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Gen Z’s distorted sense of self-image

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Mercedes Jimenez-Cortes often takes pictures of herself in the curved mirrors hanging in parking lots. The mirrors transform a surreal everyday landscape, like jelly-like concrete curves and magnify the size of Jimenez-Cortes’ face, his iPhone, or his outstretched middle finger.

Jimenez Cortes, 24, who works at Instacart and lives in Atlanta, loves the look of mirrors so much that she recently bought one for her apartment. The stylishly named PLX18 Circular Acrylic Convex Interior Security Mirror is $37 on Amazon and comes equipped with a rotating mounting bracket to extend its visibility in loading docks and aisles. Jimenez-Cortes hung the mirror near a disco ball in her living room, where her cat, Pixie, uses it to look at her twisted reflection.

“It looks funny,” said Jimenez Cortes. “But she looks funny on purpose. »

So goes Gen Z’s latest take on self-image. The #NoFilter selfie is out and the goofy distortion is evident. There’s a 0.5 ultra-wide-angle lens for extreme forced perspective; AI picture generator to make you love painting; and a lo-fi digital camera for a gritty, nostalgic quality. Some young men looking for these influences are also turning to a more famous item for highway picking than influencers: the traffic mirror.

I’ve seen these mirrors before. Sometimes called blind spot mirrors, they come out of school buses and eighteen-wheel drive vehicles. They are also often used as safety or security mirrors, allowing visitors to grocery stores and subway stations to survey a wide area. They could be more accurately described as convex mirrors, but on TikTok, a language-warping platform, they’ve become known as traffic mirrors.

Jimenez-Cortes said she sees mirrors all over the app, touted as a low-cost selfie tool and home decor hack. The hashtag #trafficmirror, which has over 20 million views, appears alongside #inspo, #roomdesign and #aesthetic. The mirrors are sometimes included in TikTok video reports from streetwear accounts and have been hailed by commenters as “the essence of a bus driver”.

“There has actually been a slight upward trend in sales lately,” wrote Stylianos Peppas, director of SNS Safety Ltd, a road safety and parking company in London that sells convex mirrors via Amazon, in an email. He said he thought the mirrors were selling well “because people are increasingly concerned about their safety and the safety of their families”.

But social media suggests a less practical motive. On Pinterest, searches for “convex mirror” were four times higher in December than a year ago, according to Swasti Sarna, the company’s global director of data insights.

Historically, traffic mirrors were out of fashion, which is part of their appeal. Cheap, simple, and obviously out of place in the bedroom or your Instagram feed, mirrors add a layer of irreverence to photos.

In November, 25-year-old Elijah Ray, who works at a sawmill and lives in Portland, Oregon, ordered a set of two traffic mirrors from Amazon for $15. Before buying it, he said he would stop to take a selfie when he saw mirrors at a bus stop or CVS; Now he brings them home, picking up his clothes and much of his decor, like red LED light strips and a handmade yin and yang rug as his bearded dragon chills in the background during a Zoom interview.

“I like the vibe,” he said, “I have a giant eye and a small eye. »

The way mirrors distort the face and body can relieve some of the pressure to look perfect, said Allie Robottom, author of “Aesthetica,” a 2022 novel about an influential personality trying to undo years of plastic surgery.

The proliferation of apps like Facetune to smooth pores and shrink size beyond the point of possibility has led to a #NoFilter backlash that seems to confirm authenticity. But even so-called reality still requires self-manipulation. Searching the internet for “totally weird,” Robottom said, is Gen Z’s rejection of both approaches.

“We’ve moved on from the traditional era of selfies that started in 2012 and 2013 with the advent of Instagram,” she said.

However, the history of distorted photography predates social media. The Italian painter Parmigianino was around 21 when he painted his “Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror” in 1524. Parmigianino used two barber’s mirrors that exaggerated the size of his hand and made the horizon behind him appear curved and irregular.

While earlier portraits of Albrecht Dürer, for example, featured delicate poses, said Sabine Haag, general director of the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna, where the portrait is on display, Parmigianino’s portraits are playful and fluid while displaying a drawing superior.

Like today’s portrait painters, the illustrator sought to capture something specific. “That should really give you an idea that it wasn’t built,” Haag continued. “It’s something very spontaneous. »

Much later, when Nikon’s first fisheye camera lens became widely available to consumers in 1962, similar images became a staple of popular culture. In the 1960s, fisheye lenses were used to photograph the album covers of Jimi Hendrix and the Rolling Stones, and to document the wealth of Woodstock.

But perhaps the fish-eye look is more associated with the 90s – the decade endearingly and ironically alternated by Gen Z. The lens became a defining look of the decade thanks to its ubiquity in skateboard photography. and hip hop. Jeremy Elkin, director of the documentary All the Streets Are Silent.

Director Hype Williams used fisheye lenses to accentuate Missy Elliott’s futuristic outfit in the music video for “The Rain (Supa Dupa Fly)” and Busta Rhymes’ many characters in “Gimme Some More.” The lens’ ultra-wide angle can hold a speedy skateboard, a full-fledged Missy Elliott hummer, or a deck full of Beastie Boys.

Elkin noted that the fish-eye look has returned to recent album covers by Lorde and Harry Styles. By creating a dramatic look with relatively inexpensive equipment, the convex lens reflects the timeless DIY spirit of the young, energetic and broke.

“With skateboarding, music videos and kids taking selfies in parking lot mirrors, the thing they all have in common is that you don’t need a high production value or a crazy scene or crazy place,” Elkin said. “A fisheye lens can take something as basic as a studio and can turn it into something exciting. »

The same logic applies to TikTok, where Harry White posted a video from his traffic mirror in July that has been viewed more than 1.2 million times.

White, 26, a home decor content creator in Cardiff, Wales, peels strips of protective film off a mirror and teases its spongy surface in the video, which comes to ASMR. He said he had received messages from viewers asking where they could get the mirrors for themselves.

“The problem with TikTok is that it’s very competitive,” he said. “When a designer’s video is really good, like mine, other designers will try to copy the video, even if the interior design pieces are completely different and don’t match their vibe,” he said. declared.

The experience deepened White’s reservations about the fast fashion decorating and fashion courses that appear on the app. Mirrors are cheap enough that people can buy them, shoot a video or two, then throw them away, following a quick fashion guide.

Previous iPhone photography accessories haven’t necessarily stood the test of time: who still achieves the tempting angle with a selfie stick?

Whether or not a circulation mirror is blocked, Rowbottom believes the sentiment behind it is enduring.

“Bending into a distorted image of yourself through a mirror or through your iPhone screen is an act of reform and rebellion,” Rowbottom said. “That atmosphere is very essential to youth culture in all eras. »

Justyna Gwozdz, 26, an accountant in Katowice, Poland, bought a traffic mirror in June at a DIY store and hung it in her bathroom above the toilet. She takes photos almost daily to document her best party looks and her worst headboard looks.

No matter what they look like that day, they look weird and funny in their traffic mirror – which is a relief. “You don’t have to look good to look good in it,” she said.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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