A girlfriend of mine recently referred to her "fat mirror" (one that made her look wider and shorter) and her "skinny mirror" (one that elongated her frame). Is this a red flag for some major body image dysmorphia or is she on to something? For me, buying a mirror has always been about its frame and its shape. It never occurred to me that some mirrored reflections could be more accurate than others. And, really, who cares? What matters is what is on the inside, right? I know, I know. But let's indulge this narcissistic train of thought for just a moment.Think about clothes shopping. Have you ever found an outfit that looks great in the changing room but only so-so at home? Was it just buyer's remorse? Was it a matter of lighting? (We all know that soft lighting is more forgiving than, say, fluorescent lighting.) Or was the store's mirror tricking you?
A few "news" articles (yes, news articles) have questioned the accuracy of changing room mirrors. It seems that there are some conspiracy theorists who believe that retailers trick you into buying more clothes by equipping their stores with "skinny mirrors"! Are some mirrors really more accurate than others at reflecting the "real" you?
According to Oklahoma physics teacher Jody Bowie, even the slightest bend in a mirror can distort your image. "Really it's just a piece of glass with a reflection on the back so if the glass is bent in any way, shape or fashion," Bowie says. "If you make it bend this way, the light would hit the mirror and go off in an angle so it would make you look larger. A bend in the opposite direction will make you look slimmer."
Another physics teacher, Dr. Ken Mellendorf of Illinois, explains it like this: "A completely flat mirror will show an image behind it of exactly the same shape and size as the actual object. Slight curvature along only one axis can make a person look fat or skinny. To make you look thin, your image needs to be compressed horizontally or extended vertically. Most mirrors bend over time top to bottom. If seen from the side, there is a slight curvature in the edge. The top and bottom edges are usually straight. Your home mirror can do this due to its own weight. If the center bulges out a little bit, your height will appear slightly smaller but your width will not be changed. This can make a person look a little fat."
If you want the truth (can you handle the truth?), invest in a strong, thick mirror that is less likely to bend under its own weight. Some experts contend that a high-quality 1/4-inch thick plate glass mirror is a better choice than a thinner, 3/16" thick mirror because it will be less prone to distortion.
It shouldn't make a difference if you have a cheval mirror (a long mirror that is fixed to a frame that stands on the floor) or a wall-mounted floor mirror. The key is that the actual glass itself is not bent or warped in any way. However, simply leaning a bare, unframed floor mirror up against the wall may make it more likely to bend and, therefore, more likely to distort your image.
Image: EQ3 mirror at Invironments Design.