Always Hate Your Selfies Immediately After You've Taken Them? There's a Psychological Reason

Psychologists explain why your photos tend to look better a few years (or even days) later — and tbh, it’s really liberating.

Why We Like Photos of Ourselves in the Past More Than the Present
Photo: Getty Images

Raise your hand if you've ever been extra excited about a photo, say, to post a new haircut or outfit. So you eagerly grab the phone back from whoever took it and….blah. The picture sucks. Your new haircut's not as great as you thought. Your dress doesn't pop at all.

This happens to me often. I'll think I'm having a good hair/outfit/eyeliner day, then I look at the photo and question every good thought I had about my look. But lately, I started to notice something stranger. After a few weeks, I'll revisit the photo and think, wait, I looked fine. Maybe even…good.

If you've ever felt the same way, you might be comforted to learn that psychologists are not surprised. But what does this say about how we view our own beauty, both in the moment and over a long period of time?

For starters, we aren't objective judges

A few things could play into this phenomenon, says Aenne Brielmann, Ph.D., psychologist and postdoctoral researcher who studies beauty and aesthetics at the Max Planck Institute for Biological Cybernetics in Germany. The first? Your expectations as you plan the perfect shot.

"Whenever we evaluate something — whether it's beauty, taste, what have you — it's never based on an absolute value that the thing has," she says. Meaning, your photo isn't objectively "good" or "bad," or if you prefer the social media equivalent, "worth posting" or "not worth posting."

Instead, "our evaluation is always relative to our expectations," Brielmann says, noting that most of us actually have pretty high expectations for ourselves, as long as something like clinical depression isn't at play. "If we expect our photo to be better than average, and we get an average photo, we're more likely to be disappointed," Brielmann says. "It's a good picture, but we expected to have a great picture."

This is important to keep in mind if you tend to pick apart your pics, like an increasing number of us do. Just over three-quarters of plastic surgeons say that their patients seek professional cosmetic procedures to look better in their selfies, up 35% since the American Academy of Facial Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery first noticed the trend in 2016. (Zoom's a whole new layer.)

Maybe your picture isn't break-the-internet good or make-your-ex-grovel good, but it's still run-of-the-mill good; as in, completely and totally fine. The problem is, high expectations mean disappointment, as Brielmann said, and they also invite more judgment. "If we're looking for bad things, then we will find them," Brielmann says.

Thing is, you're less likely to look for those flaws as time goes by, because quite frankly, you no longer care. The photo is taken. You've moved on with life. So now, you're able to look at the image with a clear head and less critical eyes, eyes that forgot whatever vision you had in your head at the time you took it.

There's a nostalgia effect

Those eyes also become more rose-colored as time passes. Brielmann says it's questionable whether we can evaluate an image independently from the memories associated with it. This means that remembering good times — even if they were just last week — makes for a more positive assessment of the photo, because we tend to see beauty as one part of an overall positive experience, one colored by nostalgia and void of any stressors that were plaguing us in the moment.

"We tend to discard negative memories, apart from very aversive ones and real threats," Brielmann says, "so by and large, we only remember the good times."

High school and college are great examples of this. You were probably pretty stressed as a teenager, but when you look at photos later, you think, damn, that was fun. "The image reminds you of those good times and that gloss could apply to your judgment of the image itself," says Brielmann.

This is especially true the further back in time you look, but it could also apply to a picture you took last week. Your mood could have been clouded by an email you just got from your boss, or a text you were debating sending to last night's date. But a week later, you've already dealt with these minor stressors, and your brain has deemed them useless to hold on to. So, looking back, you only see the good stuff. Again, damn that was fun.

This matters when we judge things, even ourselves, because positive experiences tend to mean more positive assessments, even if the thing we're judging seems unrelated. For example, people are more likely to leave a bad restaurant review when it's raining outside, according to a Journal of Hospitality & Tourism Research study.

"Our mood influences how we perceive ourselves," confirms Pamela K. Keel, Ph.D., research professor at Florida State University, who studies eating disorders and body image. "So, a bad mood could contribute to heightened perception of imperfections." Not to mention, the static nature of photos makes nit-picking particularly tempting. "A photo freezes our appearance in time, which creates the opportunity to focus in on a detail because that detail doesn't change," Keel says. "In real life, we're constantly in motion, with shifts in facial expressions and body position that encourage us to see ourselves as a whole composition."

We've gotta talk about age

Courteney Cox addressed what you may be thinking — that we're always looking at a younger image — in her recent InStyle cover story. "I already felt like I was aging back then," she says of a 2009 Cougar Town scene in which she scrutinizes her body. "But, man, was I crazy! No matter how elderly you think you look today, in a few years, you'll look back and go, 'Oh my God, what on Earth was I complaining about?' So, we shouldn't spend one minute on that."

She's right, of course. Put differently, "today we're younger than we['re] ever gonna be," as the Regina Spektor song goes. Put differently still, five years from now, the you of today will be, well, five years younger.

Brielmann acknowledges that it's natural to want to improve ourselves. But look at a picture from high school, and do you really want to improve her? You can't. Or maybe you already did. Either way, she's a different person, not the self you know today. Even if you don't like your haircut or your outfit, you probably feel compassion for her. At the very least, how could you be mean to her?

My point, like Courteney's, is that I hope you can give your present-day self the same grace. I came to this realization in my early-to-mid 30s, while I was considering Botox. By this point, I had gotten a handful of treatments to freeze my face, and I've come to realize that if I don't start developing a more positive relationship with aging now as in, right now, while I'm still relatively young it's going to be a long road, one in which overemphasized flaws feed off each other and pave over the good stuff. "We gravitate towards validation of what we believe, even if we believe there's something wrong with us," Keel says.

This is called self-affirmation bias, and in this case, it means that you believe your wrinkles are horrible, so then you scan your photos to support what you already believe to be true: that your wrinkles are horrible. You find your evidence and the circle continues, literally until you die if you don't break the cycle.

The good news is, if you look for something positive, you'll find that too, and as I see it, you might as well go that route. Today you're younger than you're ever gonna be.

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