Even if the phrase “mirror selfies” isn’t in your daily lexicon, you likely know what it means: a selfie which, rather than being taken directly – camera-phone to face – is taken using a mirror, giving you a photograph of your own reflection.
Last week the internet trope – a mainstay of influencers such a Kendall Jenner, recognisable for the placement of a phone in front of the face – became freshly controversial.
“So here’s the secret: there’s no mirror. All you need is a second phone or spare camera,” said a TikTok influencer, Kara Del Toro, in a post that many claimed that mirror selfies were actually faked – created not using a mirror but with another photographer, or a self-timed camera on a tripod. The post went viral, as yet another aspect of social media culture was exposed as fakery. We had been duped, again, by the internet.
It may seem an odd thing to fake. As Teen Vogue, the bible of the social media-savvy, notes, the mirror selfie purports to be “a more intimate, casual medium.” Often taken in bedrooms and bathrooms, they give the impression of letting you in on an influencer’s inner sanctuary. But, with the faked kind, gone is that nonchalance, and the intimacy.
Susie Lau, known to her 510,000-plus fans as Susie Bubble, has been known to post selfies taken in her bathroom mirror. But are they really taken in her bathroom mirror? In short, yes. The faked mirror selfie is, she says, “not something I would personally do”. She loves the spontaneousness of the real deal and finds it “funny that people would go out of their way to fake something that can be achieved so easily”.
Fake spontaneity where real spontaneity would have been more easily achieved may be a head-scratcher, but Derek Conrad Murray, a theorist in the history of art and visual culture at the University of California, Santa Cruz, doesn’t think the artifice is meant as trickery. “In online cultures today, there is a very self-conscious embrace of artificiality as a value system and aesthetic strategy,” he says. And while he sees this as a means to “cultivate a sense of authenticity, he makes the distinction that this is about aesthetic, not genuine authenticity. In other words: “We need to detach this “aesthetics of authenticity” from a desire to actually be authentic, or truthful … the fakery is all part of the fun.”
The hoodwinking might also be for practical purposes. “I guess it’s just another way of art directing an aesthetic,” says Lau, “and obviously with that method then you get rid of any shadows, maybe your mirror proportions aren’t right, maybe the lighting isn’t great where your mirror’s situated, maybe you don’t have a space that even has a massive mirror.”
Mirror selfies come from a long tradition of portraiture – and mirrors in portraiture. When the mirror was first introduced, according to Ana Peraica, author of Culture of the Selfie: Self-Representation in Contemporary Visual Culture, it “changed our visual culture completely”. With it, she says, the way humans related to the world shifted and they no longer explained “the world through theological structures, such as God, but through the structure in which the human was at the centre of the universe”. This long-view gives an interesting read on the mirror selfie, fake or otherwise.
Even if many of today’s mirror selfies are not what they seem, fake ones shed light on certain aspects of internet culture. A masterclass in structured reality, Lau thinks it adds to the idea of everything being not what it seems on Instagram. “The reality is constructed and curated even if you think it feels like it’s so real,” she says, making them a perfect metaphor for social media as a whole.
She also thinks they might speak to the poster’s insecurities. “Why can’t you just do a normal mirror selfie?” she says. “What is it that you’re seeing that doesn’t seem right to you that you have to then construct it … It adds to this ongoing need for perfection and super-refined surfaces on Instagram.”
So are people really duped by these fake mirror selfies, and does it matter? The reaction on the internet would indicate many people are. But while debates around influencer authenticity are in the mainstream, focusing on the use of misleading filters, this facet of influencer culture feels more lol than libellous. As well as offering mere mortals with smudgy mirrors a sense of relief.