Students at Rabindra Bharati University, in India, take a selfie during Holi celebrations.Rupak De Chowdhuri / Reuters

Your face is not flat. This might seem self-evident, but as people have begun to live richer, more selfie-filled lives online, a peculiar lacuna has formed around this point. In a recent survey of American plastic surgeons, more than 40 percent reported that patients came in asking for surgery to correct features they felt looked bad in photos posted on social media. Boris Paskhover, a surgeon and assistant professor at Rutgers New Jersey Medical School, says that sometimes when he asks potential patients what they’re interested in changing, they pull out their phones instead of looking in a mirror. Often, what they point out is that their noses are too wide. They’ll provide a selfie to prove it.

But selfies do not represent exactly what other people see when they look at you, especially when it comes to the nose. In a new paper in JAMA Facial Plastic Surgery, Paskhover and colleagues lay out exactly how what is on the screen distorts reality.

The key lies in the fact that your nose is closer to the camera lens than any other part of your face, says Paskhover. In much the same way that an object in the foreground of a photo appears bigger than something in the background, there is a widening effect. This matters more the closer the lens is to the face. To show how this works, the researchers took data from national databases of measurements of facial width, nose width, and other numbers about the geometry of faces and calculated how these numbers would change when a face was viewed at different distances.

On average, he and his colleagues found, a nose would measure about 30 percent wider in a photograph taken from 12 inches away than in one from five feet away. It isn’t anything special about cameras in particular, he notes. “If you put your nose up to the mirror, your nose will look bigger,” he says. We just haven’t developed the kind of mental correction we make to an image in a mirror when it comes to photographs we take of ourselves. And so we take it for truth.

In a way, isn’t this confusion a boon for plastic surgery? Not really, Paskhover says. When a misconception is what draws people to seek a procedure, they might be at a higher risk of feeling unsatisfied afterward. And even having a de facto narrower nose will not change the fact that a selfie will show a bigger nose than any farther-away photo, after all. “I want my patients to have a real self-image,” he says. He hopes that this paper will aid in convincing people of the reality of this effect.

Still, considering the tendency for more and more of people’s social lives to be played out through the lenses of cameras, you can imagine a version of the future in which faces that have been sculpted to look best on a screen grow popular—or, as has already begun in China, where software automatically optimizes selfie faces to reach a certain standard of beauty. Possibly fodder for science fiction, but the fact remains that we have a startling tendency to take what the camera shows for reality, even if it is not.

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