There are plenty of things we'll all remember about lockdown when the coronavirus pandemic has faded into the past – and spending large chunks of your professional and social life on video calls may well be one. But what are the potential consequences of clocking up hours in which you have the ability to stare at your own face? WH digs into it.
Monday morning rolls around and you’re joining your first video call of the week. You’ve appraised your background for any lifestyle secrets you’d rather your boss wasn’t privy to, and your morning mirror check has confirmed that your teeth aren’t harbouring remnants of your bowl of muesli. But before your eyes dart to the new monstera decorating the corner of your old office buddy’s living room, before you’ve even clocked the crying child on your colleague’s lap, your gaze is firmly fixed elsewhere. On your face – and you probably don’t like what you see.
Video calling has presented the biggest shake-up to our collective comms strategy since the Nokia 3210, and whether it’s the faces of your family filling the squares on your screen or the colleagues with whom you used to share a warm glass of white on a Friday, it’s probably become a firm fixture in your life this year.
The video-calling app Houseparty had 50 million downloads in March 2020 alone, while global users of a little-known video conferencing app called Zoom grew by almost 2,000% in the first four months of this year, going from 659,000 to 13 million. But while some people have taken to it like an aspiring interiors influencer to a gallery wall, for others, the shift represented something more disquieting.
No sooner had ‘Zoom’ entered our lexicon than ‘Zoom face’ was doing the rounds. The dermal filler brand Teoxane found that one in 10 women had noticed more flaws in her appearance while being on video calls, and 62% of those who had already had non-surgical cosmetic treatments – or ‘tweakments’– said they cared more about their appearance now than they did before lockdown. Dr Asher Siddiqi, medical aesthetic expert at Transform Hospital Group, is just one of the clinicians who’s observed the impact.
‘We’re seeing more people booking video consultations with us for treatments like nose jobs, Botox and mole removals,’ he explains. The reason? ‘Many people are telling us that they “didn’t realise their nose was so big” or that they “have so many wrinkles around the eyes”.’ These feelings predated the pandemic; according to a 2016 survey conducted by video call network Highfive, 35% of workers said they felt less attractive on video calls than in real life, while 59% claimed to feel more self-conscious in front of the lens than in real life.
Dr Anjali Mahto, a consultant dermatologist, has noted the phenomenon, too, and cites ‘first-time tweakments’ as one of her major skincare trends for 2021. ‘Examining our own faces over Zoom has led to a boom in injectable therapy,’ she reveals.
So now that life – with all its meetings, dates and weddings – is being lived increasingly online, is all this screen time denting your self-esteem?
For Hannah Holland, a 26-year-old management agency executive, it was the loss of her normal fitness, nutrition and beauty regime that turned her morning meetings into a source of stress. She put on 2st during lockdown – a result of comfort eating to cope with the stress – and while she accepted the weight gain as a side effect of living through tumultuous times, being confronted with her image on the screen chipped away at her self-esteem.
‘I’d spend ages repositioning the camera to get a better angle and would wear high-neck tops, even during the heatwave,’ she recalls. She began looking into treatments that would remove fat from under her chin, but a fear of surgery meant she didn’t go through with it. Instead, she had fillers in her lips and cheeks. ‘I’d had them done before, but they wore off, and after so many weeks of seeing myself looking tired and deflated on screen, I went to get them done again as soon as the restrictions were lifted.’
While seeking cosmetic enhancements – in the form of surgery or so-called ‘tweakments’, such as fillers – isn’t necessarily symptomatic of low self-esteem, let’s not forget that we’ve been here before. WH has reported extensively on the relationship between screen time and self-esteem, from the rise of selfie-culture to the compare-and-despair response to scrolling. Could it be that video-calling platforms like Zoom, Microsoft Teams and Google Hangout are intensifying the same issues we’ve all been talking about– and feeling – for years?
Dr Peace Amadi thinks so. An associate professor of psychology and counselling at California’s Hope International University, she’s conducted extensive research into the relationship between social media and mental health. ‘There’s an established link between social media usage and psychological concerns,’ she explains. ‘Instagram has been tied to anxiety related to physical appearance, increased body dissatisfaction and lower self-esteem.’
And now that your screen time stats have shot up? ‘We can assume these concerns have not only remained, but increased,’ she adds. One reason video calling might feel so discomforting is because the image hasn’t been digitally enhanced. Even if you’re not using an app like Facetune – whose parent company Lightricks reported a 20% increase in usage as social-distancing measures began – you’re probably partial to Instagram’s Perpetua or Clarendon filters. ‘A widening gap between one’s digitally enhanced ideal self and one’s actual self creates a dysphoria,’ says Dr Amadi. ‘The chances of developing mental disorders like depression, anxiety, eating disorders and OCD-related problems, including body dysmorphic disorder, also increase.’
Consider that we were a nation struggling with self-esteem before the pandemic hit, and it isn’t hard to see why video calling has become yet another thing to feel anxious about. Statistics like those showing that nearly half of British adults believe their appearance affects what they’re capable of achieving in life led WH Editor-In-Chief Claire Sanderson to launch Project Body Love – our campaign to improve the relationship that British women have with their bodies. It speaks volumes about your lack of confidence in your appearance that when we asked you, as part of our Project Body Love survey, which things damaged your self-esteem the most, being confronted with your own reflection was among the worst.
A staggering 55% of you said looking at photos of yourself, or looking in the mirror, was most ruinous to your self-esteem. If we were to ask you that question again today, we suspect video calling – that modern mirror check– might rank even higher.
How can we be so sure? While research into the confidence-sapping power of your average video meeting is pending, a study published in the journal Behaviour Research And Therapy found that 10 minutes is all it takes to find fault with your appearance. When the researchers assessed the responses of volunteers after looking at their reflection, they found that those with body dysmorphic disorder became distressed after 25 seconds, but even those with healthy body image showed signs of distress and anxiety when they were left to look at their reflection for 10 minutes.
Or the time it takes your colleagues to get the small talk out of the way. Spend an hour in a meeting or catching up with friends and you’ve had ample opportunity to identify flaws, imagined or otherwise. For those who already feel uneasy about their appearance, it’s a breeding ground for anxiety.
It’s a feeling Amy* knows all too well. The 35-year-old from London started working from home in her advertising role in March 2020. Like most people, she found the sight of her own face on the screen awkward at first, but as the weeks turned into months, the image on the screen began to chip away at her confidence. Client meetings became a source of dread; Zoom quizzes with friends a nightmare. ‘I’ve had therapy for anxiety and low self-esteem before, but I never realised how much those feelings were tied up with my appearance,’ she explains. ‘It was as though I had this idea of who I was at work and with my friends, and this version just didn’t match up with that. I know this sounds dramatic, but it gave me a bit of an identity crisis.’
When a surprise Zoom hen do thrown by her friends left her in tears, she decided to seek help with herself-esteem. ‘The irony of having Zoom therapy wasn’t lost on me,’ she laughs. ‘But I explained to my therapist why I couldn’t put my camera on, and it became an easy way of talking about an issue that I’ve never been able to put my finger on before.’
So how can you safeguard your self-esteem in a world that requires your digital attention? Turning off your camera, opting in to Zoom’s ‘Touch Up’ feature, even cosmetic enhancements might make you feel better about your appearance in the moment. But they’re not the stuff of lasting confidence.
If you have a spare three minutes in your day, the Project Body Love podcast (search for it wherever you get your podcasts) is a 30-day course of evidence-based tools and techniques designed to reframe the way you feel about the way you look; tools such as a compassionate body scan, designed to help you tune into your body’s functionality, and a mirror exercise that forces you to reflect on your appearance in amore considered way. Offline, a self-esteem hack with a scientific stamp of approval is one you’re probably already doing.
Any form of exercise, regardless of how fit you are, has been shown to lead to an improvement in body self-esteem and body image, thanks – in part – to the way it helps you focus on what your body can do, rather than how it looks.
And anything that fills up your self-esteem cup outside of your physical appearance can be helpful – smashing it in a work project, doing some charity work, growing a balcony garden. As for your next Zoom call? Scrutinise your boss’s bookcase, then do some amateur psychoanalysis on your colleagues.
Or, you know, actually tune in to what others are saying. Just do yourself a favour and keep your eyes off your own face. Capeesh?
How to get a handle on how you feel
Check the facts
‘You can become so used to viewing your appearance through a lens of negative self-image that you don’t see what’s really there,’ says therapist Alyssa Lia Mancao.
Remedy that warped perspective like this: ‘Look at yourself in the mirror and describe your appearance without using subjective language,’ she says. That means quelling the critical voice in your head (‘my lashes are too short’) and describing yourself objectively (‘I have two eyes’) or focusing on function (‘my eyes allow me to see’).
Dr Amadi suggests viewing your thoughts as ‘clouds passing in the sky’, where you notice them before letting them roll by. Likewise, when you see images that trigger anxiety or self-consciousness, try to acknowledge them without judgement.
Then, start practising self-appreciation.‘Your body does more for you than anyone else ever could,’ adds Dr Amadi. The next time you catch yourself griping about your stomach or legs, redirect the thought to how this part of your body has served you.
Connect with your values
Swap aesthetic goals for things like ‘live a life that’s rich and purpose-driven’. One way to do this is by asking grounding questions. What’s important to you? What brings you joy? Who do you love?‘ Appearance is just one aspect of who you are,’ says Dr Katharine Phillips, an expert in body dysmorphic disorder. ‘Try to value your other assets. Is your best friend your best friend because she has a symmetrical nose? Probably not. Relationships don’t last because someone has perfect teeth.
If recognising and connecting to your thoughts and emotions seems overwhelming, journalling can help you get started. How you do it is up to you, whether you write a daily diary, try mind-mapping, bullet pointing or setting intentions — getting your thoughts out on paper can help you start and end your day with a fresh mindset, set intentions and take note of the things that make you feel good.
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