The Emergence of ‘Zoom Dysmorphia’ Amid the Pandemic

Man using online screening IOI-S to check for signs of an eating disorder

Contributor: Staff at Montecatini Eating Disorder Treatment Center

The COVID-19 pandemic came with a massive shift in the way we live our daily lives, including how we work and socialize. One of the major changes we’ve been forced to grapple with is the inability to safely interact face-to-face. As one of the biggest platforms for video conferencing, Zoom quickly became an essential tool for online schooling, work meetings, or just seeing a friend or family member. This unprecedented way of living has given rise to a new wave of concerns involving self-image, coined “Zoom dysmorphia” [1].

Suddenly, people were forced to view themselves on a screen much more frequently than ever before. They’ve also spent more time looking at others on the squares next to their own image, making it easy to compare and critique their appearance.

Striving to Be (Impossibly) Perfect

Facial Plastic Surgery & Aesthetic Medicine says patients have been seeking plastic surgery in record-breaking numbers, citing their appearance on Zoom as one of the main causes [1].

A similar phenomenon occurred when Snapchat began gaining popularity, offering users an array of filters that altered their appearance. While some filters were simply for fun, others let users choose from fuller lips, larger eyes, smoother skin, and other subtle alterations.

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In 2018, several news articles connected both Snapchat and Instagram to a rise in plastic surgeries. Many plastic surgeons reported that patients were asking to look like their filtered selves in real life. This alarming trend became known as “Snapchat dysmorphia” [2].

Not only do social media platforms make it easy to apply filters that give you an unrealistic image of yourself, but they also make it easy to compare yourself to others. With easy editing apps like Facetune, you can alter your pictures for smooth, blemish-free skin, slimmer arms, or a smaller waist.

Technology like this continues to advance, making it even harder to tell when an image has been altered. This means that while scrolling through Instagram, you might see dozens of perfected images that don’t reflect real life.

For many, it can be tempting to compare their real faces to these perfected ones, leading to damaged self-image and the desire to alter one’s appearance. For others, apps like Facetune, Snapchat filters, or just finding the right angle and lighting can give a boost in confidence.

But what happens on a platform like Zoom where you see yourself in real-time, unedited, and often in not-so-great lighting?

Facing Your Imperfections

Man doing work over zoom and experiencing zoom dysmorphiaThe results can be detrimental to your self-image and confidence, especially for those who are already vulnerable to body image concerns like the ones present in body dysmorphic disorder.

Body dysmorphic disorder is a mental health disorder that involves constant distress over one’s appearance. You may find yourself staring at your image during Zoom meetings instead of the person talking and becoming distracted or even distressed by your own appearance.

For those who struggle with body dysmorphic disorder, diverting attention from themselves is especially challenging. They may begin to fixate on blemishes like acne, wrinkles, or hair that’s out of place, and research shows that spending too much time looking at yourself can actually distort how you see yourself.

One study on 50 healthy adults found that under controlled conditions, just one minute of staring at yourself in a mirror can result in strange face distortions. Among the participants, 66% reported seeing huge deformations in their own face, and 48% reported seeing a “monstrous” face [3].

But it’s not just our imaginations; the cameras on our laptops and phones can also distort our features. One study gained attention when it found that short-distance photographs such as selfies that are taken within 12 inches can distort the nose, dubbing it “the selfie effect.”

The study, published in JAMA Facial Plastic Surgery, showed that selfies increase the perceived size of the nose by 30% in men and 29% in women, depending on how close the person is to the camera [4].

Unless you’re sitting more than a few feet away from your laptop camera, “the selfie effect” could take place during your next Zoom meeting without you realizing it.

How to Manage “Zoom Dysmorphia”

The pandemic has not only caused individuals to see themselves more, but it has also affected their eating, exercising, and sleeping habits. With the safest place being at home, you’ve likely adapted to a more stagnant lifestyle that can lead to weight changes.

These shifts aren’t unusual but, for many, the added weight can negatively impact self-image and recovery from body dysmorphic disorder — especially when they must constantly view themselves over platforms like Zoom.

If you are struggling with your self-image, there are some things you can do to help avoid Zoom dysmorphia:

  • Choose audio when possible – Sometimes, employers or teachers require everyone to have their video on. However, when possible, consider turning your camera off and requesting audio only when planning meetings.
  • Avoid looking at yourself for too long – It’s easier said than done, but the best thing you can do is to avoid looking at yourself too often. Instead, try to focus on the person talking, just like you would during an in-person interaction.
  • Remember the limitations of your webcam – What you see on your webcam is not reality. It can be challenging to convince yourself that the way you look on camera is not what you look like in real life. Just remember that your webcam and phone camera can distort your facial features.
  • Scroll with skepticism – Most social media users are trying to post the best versions of themselves. This often includes filters, photo edits, and maybe even Facetune or Photoshop.
  • Try not to compare yourself to someone else’s edited self.
  • Seek additional support – Everyone can benefit from some additional support, especially during a pandemic. A therapist can help give you the tools you need to maintain a healthy self-image and remain in recovery from body dysmorphic disorder.

If staring at your face on Zoom is affecting your self-image, you’re not alone. The pandemic has brought on new challenges and forced many of us to work and socialize in a whole new way. These tips can help you avoid Zoom dysmorphia, but if you’re feeling overwhelmed, don’t hesitate to reach out for professional help.


Resources:

[1] Rice, S. M., Graber, E., & Kourosh, A. S. (2020). A pandemic of dysmorphia: “Zooming” into the perception of our appearance. Facial Plastic Surgery & Aesthetic Medicine. 22(6), 401-402. http://doi.org/10.1089/fpsam.2020.0454

[2] Ramphul, K., & Mejias, S. G. (2018). Is “Snapchat Dysmorphia” a real issue? Cureus. 10(3), 1-4 https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5933578/

[3] Bortolomasi, C. G., Ferrucci, R., Giacopuzzi, M., Priori, A., & Zago, S. (2014). Visual perception during mirror-gazing at one’s own face in patients with depression. The Scientific World Journal. 1-4. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4258311/

[4] Ward, B., Ward, M., Fried, O., & Paskhover, B., (2018). Nasal distortion in short-distance photographs: The selfie effect. JAMA Facial Plastic Surgery. 20(4), 333-335. https://www.liebertpub.com/abs/doi/10.1001/jamafacial.2018.0009


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Montecatini BannerMontecatini provides comprehensive treatment to females age 16 and older who are struggling with eating disorders and co-occurring addiction and mental health concerns. We provide a full continuum of life-changing care, including residential treatment, a partial hospitalization program (PHP), and an intensive outpatient program (IOP). We also offer a wellness center where clients can build healthier relationships with their bodies through joyful movement.


The opinions and views of our guest contributors are shared to provide a broad perspective on eating disorders. These are not necessarily the views of Eating Disorder Hope, but an effort to offer a discussion of various issues by different concerned individuals.

We at Eating Disorder Hope understand that eating disorders result from a combination of environmental and genetic factors. If you or a loved one are suffering from an eating disorder, please know that there is hope for you, and seek immediate professional help.

Published January 15, 2021, on EatingDisorderHope.com
Reviewed & Approved on January 15, 2021, by Jacquelyn Ekern MS, LPC

About Baxter Ekern

Baxter is the Vice President of Ekern Enterprises, Inc. He is responsible for the operations of Eating Disorder Hope and ensuring that the website is functioning smoothly.