Zoom is distorting your self-image

Normalized Zoom usage is leading to reduced self-esteem and an increased interest in cosmetic procedures

Distance from webcam and low light can affect how you look over Zoom. PHOTO: Chris Montgomery / Unsplash

by Victoria Lopatka, Staff Writer

As COVID-19 numbers began to rise in March 2020, school, work, and social events suddenly went remote, converging on one app: Zoom. After nearly 18 months of Zoom, some users are beginning to notice an unexpected consequence of using the app. Staring at their own faces all the time is making them dislike themselves. 

This phenomenon has been coined “Zoom dysmorphia” by dermatologist and Harvard Medical School professor Dr. Shadi Kourosh. Since March 2020, Dr. Kourosh began to notice crowds of patients coming into her office complaining about their noses, wrinkles, and sagging skin, citing video-conferencing as the source for their negative self-image. 

To explore how video-conferencing apps like Zoom are making some people dislike their appearances, we have to go back in time to when people primarily saw themselves through a mirror. 

A 2011 study on body dysmorphic disorder (BDD) suggests “mirrors can act as a trigger for individuals with BDD [ . . . ] by an increase in self-focused attention and associated distress.” Researchers compared participants with BDD and participants without BDD, finding both groups experienced self-focused attention and distress when staring in a mirror for a long period of time. Fortunately for everyone, there is no mirror in front of us when we’re going about our daily lives. But, there are smartphones and laptops equipped to capture our image at any time and place. 

Before Zoom dysmorphia existed, we had Snapchat dysmorphia. Snapchat is an app that allows users to send temporary pictures and messages to each other, which, once viewed, disappear. Some users enjoy taking selfies on Snapchat because it offers a wide variety of face filters, many of which include skin-smoothing and eye-widening features. As Snapchat grew in popularity and use, plastic surgeons noticed patients increasingly asking to look more like their filtered Snapchat selfies — this led to the birth of the phrase “Snapchat dysmorphia.” 

After seeing themselves with a filter on, some patients felt their natural appearance was unacceptable and imperfect. Now, in 2021, we have Zoom dysmorphia. While there is some overlap between Zoom dysmorphia and Snapchat dysmorphia, the key difference is that Snapchat users are aware of the filters being applied over their faces, while “Zoom dysmorphia is unconscious.” Users see an idealized version of themselves on Snapchat, while on Zoom, users see an “exaggerated perception of a physical flaw.” 

“[People] are not looking at a true reflection of themselves. They don’t realize it is a distorted mirror,” Dr. Kourosh said, noting factors like angle and distance from the camera can have a distorting effect. 

According to a study published in the International Journal of Women’s Dermatology, “A portrait taken from 12 inches away increases perceived nose size by approximately 30% when compared with an image taken at five feet. With webcams often recording at shorter focal lengths, the result is an overall more rounded face, wider set eyes, broader nose, taller forehead, and disappearing ears obscured by cheeks.” 

Zoom’s chief technology officer also noted Zoom struggles in low light environments if your room is dark, it’s likely having an unflattering effect on your on-camera appearance. In addition, Zoom captures us in poses and expressions we generally don’t see ourselves in: bored or concentrated, and face-to-face with others. 

New research suggests “the up-close interaction of a tool like Zoom can trigger the same physiological reaction as a threat or attack,” like if someone were to stand nose-to-nose with you and invade your personal space. If Zoom calls make you anxious or uncomfortable, this is another potential reason why. 

The difficulty here is many users do not realize any of this is occurring, so we’re left thinking we naturally look the way our Zoom self-view says we do. This may have several negative effects on Zoom users, including self-consciousness, a lack of focus during calls, negative thoughts about one’s appearance, and even the development or worsening of body dysmorphia. For example, “an analysis of Google trends during the COVID-19 pandemic showed an increase in search terms such as ‘acne’ and ‘hair loss.’” Staring at your own face all day can make you especially self-conscious and stressed. This stress can then lead to acne and hair loss. 

So, why not just look away? Well, if you find it difficult to look away from your image on a Zoom call, you’re not alone. In an interview with MBG Lifestyle, psychotherapist Dr. Annette Nunez said humans are “constantly thinking” — and many of our thoughts tend to be 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.”

Living in a “society that’s hyper-focused on physical appearance” means many of these negative thoughts are about physical appearance. For women, specifically, “body dysmorphic disorder [ . . . ] is on the rise during the pandemic and worsened with the use of video-conferencing.” 

For those who already have body dysmorphic disorder, Zoom calls can be a source of anxiety, providing opportunities to compare themselves with others and worry about their physical presentation. And these problems follow us beyond the “end call” button. In an article by Wired, it was reported three out of 10 study subjects were “[planning] to invest in their appearance as a coping strategy to deal with returning to in-person events,” expressing concerns about weight, skin appearance, and others.

Zoom will likely be a part of our lives for a while, so it’s important to try to cope with Zoom dysmorphia. If you are struggling with Zoom dysmorphia, here are some tips to help you deal with it:

If you can’t see yourself at all, then you’re less likely to scrutinize or get distracted by your appearance. 

If you find your attention wandering away from the purpose of the call to your own image, try your best to re-focus on the purpose — this may include tactics like taking notes on what’s being discussed, doodling while you listen, and using fidget items. 

Seeing dozens of photoshopped, filtered images of attractive, happy people can fuel negative thoughts about your appearance especially when you begin comparing the Zoom version of yourself to them. 

  •  Fill your social media feed with realistic images

Many people are not represented by mainstream media — seek out accounts that display those who look more like you. For example, if you’re someone who has acne, try following Instagrammers with acne who do not edit images of their skin. 

Dr. Nunez recommends noting negative thoughts that pop into your head during Zoom calls and exploring the patterns you see. You can also challenge these thoughts: Is this something only I notice about myself because I look at my own face so often? Where did I learn that these characteristics are objectively bad? Is this really true? What qualities do I like about myself? 

It can be tempting to spend a lot of time looking into the mirror and pick at things we don’t like, but this will just make you feel worse about yourself. Go do something you enjoy instead. 

If Zoom dysmorphia is negatively impacting your life and making it more difficult for you to engage in lectures and/or meetings, then it may be a good idea to seek extra support: talk with friends, family, or a therapist. SFU students have access to support through SFU Health & Counselling services or through MySSP.


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