I can’t pinpoint exactly when it happened, but some time over the last year, I became extremely aware of, perhaps even minorly obsessed with, the person I saw on my computer screen; she looked older and droopier than I remembered, and it was distracting.
For years, I wrote about “anti-aging” products and procedures from a comfortable distance because at 25, and even 31, I didn’t really see these signs of aging on my own face.
Then the pandemic happened. We moved indoors. We lost sleep worrying about our loved ones and livelihoods. And many of us (at least the ones fortunate enough to be employed in jobs that kept us glued to our computers) were forced to regularly confront the sight of our own, fatigued faces. Some of us didn’t like what we saw.
Apparently, there’s a name for this phenomenon: Zoom dysmorphia.
I first started hearing about Zoom dysmorphia this spring, after Shadi Kourosh, an assistant professor of dermatology at Harvard Medical School and director of community health in the department of dermatology at Mass General, shared the results of a survey on how the shift to remote work—and all the Zooming that came with it—affected people’s self-perception.
Of the over 100 dermatologists surveyed, 50 percent of them reported a rise in cosmetic consultations; of those patients, 86 percent named video conferencing as the reason for seeking consultation. (The resulting influx of cosmetic procedures also got its own name: The “Zoom Boom.” Sigh.)
As Kouroush shared with the American Academy of Dermatology: “The increased time on-camera, coupled with the unflattering effects of front-facing cameras, triggered a concerning and subconscious response unique to the times we’re living in. In addition, many people were also spending more time on social media viewing highly edited photos of others—triggering unhealthy comparisons to their own images on front-facing cameras, which we know is distorted and not a true reflection.”
For me, this is partially true. I don’t compare myself and the way I look to others; I compare myself now to how I looked before, when my cheeks were a few centimeters higher, my under-eyes a little less shadowy. My issue with social media is that it constantly reminds me that I can do something about it, as if aging is a choice: the lasers, the fillers, the microcurrent devices, the alluring before and after photos of seemingly satisfied people.
Other women I spoke with reported similarly dysmorphic feelings.
“I was in a meeting and noticed that my forehead is h-yuge,” my best friend told me recently. “What are your thoughts on undereye filler?” asked another pal, who dreaded her weekly check-ins with her boss because she was distracted by “the sad-looking raccoon” she saw staring back at her on the computer screen.
Bottom line: We’re all seeing more of ourselves than ever, which has left many of us wondering if there’s something we could or should do to improve the image in the little digital box.
It was deep within this internal conflict that I recently found myself sitting at a posh dermatologist’s office in Beverly Hills. I was there for Botox, but we ended up talking for the better part of an hour about...everything. She listened patiently, as I launched into my whole Zoom dysmorphia spiel, and how I didn’t recognize the tired face that stared back at me during meetings.
I must have disclosed more details than I thought, because at one point she gently placed her hand on my arm and said, “You’ve been through a lot these past few years and I understand the feeling of wanting to look more like your former self, of wanting to put this difficult chapter of your life behind you in whatever ways you can.” (She gets an A plus for bedside manner.) She then explained that we all start to show signs of aging in our 30s, but that can be sped up or become more noticeable by external factors, like extreme weight loss or extreme stress.
I sat there silent, a bit stunned. I hadn’t really thought of the why. Why I looked older or why I cared that I looked older when I am intimately aware that aging is a privilege that isn’t granted to all. In the last four years, I had lived through a global pandemic, a big breakup, a death in the family and a life-altering cancer treatment, and I expected my face, my world to resemble “before-times.” Of course, I looked weary; I was weary. (Also, did I just get therapized by my dermatologist?).
Ok, I thought, so now what?
According to Dr. Sanam Hafeez, a neuropsychologist and the director of Comprehend the Mind, a diagnostic and treatment center for mental health in New York, there are, fortunately, some simple (and less drastic) tactics that may help the way you perceive your self-image.
For starters, “if turning off your camera isn’t an option, you could use the “hide self view” function, so you no longer see yourself on screen, even though others can still see you on their end,” she says. This way, you're not tempted to pick apart your appearance, while Brittany from accounting goes over this month’s numbers. And when you do look at yourself, do it with intention. “Look in the mirror and tell yourself a positive statement 10 times, two to three times a day. At first, it may feel forced, but it will become more natural with practice, and eventually it can begin to change the way your brain perceives how you look,” she explains.
Dr. Josie Howard, a psychiatrist and psychodermatology specialist offered another perspective: Ask yourself how you are experiencing other people in these video exchanges. “It is very likely that you are cutting them some slack and are much less critical towards them than you are of yourself. The goal is to notice the self-critical voices without judgment, and then practice some radical self-kindness in response,” she says.
In the weeks since leaving my dermatologist’s pristine, marble-floored office, I’ve found myself thinking about this concept of radical self-kindness. Maybe when I see myself on Zoom, and hear that critical voice creep in, I can remind myself to have a little more grace for my face. Maybe it would also help to spend more time away from screens in my non-working hours. Heck, maybe I'll try doing some of those aforementioned affirmations.
“We are all doing the best we can in this landscape of new-normal,” Dr. Howard told me. “So let's proactively show some grace to ourselves and others.”