Along with the stress of the pandemic, body issues have been on the rise. The technology that’s keeping us connected, is also making us feel self-conscious.
Video teleconferencing software became a mainstay in our professional lives, sometimes even in our social lives, as more and more offices adopted work-from-home practices to keep employees safe.
However, the countless hours spent on Zoom or video calls are causing more people to be self-conscious or insecure about their appearance.
It's not normal for us to look at our faces all the time, unless, of course, you are a twin, celebrity, influencer, mirror-maker, narcissist or home-owner whose decor prioritises mirrors over walls.
Granted, there are some exceptions. For the general population though, before Zoom became entrenched in our lives, video calling was reserved for special occasions where we mentally prepared and spruced ourselves up for those long distance date nights, family well-wishes, and late-night gossip sessions.
Now, video conferencing is time for a constant, unedited, unfiltered look at ourselves. Not only is a person confronting their own reflection with much greater frequency and intensity than ever before, they are also staring at a distorted reflection as the standard front-facing cameras on our laptops or webcams are not designed for flattering views.
And that discomfort is part of a new phenomenon and trend health experts have coined Zoom dysmorphia, a condition in which an individual has a negative perception of their facial features or an unhealthy fixation with their appearance. They believe others are focusing on their perceived flaws or defects, or they are disappointed with their on-screen appearance, despite putting in effort to apply make-up and improve their look.
This results in individuals experiencing shame, emotional dread, varying levels of discomfort and a conjured or perceived need to aspire to a better physical or beauty standard.
Self-view is not only encouraging dysmorphia, it’s also reducing productivity
Even if we know this, human nature is such that we cannot help but stare at our own faces - as it's right there in front of us.
Not only can our video reflection make us wish we looked better, it’s also taking our attention away from the people we’re speaking to. Instead of paying attention to what your colleagues are saying, you’re feeling self-conscious about your shiny forehead. Perhaps in the midst of presenting a new idea, you’ll start wondering if your mouth has a weird upside-down U-shape. Or while hearing others speak you’ll notice how flat your hair is, or how shiny your face became.
Professor Jeremy Bailenson, founding director of Stanford's Virtual Human Interaction Lab, published a peer-reviewed paper on the causes of 'Zoom fatigue'. The chief finding was that turning off self-view was the single most effective way of reducing cognitive load during a teleconferencing call.
By hiding self-view, the other parties on your call can still see you, but you can’t see yourself. This mimics what the pre-covid world once referred to as an “in-person conversation,” in which you are pretty much always looking at someone else’s face, but not your own.
Filters make us look better, but could be more damaging in the long run
This option of turning off self-view is only a recent development.
Previously, for those looking for a shortcut to look presentable on camera without going through a heap of beauty products or time styling, image filters were a blessing.
It probably started off with curiosity, a novelty, or a little trick to save the effort of putting on make-up. Now, filters have become synonymous with video calling, video sharing, or just image sharing in general thanks to Snapchat, Facetune, and other social media apps with built-in filter features.
They are not only fun and easy, but some of the most popular filters just focus on helping you look attractive. They have the ability to make you look blessed with porcelain skin, sun-kissed cheeks, cute freckles, sharp noses, or have amazingly large eyes that clearly do not fit your cranium.
As people continue to enhance or perfect their imagery and photos online, (shout out to selfie culture) in some cases it’s causing implications to mental health, and adding to yet another concerning phenomenon called Snapchat dysmorphia, where the filtered self becomes the new reality.
A study in the journal of the American Medical Association says filtered pictures can take a toll on self-esteem, body image, and even lead to body dysmorphic disorder. As more and more people get used to the looks of their filtered self, they start to be dissatisfied with what they really look like.
The real danger here, besides making adults feel insecure about themselves, is how these filters are affecting the beauty expectations of youth, as they are still developing their sense of self.
Studies have reported that more and more young girls are having negative body perceptions and are unhappy with the way they look, even if they are only in elementary school. And that number rises as they get older. Dove’s self-esteem project reported that 80 percent of girls are already using filters or image-enhancement tools to edit their photos before they post them by the time they are 13 years old.
What’s more worrying, is that people are actually trying to make their filtered face a reality. According to the American Academy of Facial Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery, 62 percent of surgeons say patients are undergoing the knife because of dissatisfaction with their social media profile and that they are using filtered images of themselves as a reference for how they really want to look. The people getting micro cosmetic procedures to look like their filters are also getting younger, as young as 13.
With mass inoculation rolled out worldwide, once we start returning to the workplace, a silver lining, perhaps, is that Zoom will be used a lot less. But filter technology doesn't seem to be going away anytime soon.
At the heart of it, this is a classic battle between innate human nature and urges versus technology’s ability to play with our psyche (be it an intention or a by-product). As we get used to the alternate “reality” made possible by tech, we’re succumbing to our human urges in trying to make that “reality” less digital and more permanent.
We have to start asserting the balance between our obsession with digital platforms, the distorted reality that these platforms have designed, and real face-to-face human interactions.
Digital platforms and tech are a part of our every day, but can they serve humans without compromising our natural social instincts? In this case, as the messages on mental health and body positivity grow louder, can technology be employed for more good, or will more ‘well-meaning tech products’ like Zoom and Snapchat continue to contribute to the problem.
Who will win is the big question.
(The author is lead, Quantum.)