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How Do "Skinny" Mirrors Work?

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Done right, a retail dressing room can be a real ego boost. The lighting is soft and lovely, the atmosphere can be relaxing (think Anthropologie), and the floor-length mirrors are flattering.

In fact, maybe they're a little too flattering. Suspicious shoppers have long wondered if retailers employ “skinny mirror” tricks to increase their sales. After all, how many times have you put a newly purchased piece of clothing on at home and been less than impressed? Making such a mirror wouldn’t be too difficult. As physics professor Dr. Ken Mellendorf explained to Apartment Therapy, all it takes is a slight curve in the glass.

"A completely flat mirror will show an image behind it of exactly the same shape and size as the actual object. Slight curvature along only one axis can make a person look fat or skinny. To make you look thin, your image needs to be compressed horizontally or extended vertically. Most mirrors bend over time top to bottom. If seen from the side, there is a slight curvature in the edge. The top and bottom edges are usually straight. Your home mirror can do this due to its own weight. If the center bulges out a little bit, your height will appear slightly smaller but your width will not be changed."

Yes, even non-retail store mirrors can be deceiving. Thin mirrors are more likely to bend and distort over time, while thicker mirrors—especially those supported by a frame or mounted on a wall—will present a more accurate image.

But back to the dressing room: Though the existence of “skinny mirrors” has been pure speculation in the past, there’s now evidence that such sorcery is real. In 2015, entrepreneur Belinda Jasmine appeared on Shark Tank to pitch The Skinny Mirror, a line of mirrors designed to make reflections appear to be up to 10 pounds lighter than the person really is. None of the Sharks bit on the deal, but Jasmine continued with the business and has apparently been in talks with at least one popular apparel chain. There’s certainly good reason for that anonymous chain to investigate: According to The Skinny Mirror website, stores that use the modified mirrors experience up to 18.2 percent more sales per customer.

Though many customers see the mirrors as consumer deception, The Skinny Mirror website argues that the product helps create positive self image and better self esteem, leading users to feel more confident and satisfied with themselves.

When it comes down to it, are skinny mirrors helpful or harmful? We’ll leave you to reflect on that.

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Why Is the American Flag Displayed Backwards on Military Uniforms?
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In 1968, famed activist Abbie Hoffman decided to crash a meeting of the House Un-American Activities Committee in Washington by showing up in a shirt depicting the American flag. Hoffman was quickly surrounded by police, who ripped his shirt off and arrested him for desecration of the Red, White, and Blue.

Hoffman’s arrest is notable today because, while it might be unpatriotic to some, wearing the American flag, burning it, or otherwise disrespecting it is not a violation of any federal law. In 1989, the Supreme Court ruled that it would be unconstitutional to prosecute any such action. Still, Americans have very fervent and strict attitudes toward displaying the flag, a longstanding symbol of our country’s freedom. According to the U.S. Flag Code, which was first published in 1923, you shouldn’t let the flag touch the ground or hang it upside-down. While there’s no express prohibition about reversing the image, it’s probably a safe bet you shouldn’t do that, either.

Yet branches of the U.S. military are often spotted with a seeming mirror reflection of the flag on their right shoulder. If you look at a member in profile, the canton—the rectangle with the stars—is on the right. Isn’t that backwards? Shouldn’t it look like the flag on the left shoulder?

The American flag appears on a military uniform
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Not really. The flag is actually facing forward, and it’s not an optical illusion.

When a service member marches or walks forward, they assume the position of a flagpole, with the flag sewn on their uniform meant to resemble a flag flapping in the breeze. With the canton on the right, the flag would be fluttering behind them. If it were depicted with the canton on the left, the flag would be flying backward—as though it had been hung by the stripes instead of the stars nearest to the pole. The position of the flag is noted in Army Regulation 670-1, mandating the star field should face forward. The official term for this depiction is “reverse side flag.”

As for Hoffman: His conviction was overturned on appeal. In 1970, while at a flag-themed art show in New York, he was invited to get up and speak. He wore a flag shirt for the occasion.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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What Causes Sinkholes?
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Mark Ralston/AFP/Getty Images

This week, a sinkhole opened up on the White House lawn—likely the result of excess rainfall on the "legitimate swamp" surrounding the storied building, a geologist told The New York Times. While the event had some suggesting we call for Buffy's help, sinkholes are pretty common. In the past few days alone, cavernous maws in the earth have appeared in Maryland, North Carolina, Tennessee, and of course Florida, home to more sinkholes than any other state.

Sinkholes have gulped down suburban homes, cars, and entire fields in the past. How does the ground just open up like that?

Sinkholes are a simple matter of cause and effect. Urban sinkholes may be directly traced to underground water main breaks or collapsed sewer pipelines, into which city sidewalks crumple in the absence of any structural support. In more rural areas, such catastrophes might be attributed to abandoned mine shafts or salt caverns that can't take the weight anymore. These types of sinkholes are heavily influenced by human action, but most sinkholes are unpredictable, inevitable natural occurrences.

Florida is so prone to sinkholes because it has the misfortune of being built upon a foundation of limestone—solid rock, but the kind that is easily dissolved by acidic rain or groundwater. The karst process, in which the mildly acidic water wears away at fractures in the limestone, leaves empty space where there used to be stone, and even the residue is washed away. Any loose soil, grass, or—for example—luxury condominiums perched atop the hole in the ground aren't left with much support. Just as a house built on a weak foundation is more likely to collapse, the same is true of the ground itself. Gravity eventually takes its toll, aided by natural erosion, and so the hole begins to sink.

About 10 percent of the world's landscape is composed of karst regions. Despite being common, sinkholes' unforeseeable nature serves as proof that the ground beneath our feet may not be as solid as we think.

A version of this story originally ran in 2014.

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