antiquity, they were regarded as tools of self-improvement, despite Plato’s acknowledgment that distortions in our reflections could be deceptive. Mirrors were believed by some Christian theorists to convey theological truth; St. Augustine wrote that the mirror is a way for man to see both the glory of God and his own "wretchedness."

During the Middle Ages, the mirror was "invested with exceptional symbolic importance because of its capacity to enhance visual acuity and to radiate light," writes Sabine Melchoir-Bonnet in The Mirror: A History. But the mirrors themselves were small, unsophisticated, expensive, and difficult to come by; it wasn’t until the 17th century that mirrors became indispensable parts of our daily lives, allowing us to check ourselves and compare ourselves to others. And as the mirror trade grew bigger and more sophisticated, a big mirror became a status symbol. The court of Louis XIV and the Versailles palace was wall-to-wall with mirrors, which symbolized opulence and light; behind closed doors, Melchoir-Bonnet writes, "the mirror dictated its own laws and served as a normative instrument for measuring conformity to the social code."

Photo: Martin Barraud/Getty Images

Reflections were, at the time, generally trusted as showing something real: The mirror became "an assiduous courtier, the rival of lovers, a fashion adviser to coquettes, a confidante, an accomplice, the most impartial of judges," writes Melchoir-Bonnet. But the proliferation of mirrors and their bizarre funhouse cousins eventually fed skepticism and "taught the relativity of all points of view."

It is this relativism, rather than faith and rapture, that imbues contemporary interpretations of the mirror — and has pushed entrepreneurs to come up with better versions of the mirror using technology.

We all know that tech can enhance our appearance to the point where we, and our pores, are unrecognizable (hello, Kardashian selfie light). It can make us look weird, and even smash our faces together. But is it also capable of giving us a real perspective on ourselves, warts, pores, and all?

MemoMi is a company that’s created a digital mirror. The technology consists of a camera set above a computer screen; aided by artificial intelligence software, it gives you every view of every angle, in real time and real size. "Nowadays when you take [a] selfie or look in [the] mirror, you’re limited by the angle you see," says founder Salvador Nissi Vilcovsky. "When people [look in our mirror] for first time, their mind is blown. When we tell people [to] use 360 degree view, they’re turning around but still turning their necks."

The company’s done tests at UniqloBergdorf Goodman, and other retailers to better serve people trying clothes on, allowing them to see themselves from behind, for instance, and switch the color of a jacket without putting on a new one. I asked him if anyone had reacted particularly strongly upon seeing themselves in this way for the first time. "It depends on their self esteem," he answered, laughing. "If they don’t think they look good, they look bad in front of any mirror. I look at myself all day now, and I don’t look more beautiful in it."

"It depends on their self esteem," he answered, laughing. "If they don’t think they look good, they look bad in front of any mirror."

That said, "it’s high quality and we are not doing any manipulation. It’s important for us not to make people look skinny."

This kind of tech could eventually help clothes fit better. Body Labs is one of several imaging companies that’s trying to give us a hyper-accurate look at our appearance by creating an animated model of each body that can try on clothes virtually, move around to show how clothes hang and fall in motion, and help us see how they look from each angle. This, the company hopes, can lower the return rate and help shoppers and brands identify what fits whom.

On a hot day in August, I took the company up on an offer to get scanned. I was instructed to show up in "athleisure," so I wriggled into a pair of Lululemons and a basic black Uniqlo tank and went to the company’s Union Square co-working space. The scanner stood in a small room overlooking 18th Street, surrounded by racks and racks of black bras; Body Labs is currently conducting a study to get a better sense of how plus-size clothes fit different women’s bodies. I got into the scanning booth and stood still on a platform for a few seconds while red rays scanned me up and down. Then I turned so that it could capture me from four angles, and let Body Labs’s "chief evangelist" Jon Cilley scan me again for accuracy with his iPad.

The experience reminded me of airports and the TSA — except instead of worrying about an errant pocketknife or forgotten belt buckle, I wondered if recreating my body on a screen would change my entire self perception. I remembered how deeply unsettled Sigmund Freud recalled feeling upon catching an unfamiliar reflection in a train window. "I was sitting alone in my wagon-lit compartment when… an elderly gentleman in a dressing-gown and a travelling cap came in," he wrote in 1918. "I at once realized to my dismay that the intruder was nothing but my own reflection in the looking-glass on the open door. I can still recollect that I thoroughly disliked his appearance… I simply failed to recognize [myself] as such."

What if the supposedly accurate "me" was awful in new, unusual ways I hadn’t yet perceived?

More recently, the poet Eliza Gabbert echoed the sentiment in an essay about seeing herself in an unflattering (to her) video: "Perhaps my reaction to the video was a combination of recognition and non-recognition," she writes. "I knew full well the woman speaking was me but could not square the visual with my mental self-image — the serene, impassive, almost expressionless face I find in a mirror or cultivate on camera."

What if the supposedly accurate "me" was awful in new, unusual ways I hadn’t yet perceived?

When the scanning was done, Cilley showed me a rough green outline rotating on a gridded backdrop. It reminded me of a sea creature captured by an underwater lens, fuzzy and vague and a little rough around the edges.

"This is the first draft," he said, "before the artificial intelligence does the rest of the work."

A week later, Cilley sent me a more complete version of "myself" in a series of gifs. Twirling in a generic A-line dress, "I" could have been anyone; there were no obvious distinguishing characteristics that would have made me think I was on there.

I asked the company for something more specific, reasoning that everyone looks basically the same in an A-line dress. In the second series of images, I wore jeans and a top. But there was still nothing to see. I had arms, legs, hips, shoulders. I was basically the height and size I thought I was. Away from the mirror, without eyes or lips or teeth, I looked utterly unremarkable.

I was surprised, relieved, disappointed — and skeptical. My dispassion couldn’t possibly be accurate. Surely there was something good or bad or surprising there for me to see?

But on my way back home, my frustration at still not having a clear image later turned into something that felt a bit like relief. There is something liberating about how little we can rely on mirrors and the technologies that supplement them. If none of what we see is entirely true, why be bothered by any of it?

In the myth of Narcissus, our hero, the son of a river god and a nymph, is lured to a pond by his enemy, Nemesis. He looks into the pool and falls in love with his reflection; he is subsequently unable to focus on anything but his own beauty and loses all other desire, including his will to live.

I wonder if our reflected multitudes are what save us all from Narcissus's fate. It’s not that we aren’t obsessed with ourselves: We are. We can’t stop, won’t stop looking and searching for more things to see. Fortunately, the filters, the lights, and the angles all keep us guessing.

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