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How The 'Funhouse Mirror' Effect Of Zoom Impacts Our Perceived Self-Esteem

"Zoom dysmorphia" happens when people are fixated on perceived flaws they see in the image of themselves on screen. (Getty Images)
"Zoom dysmorphia" happens when people are fixated on perceived flaws they see in the image of themselves on screen. (Getty Images)

Are you “Zoomed out?”

For the last year and a half, many of us have had to video conference for work, school or to connect with family and friends.

It can be uncomfortable to stare at your own image for hours on end while simultaneously talking to others. That strange experience is having an impact on our mental health.

One 19 year old spoke in January with NBC’s “The Today Show” about how all this “zooming” has hurt her self-esteem.

“Before when I looked at myself, it was always intentional, whether it be looking in a mirror or like taking a selfie or something,” she said on the show. “But now I can see myself while I’m interacting with other people so I got really hyper fixated on my face and the way that I look when I talk.”

Dr. Shadi Kourosh says it’s causing “Zoom dysmorphia,” where people are fixated on perceived flaws they see in the image of themselves on screen. Some are going as far as seeking cosmetic consultations.

Kourosh, an assistant professor of dermatology at Harvard Medical School and director of community health in the Department of Dermatology at Massachusetts General Hospital, has been surveying other doctors about how prevalent this dysmorphia is.

Zoom dysmorphia isn’t a medical diagnosis but rather a term used to “describe certain conditions of life and work in the pandemic that could give rise or trigger aspects of body dysmorphic disorder or aspects of a dysmorphic view of our own appearance,” she says.

She and her dermatology colleagues have noticed a trend in the last year: People coming to them for concerns such as wrinkles around the eye and sagging in the lower face and neck. This can be related to people looking down at their phones more while on video, she says.

“Usually when they’re having conversations with people in real life, they’re not conversing at that angle and they’re certainly not looking at themselves at that angle,” she says.

Kourosh and her team surveyed doctors and surgeons to examine whether video conferencing during the pandemic was a contributor to the influx of folks seeking cosmetic intervention. Doctors who reported an increase in cosmetic consultations over the past year say more than 85% of their patients cited the concern of feeling like they “look terrible” on video calls as at least one of their reasons for seeking cosmetic services, she says.

The finding led Kourosh to believe this problem may not be going away even as more people venture out and return to their offices.

She points to another so-called phenomenon a few years ago coined “Snapchat dysmorphia,” where patients would go to an aesthetic doctor with highly filtered-selfies, requesting to look like the altered images.

“With Snapchat dysmorphia, people knew that they were altering their appearance,” she says. “But with Zoom dysmorphia, this seemed to be hitting a much wider range of the population in an unintentional way that people didn’t realize that the front-facing cameras on our devices actually alter our appearance.”

This is why Kourosh explains Zoom dysmorphia as “looking at a funhouse mirror” instead of a regular mirror.

There are ways people can get through self-image issues: Consider a high-resolution camera for a higher-quality video, keep the camera at eye level or slightly above, and reassess your room’s lighting to neutralize unflattering effects of the front-facing camera, she says.

Keep mental health self-care in mind and make a decision that’s right for you, she says, which could mean turning off your camera when possible.

For those who want to go through with cosmetic changes, Kourosh says to be sure to consult a board-certified esthetic doctor who will help you take the right steps to meet your goals.

Ashley Locke produced and edited this interview for broadcast with Chris BentleySerena McMahon adapted it for the web.

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.