A little over two years ago, before the pandemic upended normal life, the majority of meetings were held face-to-face, and classes and social events took place “IRL,” or in real life. Then, COVID-19 hit, and daily life was forced to retreat into the virtual realm. So much so, in fact, that video conferencing companies, like Zoom, saw sales increases of over 300% compared to years prior to the pandemic.
Following lockdown, as businesses slowly began to reopen, dermatologists and plastic surgeons started noticing a worrisome trend: a substantial uptick in demand for cosmetic procedures, especially so-called minimally invasive treatments, like dermal fillers and Botox, but also nose jobs and facelifts. The main reason behind this sharp increase? More and more people grew unhappy with their appearance since using video conferencing during the pandemic. And, just like that, the term Zoom Dysmorphia was born.
Zoom dysmorphia: Do I really look like that?
Unlike Snapchat or Instagram filters, which are designed to edit or enhance your facial features, the front-facing camera on your computer is not really designed to make you look beautiful or flawless during video calls. In fact, it’s quite the opposite.
A 2018 study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association found that people’s noses can look up to 30% larger in photos taken from 12 inches away (selfie-length), compared to pictures taken at a standard portrait distance, about 5 feet or so. The unfortunate combination of poor lighting and wonky angles (most of us stare down at our computers) can also create the illusion of under-eye circles and a flatter face, highlight expression lines and wrinkles, and bring the dreaded “double chin” front and center.
As a result, some people develop a disproportionate preoccupation with the physical features they perceive as flawed or unattractive. And unfortunately, this kind of extreme self-criticism can trigger a form of body dysmorphic disorder that pushes them to seek cosmetic interventions to alter their appearance and experience severe bouts of social anxiety.
What is body dysmorphic disorder?
Body dysmorphic disorder (BDD), or simply body dysmorphia, is a mental health disorder that causes people to become intensely fixated on perceived physical flaws or imperfections. If you have this illness, you may feel so worried or ashamed of defects in your appearance that it keeps you from living a normal life. The severity of BDD varies, but it almost always causes extreme anxiety. Its most common symptoms include:
- Constant mirror-checking or avoiding mirrors altogether
- Trying to hide specific body parts with baggy clothing, makeup, hats, etc.
- Constantly comparing your appearance with others
- Social anxiety / avoiding social situations
- A strong belief that others mock your appearance or notice it in a negative way
- Frequently seeking reassurance from others
- Having excessive or unnecessary cosmetic procedures with little to no satisfaction at the end
- Depression, anxiety, and/or thoughts of self-harm
People with body dysmorphic disorders can focus their attention on one or more areas of their bodies. Common areas of concern for BDD include:
- Face: nose, shape of the eyes, eyebrows, lips, facial skin, ears
- Hips and abdomen
What causes body dysmorphic disorder
There’s no one single thing known to cause BDD; like many mental health conditions, it typically results from a combination of psychological, genetic, and environmental factors. However, experts believe that the heavy consumption of social media content — which is usually distorted with filters and photo retouching apps — coupled with a disproportionate amount of time spent staring at our faces on screens, can definitely amplify the condition.
Only healthcare professionals can diagnose BDD. The DSM-5, the official manual psychologists and psychiatrists use to diagnose mental health conditions, lists BDD under obsessive-compulsive and related disorders. To be diagnosed with this disorder, the following criteria must be met:
- An obsession or preoccupation with one or more flaws in your physical appearance that are not visible or significant to others
- Recurrent behaviors, such as frequent mirror-checking, excessive grooming, skin picking
- Significant distress and impairment in your ability to function normally in your social/work life
- The preoccupation or obsession with flaws cannot be explained by an eating disorder (although it’s not uncommon for people with BDD to develop an eating disorder at some point)
Overcoming body dysmorphic disorder
Treating BDD is not always simple. Sometimes, the condition can mimic other mental health disorders, such as obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), social anxiety, agoraphobia (fear of leaving the house), and eating disorders like anorexia nervosa or bulimia. Many people with BDD benefit from a multimodal approach that combines psychotherapy with medication: one treatment to address behavioral issues, and the other to manage obsessive or disruptive thoughts.
If you think you may have BDD or you feel like the pandemic has worsened your relationship with your physical appearance, you may want to consider speaking to a professional or a trusted friend/family member about what you’re going through. Talking to a therapist can help you work through complex emotions surrounding your body image and provide helpful tips for transforming negative thoughts.
On the other hand, if your symptoms are only mild; i.e., you feel a persistent but manageable discomfort with your appearance, but it doesn’t interfere with your daily life, then there are things you can do to make socializing via video a little less stressful:
- Keep your camera off: “Zoom fatigue” is real, and we all have it to some degree. Depending on your job and the situation, consider turning your video off from time to time.
- Realize that no one’s really looking at you: while you may feel that everybody is staring at that zit on your chin, know that most people are doing exactly the same thing as you: looking at themselves. Our human brains love to think that we’re the center of the universe, but, in reality, everyone’s struggling with their own insecurities, not focusing on other people’s flaws.
- Consciously focus on the other participants: train yourself to stop fixating on your image. If you feel like your eyes keep wandering to the little square with your face, try sticking a post-it note to block the sight of yourself from your screen for the duration of the meeting.