Staring at Your Face on Zoom Is a Particular Kind of Psychological Torture—Here’s Why

Photo: Stocksy/Simon
Every weekday morning at 9:59 a.m., the exact same scene replays in my bedroom: I open Zoom for my first meeting of the day and wait for my video to turn on. As soon as it does, I find myself thinking: "Oh wow, that's what I look like?" I spend the next 30 minutes forced to stare at my face and acknowledge that I have enlarged pores, errant chin hairs, and weird discoloration on my complexion (like, you know, any other human with skin). Over the course of the day, this scene gets repeated during meetings, Zoom happy hours, and digital first dates—and my list of gripes about myself gets longer. It's a weird, unnatural phenomenon, and one that likely will continue for the weeks and months ahead as COVID-19 keeps many of working from home.

"When we see ourselves on video screens, face on, it tends to make us more self conscious about how we look to ourselves and others," says Vivian Diller, PhD, a clinical psychologist in New York City. In IRL conversations, we obviously don't typically see our faces, and we don't have the opportunity to pick ourselves apart. Compound this new online-only reality with the fact that our usual skin-care and makeup routines have become abbreviated and the overwhelming cultural acceptance of a filtered reality—due to social media's glimmers of perfection—and it's no wonder that the Zoom reflection is taking a toll.

While there hasn't been specific research surrounding video chats, there have been studies examining how people felt about themselves after looking in a mirror. One study had 50 "healthy young adults" stare in a mirror in low lighting, and after a minute, 66 percent of them reported seeing "huge deformations" in their faces. One. minute. Most Zooms ring up to 30 (if not more).

"You think, 'I'm not going out, so I'm not going to care as much,' but in reality you don't stare in a mirror all day like you do now," says Ben Holber, co-founder of teledermatology platform Apostrophe. He notes that the site has seen a 60 to 70 percent increase in new patients, and attributes at least some of it to the fact that people are spending more time analyzing their own skin on video calls. Naturally, this is worrisome to professionals who see body dysmorphia regularly display itself in the quest for "perfect skin".

Because, with the advent of Instagram filters and Photoshopped perfection, many of us have been conditioned to expect more than what is inherently skin deep from our online personas. Even on Zoom with the push of a button, you can "touch up my appearance," which ever-so-subtly cues up the expectation that what is real is not good enough. "I think this experience is going to to be a highly condensed version of reality that's been going on over the last couple of years with filters and social media and Instagram, but it's going to happen at an accelerated rate because people are going to be looking at themselves more," says New York City dermatologist Shereene Idriss, MD.

Though the Zoom filter is a whisper-quiet manifestation of Instagram filters, the ramifications are still legit. A 2016 study of 144 girls, aged 14 to 18, found that exposure to "manipulated" photos—in other words: pictures where women had been retouched and re-shaped—directly led to lower body image. Because of this, Dr. Idriss worries that when quarantine is over, people will immediately  rush to their dermatologists for skin treatments that they may not have considered before spending months in front of a video screen. 

Of course, the flip side holds true as well. Dr. Diller explains that there's "no harm" in wanting to look good on your Zoom call and doing things to help improve your self-perception, like opting for nice lighting and positioning your camera properly can help you feel like you look your best. "It's really no different than the pleasure we get from wearing makeup, styling our hair or donning a new outfit when we were all going about our lives before COVID-19," she says. "Looking good makes us feel good."

And so, as we stare down potentially months more of the extended WFH situation: A few more tips from pros to help navigate the new reality. First up: Keep it in perspective. "This is a good time to look at the larger picture than the one that shows up on our phones," says Dr. Diller. It's not a comforting truth, but being stressed about Zoom right now is an admittedly privileged problem to have (but one that I know I'm personally still dealing with, nonetheless).

Second, you can turn your reflection off. Part of the reason that it's there is to help you know how much to emote during the weird phenomenon that is a video conversation. Because most of us are trained to blankly stare at screens for hours on end, the reflection is mainly there to give you feedback about how interested (or not, perhaps!) you are in any given video conversation; however, it isn't totally necessary. If looking at yourself over time is something that trips you up, right click on your tile, and hide your reflection.

Third, in the name of self love, instead of picking at your flaws the next time you're stuck on an hour-long camera conference, challenge yourself to find something you actually like about your appearance—even if it's just "I still have two eyebrows" or "my lips are naturally a pretty nice color." Reminding yourself of your virtues and assets can retrain your brain away from negative thinking and reinforce self-esteem. And if all else fails? In the same way we used to joke that every meeting could have been an email, remember that every Zoom call can be a phone call, too.

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