In The Age Of "Zoom Dysmorphia," Experts Offer Tips To Improve Self-Image
As I hop on a call with psychotherapist Annette Nunez, M.S., Ph.D., she immediately reveals her own qualms with virtual meetings: "[On video calls] I'm like, 'Wow my skin is sagging!'" she says. We laugh—somewhat relieved that we're speaking on the phone, perhaps—and I'm reminded of how many times my own eyes have slid over to my tiny, pixelated square, fixated on a bout of hormonal acne strung along my jaw or how much I really need a brow tint.
We're certainly not alone: In a new normal where most interactions occur on a virtual, two-dimensional plane, scrutinizing one's appearance seems to be all the rage. Terms like "acne" and "hair loss" have skyrocketed to the top of Google search trends, mostly due to the aftermath of pandemic stress, but a peer-reviewed article in the journal Facial Plastic Surgery & Aesthetic Medicine proposes that people are also hypercritical of their appearance during this time—as their so-called faults are splayed on-screen.
Turns out, peering at your face all day on Zoom isn't so good for self-image.
Why do we stare at our own faces?
There are a few reasons your eyes tend to meet your own on the grid: As licensed clinical social worker and certified cognitive therapist Alyssa "Lia" Mancao, LCSW, reminds me, we live in society that's hyper-focused on physical appearance. "We internalize those messages, so we're going to hyper-focus on ourselves when we're on Zoom calls," she says. We also have this fixation with wanting to "see what other people are seeing" as we chat. "We tend to believe that other people care about how we look, when really it's only us that cares how we're coming off."
For Nunez, it's all about thought patterns. According to a recent research, the average person has over 6,000 thoughts per day. "We're constantly thinking," she says. Plus, she notes, a substantial portion of those thoughts tend to run negative: "Sometimes instead of focusing on the meeting, you're actually doing self-talk, focusing on yourself and identifying all the negative things that are wrong with you," she notes.
Enter: The age of "Zoom Dysmorphia."
In society B.C. (before COVID), we weren't privy to our own features during everyday conversations—we were simply chatting it up with others (mask-free, no less!) and going on our merry way. That's not to say self-scrutiny didn't exist at all, but the criticism was largely left to the mirror. Now in a virtual reality, you're so much more aware of your own features while you're speaking in real time, down to every facial expression you make.
This, notes the journal article, can not only sabotage mental health but can also "[lead] people to rush to their physicians for treatments they may not have considered before months confronting a video screen, a new phenomenon of 'Zoom Dysmorphia.'" Board-certified dermatologist Jeanine Downie, M.D., tells me she's certainly seen an uptick in requests for in-office procedures. She even discussed the very topic on the Today Show, revealing an increase in patients' concerns over frown lines, dark spots, wrinkles, and acne.
But here's the thing about "Zoom Dysmorphia": What you see on-camera is oftentimes a distorted version of yourself (hence, dysmorphia). "The lighting, the angle of the camera, and the pixelation really does give you dysmorphia of what you actually look like," notes Nunez. Essentially, the webcam doesn't do you justice. In fact, research shows that snapshots captured with shorter focal lengths (like, on video calls), can make faces look more rounded, with facial traits closer to the camera perceived seemingly larger.
Of course, there are filters like the "Touch Up My Appearance" option on Zoom. Although, both Nunez and Mancao believe effects like these are Band-Aids on a larger situation. "It's a double-edged sword," notes Mancao. "If people put [the filter] on, they might be happier with the way they look on Zoom. The issue is, though, when Zoom turns off and that's not how you really look." The flipside of the "Zoom Dysmorphia" coin, if you will.
Tips if you're struggling with "Zoom Dysmorphia."
It's 2020, and Zoom meetings, virtual happy hours, and the like are simply part of many people's new reality. It's also how we can safely connect with others in a time of social distancing, so that's not to say video technology is all doom and gloom. Although, if you feel yourself spiraling into a "Zoom Dysmorphia" mindset, here's what Nunez and Mancao recommend:
- Turn your camera off: More of a short-term solution, but you can always turn your camera off during Zoom calls or meetings, so you're not tempted to pick apart your appearance.
- Cover up your grid: Or, keep your camera on, but Mancao recommends putting a sticky note directly on your own screen, so you don't see yourself on the grid. Or, "If you really want to challenge yourself, you can have your camera on but practice making eye contact with the other people on the call," she notes.
- Mirror work: Nunez recommends looking in the mirror and telling yourself a positive statement 10 times, two to three times a day. "Oftentimes, I have clients that cry the first couple times they do it," she notes. "It is going to feel forced at first, and then over time it'll get easier... It starts changing the way the brain perceives how you look."
- Identify your negative thought patterns: Nunez also suggests writing down all your negative thoughts swirling through your mind after ending a Zoom call. Then think about how you can reframe those thoughts into a positive mindset: "Over time you're going to see a theme," she notes, and you can try to accept those characteristics you can't control.
- Don't scroll through social before signing on: "There are so many filters that can affect the way you view yourself," says Mancao. Say, for instance, you were scrolling through your social media feed and comparing yourself to others right before hopping on a Zoom call. "All of a sudden, you don't like the way you look today," Mancao notes. "It's connected to what you were looking at right before, and that's going to affect the way you view yourself."
So where do we go from here?
Of course, this isn't to say you shouldn't care for your appearance, on Zoom or otherwise. It's not vain or superficial—for some, getting dolled up helps facilitate some semblance of control in an otherwise turbulent time. It's when feelings of anxiety start creeping up that you might want to take a deeper dive: If you feel sick to your stomach before popping on a video call, or you feel rather depressed about your appearance after hopping off, Nunez notes there may be an underlying issue here.
As for Mancao's verdict, she urges those to remember that while appearance is objective, your perception of it changes over time. "Body image can change," she notes. Remind yourself of what is real and what becomes distorted as soon as you click Join Call.
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