Zoom is making us hate our faces

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ByHarriet Brown
Originally Published: 

Like many of us during the pandemic, I’ve been spending way too many hours on Zoom. And while the ability to see other people is a gift in this socially deprived moment, I’m less enthused about having to look at myself all the time. Over the last few months I’ve become hyper aware of my double chin, dopey smile, and occasional eyerolls. Sometimes I’m so distracted by my own image, I can’t focus on what’s actually going on.

Unsurprisingly, it’s not just me who’s struggling — and self-scrutiny is taking a toll. “A lot more people are googling Botox, nose jobs, and facial surgery,” says Heather Widdows, a professor of philosophy at the University of Birmingham in the U.K. and author of Perfect Me: Beauty as an Ethical Ideal. “That kind of evidence suggests we’re much more paranoid about our faces.”

This might seem counterintuitive; since most of us are actually seeing fewer people, we’re under less scrutiny than usual. But there’s something about the video as a medium that seems to exacerbate body image issues. “I wouldn’t even care [about my appearance] that much going into a face-to-face meeting. But for some reason, the idea that you’re on camera means you have to monitor yourself,” says Tanya Joosten, director of digital learning at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.

On video platforms, Widdows explains, we become a flat image, a series of pictures rather than a body that moves and smiles and has a presence in the room. We become our own avatar, a representation of ourselves that requires tending to make it as perfect as possible. And when what we see on the screen doesn’t measure up to what we think we should look like, we feel shame and exhaustion.

Staring at ourselves on video forces us to reckon with our physical selves in a way we might otherwise avoid — especially since we’re looking at ourselves for a lot longer than we’re used to. “For a lot of us, the way we manage our relationships with our bodies is to not be in a relationship with our bodies,” says Sonya Renee Taylor, a poet, activist, and author of The Body Is Not an Apology. “When you get face to face with actually having to be present with your body, to see it, then you’re also seeing all of the projections and undealt-with shames and discomforts and judgments and comparisons that lie therein.”

The problem isn’t our double chins or upper arms; it’s our feelings about them and the stories we’ve been told about them that cause us pain. When we see ourselves on Zoom and react badly, we may think it’s because there’s something wrong with us. We don’t measure up. But body image issues are directly tied to our culture.

“You’re not looking at your chin for no reason,” explains Deb Burgard, an eating disorders therapist in Cupertino, California. “You’re looking at your chin because there’s a part of you that’s trying to protect you from the stigmatizing ideas around weight.” When I cringe at my double chin on Zoom, I’m reacting to the mismatch between what I think I should look like and the form my body actually takes. I’m cringing from the messages I’ve internalized for so long: A double chin means you’re fat, weak, unhealthy, unattractive. And the sheer number of Zoom calls I’m on these days means those messages are reinforced even more than usual.

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Most women have internalized those ideas so deeply, we can’t tell them from our own thoughts and beliefs. More and more men struggle with body image issues, too; one recent survey found between 20 and 40 percent of men are unhappy with some aspect of their appearance. And we can’t fix these kinds of internalizations with positive thinking or affirmations. “We have to really address those things in the real world to change them,” says Burgard.

Taylor agrees. “It’s all connected,” she says. “You can’t talk about fatphobia without talking about white supremacy, without talking about capitalism, without talking about ableism and ageism. We’re talking about a system of bodily hierarchy that all of us need to divest from.” That hierarchy becomes even more complicated for Black women and women of color, according to Mazella Fuller, a clinical associate in Duke University’s psychiatry department and co-editor of Treating Black Women with Eating Disorders. “It’s the external barriers to acceptance,” says Fuller. “There’s a complicated history of Black women being devalued, dehumanized, voiceless. Body image issues for Black women are very different than for white women.”

In our current moment of reckoning around racism and other social justice issues, there’s never been a more empowering moment for addressing these issues. Realizing that your own internalized fatphobia is part of a larger context of white supremacy and oppression, says Taylor, can inspire true emotional growth. “That makes me feel motivated to not be holding on to these beliefs, because they further a system I don’t want to be a part of,” she says.

But how exactly do you go about this process? As Taylor puts it, how do I keep loving the me who doesn’t love my double chin today? I can start by remembering that the lightning bolt of shame I feel when I look at my chin on Zoom isn’t about my chin at all. “It’s not a story about my body,” says Taylor. “This is a story about the stories I’ve been told about my body, and that’s a very important distinction.”

While we’re working toward big-picture social change, there are also some in-the-moment strategies that can help. Lauren Mulheim, an eating disorders specialist in Los Angeles, points out that there’s no moral value in staring at yourself if it bugs you. “The point of the video preview is just to make sure you’re staying in the camera,” she explains. She sometimes recommends that her patients cover it with a post-it. This way, you’re still physically present to your meeting members, but you don’t have to stare at yourself.

It also helps to remember that we are our own harshest critics. “If you’re in a work meeting, are other people really going to be looking at your chin?” says Mulheim. Your friends on a Zoom call are probably thinking about how happy they are to see you, not critiquing your appearance.

Vivienne McMaster, a photographer in British Columbia, uses selfies to help people reconnect with their bodies. The goal of her month-long Be Your Own Beloved course is to help people disengage with their inner critic. “To really heal we have to let go of there being good and bad photos,” she explains. “If you just let there be you in photos, like a more body neutral place with photos, they lose their pain point.”

Finally, suggests Joosten, think about when people really need to see you and when a phone call or email might be enough. “Maybe not everything has to be on video,” she says. And when video is required, think of it as an opportunity — to see yourself as you really are, to start a process of healing, to come up with a new story about your body and yourself.