‘Traffic mirror’ popularity adds to Gen Z’s distorted sense of selfie

Mercedes Jimenez-Cortes taking a selfie with a traffic mirror. PHOTOS: NYTIMES

NEW YORK – Mercedes Jimenez-Cortes often takes pictures of herself in the domed mirrors that hang in carparks. The mirrors turn an everyday scene surreal, bending concrete like it is jelly and exaggerating the size of her face or her iPhone.

The 24-year-old, who works for retail platform Instacart and lives in Atlanta, liked the look of the mirrors so much that she recently purchased one for her apartment.

The stylishly named PLX18 Circular Acrylic Indoor Convex Security mirror cost US$37 (S$50) on Amazon and came equipped with a swivel mounting bracket to extend its range of visibility in loading docks and driveways.

Ms Jimenez-Cortes hung the mirror near a disco ball in her living room, where her cat uses it to gaze at its own contorted reflection.

“It looks funny,” she said. “But it looks funny on purpose.”

So goes Gen Z’s latest approach to the self-portrait. The #NoFilter selfie is out, and obvious, goofy distortion is in.

There is the 0.5 ultra-wide-angle lens for extreme forced perspective, the AI portrait generator for rendering you like a painting and the lo-fi digital camera for a grainy, nostalgic quality.

Some young people in search of these effects are also turning to an item better known for capturing interstates than influencers: the traffic mirror.

Sometimes called blind-spot mirrors, they wing out from school buses and eighteen-wheelers. They are also often used as safety or security mirrors, allowing attendants at grocery stores and subway stations to keep watch over a wide area.

They are probably most accurately described as convex mirrors, but on TikTok, a platform adept at warping language, they have become known as traffic mirrors.

Ms Jimenez-Cortes said she sees the mirrors all over the app, where they are being pitched as both a selfie tool and low-cost home decor hack.

The hashtag #trafficmirror, which has more than 20 million views, appears alongside ones such as #inspo, #roomdesign and #aesthetic. The mirrors are sometimes included in TikTok video round-ups from streetwear accounts and praised by commenters as “bus driver core”.

“There has indeed been a slight upward trend in sales lately,” said Mr Stylianos Peppas, director of SNS Safety, a traffic and parking safety company in London that sells convex mirrors through Amazon, in an e-mail.

Mercedes Jimenez-Cortes looks into a traffic mirror in a parking garage in Atlanta on Jan 14, 2023. PHOTO: NYTIMES

He said he thought the mirrors had been selling well “because people are increasingly concerned about the safety of themselves and their families”.

But social media suggests a less practical motivation. On Pinterest, searches for “convex mirror” were four times higher in December than they had been a year earlier, said Ms Swasti Sarna, the company’s global director of data insights.

That traffic mirrors have not historically been fashionable is part of their appeal. Cheap, ordinary and conspicuously out of place in a bedroom or Instagram feed, the mirrors add a layer of irreverence to photos.

The way the mirrors distort the face and body can take some of the pressure off looking perfect, said Allie Rowbottom, author of Aesthetica, a 2022 novel about an influencer who tries to undo years of cosmetic surgery.

The proliferation of apps such as Facetune to smooth pores and cinch waists beyond the point of possibility brought about a #NoFilter backlash that seemed to emphasise authenticity. But even some of that so-called realness still required self-manipulation. Looking “absolutely bizarro” online is Gen Z’s rejection of both approaches, said Rowbottom.

The history of distorted portraiture, however, predates social media.

Much later, when Nikon’s first fish-eye camera lens became broadly available to consumers in 1962, similar images became a fixture of pop culture. In the 1960s, fish-eye lenses were used to photograph album covers for musicians such as Jimi Hendrix and The Rolling Stones, and to document the trippiness of Woodstock.

But the fish-eye look is perhaps best associated with the 1990s – the decade that is at turns lovingly and ironically emulated by Gen Z. The lens became a defining look of the decade through its prevalence in both skateboarding and hip-hop videography, said Jeremy Elkin, director of the 2021 documentary All The Streets Are Silent.

Director Hype Williams used fish-eye lenses to heighten American rapper Missy Elliott’s futuristic outfits in the 1997 music video for The Rain (Supa Dupa Fly) and American rap star Busta Rhymes’ many characters in Gimme Some More (1998).

The fish-eye look is back on recent album covers for singers Lorde and Harry Styles, Elkin noted. By creating a dramatic look with one relatively inexpensive piece of equipment, the convex lens reflects a do-it-yourself ethos that is timeless among the young, edgy and broke.

Whether the traffic mirror sticks around, Rowbottom believes the sentiment behind it is an enduring one.

“Leaning into a distorted image of the self through a mirror or through your iPhone screen is an act of reclamation and rebellion,” said Rowbottom. “That vibe is so essential to youth culture in any era.” NYTIMES

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