When a character undergoes a sudden transformation or change of some kind, they don't always realize what's happened until it's too late. Part of this is because other characters might not want to be rude and call attention to it, and other times they're alone and have nobody there to react, anyway. So, one of the easiest ways of getting a character to see what's happened to them is by having them look in a mirror, or another reflective surface, and discover it that way.
This can have the dual purpose of revealing it to the character as well as the audience, keeping their features obscured until they look in the mirror, but it can just as easily be a shock only to the character. In this way, it can either work as a Reveal Shot, or as a bit of suspense, where the audience waits to see how the character will react to their new looks. In either case, the character is likely to scream, possibly dropping the mirror in the process, or causing others to come running and see it for themselves. In more extreme cases, it'll cause them to Rage Against the Reflection.
In downplayed examples, the "transformation" is something more minor, such as a bad hair-cut. What matters is the way of discovering their new appearance, not the severity of it.
Compare The Mirror Shows Your True Self (which isn't about transformation) and House of Broken Mirrors (which may happen before or after this). Related to Tomato in the Mirror (that's about realizing that it's been oneself all along, this one is about transformations that have happened as part of the story that do not necessarily mean that it was oneself all along) and Just Woke Up That Way. When the audience sees the transformation result before the character does, this overlaps with Oblivious Transformation. Has nothing to do with Mirror Scare, which is a different kind of mirror-related reveal.
Don't confuse with Description in the Mirror, where a character's appearance is described while they look in a mirror.
This trope deals in Reveals, so there's unmarked spoilers ahead!
- In The Twelve Kingdoms, after Youko is pulled into another world, she undergoes a transformation that is subtle, but apparently significant enough that her schoolmate Yuka doesn't recognize her. When Youko asks what's wrong, Yuka silently pulls out a compact and shows it to her.
- In the Tamagotchi episode "What? Swapping Personalities", Mametchi doesn't realize that he's in Chamametchi's body until he looks in a mirror.
- Played for Laughs in one episode of Yugioh ZEXAL. Yuma walks into class in increasingly strange outfits, oblivious to the snickers and confusion his classmates show him. It's only after he's given a mirror on the third or so day that he realizes that he's dressed like a weirdo.
- In the Simple Samosa episode "Makkhi Makkhi!", Jalebi discovers the fly stuck on her head when she looks in her bathroom's mirror shortly after waking up.
- In The Curse of the Were-Rabbit: Wallace finds out about his rabbit ears when Gromit holds up a mirror to him.
- In The Emperor's New Groove, Kuzco only sees that he's been transformed into a llama when he rushes to a pond to look at his reflection after seeing that his hand has become a hoof.
- In My Little Pony: Equestria Girls after Twilight enters the human world, she is shocked at her new human body's features but is unaware of what she really is. She finally gets a look at her own image through the reflection in the trophy case at Canterlot High, and is shocked at what she has become.
- In Pinocchio, Lampwick doesn't notice that he's turning into a donkey until he starts braying. He then feels his now-furry head, and confirms his suspicions when he looks into a mirror.
- In Shrek 2, Shrek doesn't realize he's become human until he looks at his hands, followed by his reflection in a pail of water. Fiona finds out she is human again when she sees herself in a mirror.
- In The Frog Princess, Koshchei tells Vasilisa to look at a magical mirror after she rejects him. The mirror is actually the artifact which transforms her into a frog, meaning she is Forced to Watch the process.
- In The Princess and the Frog, after Tiana is accidentally turned into a frog for kissing Naveen (because she's not a true princess like he thought), she doesn't realize her transformation until she gets a look at her reflection in a hand mirror.
- Subverted example: in the first The Fantastic Four movie, the future Human Torch convinces the guy who we know to be the one who turns into The Thing that something terrible and irreversible has happened to his face. He slowly lifts the mirror, and he looks totally normal.
- Mike O' Donnell, from 17 Again, drives home after falling into a river, looks into the mirror while showering the mud off of his clothes, and sees his transformed teenage self in the mirror, causing him to freak out.
- Subverted in Batman (1989). After performing surgery on Jack Napier, the surgeon is horrified by Napier's face when he takes off his bandages. Napier demands a mirror. The surgeon hands him one, but we don't get to see his reflection, only his reaction - sobbing that slowly transforms into maniacal laughter, hinting at his transformation into The Joker.
- Freaked: Arrogant, vain movie star Ricky Coogan is captured by Mad Scientist Elijah C. Skuggs and mutated by the chemical Zygrot-24; the next morning Elijah jovially greets Ricky with a hand mirror to show "The Beast Boy" his new face. Cue screaming and projectile vomit.
Ricky: Oh God! That was my good side!Elijah: Still is, if you ask me.
- Inverted in Identity: Ed is understandably freaked when he is shown a mirror and sees his reflection as Malcolm Rivers, a convicted serial killer; The problem is, that is Ed's real face. He is one of Rivers's alternate personalities.
- In The Chronicles of Narnia, Eustace first discovers his transformation into a dragon upon seeing his reflection in a pool of water.
- In Diary of a Wimpy Kid, Rowley has two pimples on his face. Greg sees them and instantly thinks they're chicken pox, then shows Rowley a mirror. Rowley assumes it's chicken pox, too, and screams.
- In the book Things Not Seen, Bobby Phillips doesn't know that he's become invisible until he doesn't see himself in the mirror.
- Matilda: Mr Wormwood does not understand why everyone is yelling at him about his hair; eventually he demands a mirror to discover that his hair has been bleached a dirty silver.
- The Man In The Mirror (1910, by Hudson Douglas) has "Bolter" Baxendale awaken after a night of partying in a very ornate room, and dressed in finery befitting a prince. When he sees his reflection in one of the mirrored walls, Baxendale thinks it's someone come to greet him. It's not until his hand, extended for a handshake, bumps against the glass that Baxendale realizes that it's himself looking so dapper. Prince Juric of Jetland arranged this so that Baxendale could pose as the prince in order to safely scope out his potential bride, Princess Ingrid of Marque.
- Temeraire: Laurence wakes up on a beach in Japan at the beginning of Blood of Tyrants with no memory of how he got halfway around the world. When he finally sees a mirror, he's shocked at how much older and more scarred he looks; he then asks about the date and learns that his last memories are eight years (and seven books) old.
- The Dresden Files: Happens to Thomas Raith in "Back Up". Whilst on the trail of a dangerous Stygian Sorceress, she casts an illusion upon him that causes him to resemble an evil looking older man (in the hopes of tricking his brother Harry into mistaking him for the villain and killing him). Thomas doesn't realise until he sees his reflection in the mirror, which allows her to escape.
- In the ending of The Ugly Duckling, the now adult ugly duckling is unaware that he wasn't a duck all along, but a swan, until a flock of them accept him and he sees his reflection in the lake.
- In the episode of The X-Files "El Mundo Gira", the Monster of the Week only realizes that he has become this by looking at himself in a mirror.
- Grimm has Monroe and Rosalee talking about the first time they woged. Rosalee says her first time, she didn't realize she'd changed until her brother showed her a mirror.
- Quantum Leap:
- In the first episode, after Sam leaps for the first time his brain is "swiss-cheesed", so he doesn't know who he is or what he's doing there. When he first sees himself in the mirror he jumps back, apparently having a mental image of his face which isn't the face he's looking back at.
- In the early episode "How the Tess Was Won" Sam is trying to woo a woman named Tess on behalf of the man he leaped into, but ends up losing her to another man. Al suggests that Sam look into a mirror where he sees a Hispanic man looking back; Al says that Sam got much further than anyone would have expected (Tess is white, and the story takes place in the 1950s). Evidently Sam never looked into a mirror the entire time he had leaped even though it had been upwards of a week.
- In one Halloween Episode, Sam looks into the mirror and discovers that he has no reflection.
- House of Anubis: When Amber is cursed to turn old, she first only gets a personality change and complains about things like joint-pain or hearing problems. Then Nina catches her in her room, and is shocked by what she sees; Amber is forced to check the mirror to find that she's now covered in wrinkles.
- Downplayed on The Last Man on Earth. After Mike shows up and starts living with the group, Phil wakes up one morning and goes to prepare for the day. When he looks at himself in the mirror before doing so, he discovers that Mike somehow shaved the hair off one side of his head.
- Doctor Who: In "The Doctor Falls", Bill loses consciousness after undergoing Transformation Horror at the hands of the villains, and when she wakes up she's apparently returned to her usual self. Then the Doctor hands her a mirror, and the reflection shows that she's still transformed and her mind is rejecting the reality to keep her sane.
- In an episode of Sabrina the Teenage Witch, the eighteen year old Sabrina is trying to impress, Josh, a college student in his early twenties, who thinks she's not mature enough for him. She uses a magic face lotion that makes her more mature, and behaves like she's also in her early twenties. However as she continues to use the cream she continues aging until she starts behaving and looking like a middle aged woman. When a young witch she's mentoring shows her a mirror, Sabrina looks like her eighteen year old self. When Sabrina becomes an elderly woman, her aunt Zelda casts a spell, and when Sabrina looks at her reflection again, she sees that she's been turned into an octogenarian.
- In an episode of That '70s Show where Kelso is up for inspection at the police academy, Hyde and Fez, who think that Kelso is becoming a "square", shave his mustache when he's asleep the night before. When the inspector fails him, Kelso starts yelling at Fez and Hyde, and when they show him a mirror, he admits that the Hitler mustache is a good burn.
- Impractical Jokers did this when the four guys all got a Gag Haircut punishment at the end of Season one, when the stylist turned the barber chair towards the mirror. Joe, who hates having long hair, was revealed to have been given a sparkly mullet. Q, who sports wavy black hair, was revealed to have bright red curly locks (think Little Orphan Annie). Sal's head was shaved down the middle, and the hair in the front of his head was bleached. Murr was given the hairstyle of a Munchkinland resident.
- In Star Trek: The Next Generation, the episode "Face of the Enemy" has Deanna Troi wake up, look in the mirror, and realise that she's been given a Romulan's face.
- Altered Carbon: When Takeshi Kovacs realizes he's been resleeved in the first episode he threatens the medical staff with a scalpel and demands a mirror over the doctor's objections that it wouldn't help his psychological state. One of the techs hands him a metal tray, in which he momentarily hallucinates his birth sleeve before stabilizing and seeing his new face.
- Buffy the Vampire Slayer: Giles realizes that Ethan Rayne turned him into a Fyarl demon when he sees his reflection in the mirror. And then he [Giles] breaks some household items during his reaction.
- This happens to Funguy in Chrono Cross. After he notices the party staring at him, he looks in a nearby pool of water and flips out when he sees that he's become a mushroom.
- This happens to the player character in Dark Tales: Morella, because until they see their reflection in the nearby mirror, they don't realize that they have fallen victim to Demonic Possession.
- In Anti-Heroes, when Aldran resurrects Lana with a scroll of Lifeblood, he tells her she should fix her hair and conjures a mirror. Since Lifeblood scrolls turn the revivee into a vampire, she casts no reflection.
- While Art of Sequential Art was passed out during holiday merriment, his two flatmates shaved his head in strip #122. A contrite Kat shows him the results in a mirror. Art is shocked at first, then displeased. Strangely, Art's huge eyebrows were left intact.
- In El Goonish Shive, Sarah's magic mark is revealed both in-universe to Sarah and to readers by seeing it on her back in Sarah's bathroom mirror.
- Avatar: The Last Airbender: Zuko does it to himself. He gets up after his fever for a drink and to wash his face. Only when he looks in the mirror, he sees to his horror that he has become Zuko-as-Aang. It turns out to have been All Just a Dream.
- A slight variant occurs in the He-Man and the Masters of the Universe (2002) series. After Keldor is transformed into Skeletor, a horrified Evil-Lyn shows him his reflection. Skeletor sees his head is now nothing but a skull.... and starts laughing manically.
- In the Futurama episode "Spanish Fry", Fry has just had his "human horn" (nose) stolen by alien poachers. Zoidberg agrees to tell him tactfully and promptly shouts "Fry your nose is gone! We know not where it is but on your face it is not!". Bender then shoves a mirror in his face and invokes this trope.
- The scene from The Simpsons where Lisa gets braces, she's given a mirror and she breaks it. That scene was parodying the Joker scene from the original Batman movie.
- A Running Gag in Jackie Chan Adventures is for a character to undergo a magical transformation, ask why everyone else is staring, and Uncle to say "Don't look in the mirror!" Naturally, the character immediately does so and freaks out, and Uncle adds "I told you not to look in the mirror!"
- In the Christmas Episode of Martin Mystery, Diana's ears grow and she doesn't notice, only complaining that everyone's so loud all of a sudden. Martin then holds up a dinner platter to show her what has happened.
- In The Powerpuff Girls episode "Criss Cross Crisis", Blossom finds out that she's in Miss Bellum's body when Buttercup (in the Professor's body) holds a mirror up to her. Afterward, Bubbles, in the Mayor's body, walks over to the bathroom mirror and has this hilarious Double Take.
Bubbles: Mayor, what are you doing in our house. I'm not in your house, you're in my body. Oh. (beat; cue Spit Take)
- Butt-Monkey Daffy Duck in his cartoon "Duck Amuck" has his body erased by a devilish artist, then redrawn horribly Off-Model. Daffy remarks that he feels strange, but can't pinpoint what's wrong. It's when the artist draws a mirror for him that Daffy sees how hilariously he's been mutated, and rages at the animator.
- Rabbit of Seville has Bugs Bunny pose as the barber during a stage production of Gioachino Rossini's The Barber of Seville. Elmer Fudd gets duped into acting as Bugs's customer. At one point, Bugs massages Elmer's bald scalp with hair restorer, then with Figaro Fertilizer. In seconds, tendrils start rising from Elmer's scalp, and Bugs holds up a mirror so that Elmer can gaze at the sudden growth on his head. Then the gag kicks in: Those aren't hair strands, they're flower stems. Blooms suddenly adorn the tendril ends, causing Elmer to snarl and reach for his trusty firearm.
- In Total Drama Revenge of the Island, when Dakota starts morphing into a radioactive monster, the other campers look horrified and Chris gives her a mirror. At first she thinks it's just a picture of a scary monster, but when Scott tells her it's a mirror, she gets even angrier at Chris for what he has done to her.
- My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic: In "What Lies Beneath", Ocellus encounters two unreformed changelings who refer to her as "Your Highness". Confused, she looks into a reflective rock, and discovers (to her horror) that she has turned into Queen Chrysalis.
- In Gargoyles, Demona undergoes this at the end of the episode "The Mirror" when she is at first very happy and overjoyed to notice that she is now no longer turning to stone in the day, likely realizing she now has extra time to carry out extermination plots against humans...only to then walk by a mirror and realize, to her horror, that she's now been enchanted into transforming from a gargoyle to a human during the day instead!
- In the Thomas the Tank Engine episode, "Wooly Bear", a crate of treacle falls on Percy when he goes to the harbor, and his crew are unable to get the treacle off despite their best efforts. On his way to meet Thomas at the station, a windstorm tosses hay about, causing some of it to stick to the treacle on Percy. When Percy finally arrives at the station, everyone laughs at him, and Thomas calls him a hairy caterpillar. When Percy's driver shows Percy what he looks like in a mirror, he suddenly realizes why everyone laughed at him. He asks his driver to clean him before Toby comes back to the sheds, but by this time, Thomas tells Toby all about what happened to Percy, and the two make jokes about wooly bear caterpillars, much to Percy's ire.