It’s hard to imagine going through this pandemic without the technology we have—and although I’m grateful for it, I never imagined just how dramatically Zoom would impact my self-esteem and face dysmorphia.
“I’d say at least 15 times a day.” My mother’s friend was over and we were playing a question-based game. On the card, it asked: How many times do you look at yourself in the mirror on any given day?
Fifteen seemed highly suspicious to me, especially as a chubby eight-year-old who avoided mirrors, glass and anything else that might reflect back my face or body.
“Well, if you think about it, it’s not that much,” she explained herself. “When I get ready in the morning, any time I go to the bathroom, when I touch up my makeup or, you know, just catching my reflection walking by a store or getting in the car. Or if I’m getting ready for a date. Sure, at least 15. Probably more.”
As I grew older, my eagerness to avoid the mirror made me more inclined to skip unnecessary social gatherings. If I didn’t have to get ready to go anywhere, I didn’t have to put myself in front of the mirror and exhaust myself attempting to feel somewhat good about my appearance.
Now in 2020, like many, I am working from home during a worldwide pandemic, seeing others (and being seen by others) solely through Facetime and Zoom.
Now that Zoom is my only option, I can’t help but grow more and more self-obsessed.
When our “new normal” first began, I had no idea that seeing myself on live camera so frequently would regress the progress I’d made over the years in terms of self-acceptance. When I see myself staring back on Zoom, the eating disorder and body image issues I dealt with in the past start bubbling up as if they’d never left. It makes me wish I could go back to 2019, when things felt a little more stable. Not every day was perfect. Not every meal. But on the whole, I felt much happier and far more balanced this time last year.
The first event to trigger the reintroduction of my body issues occurred back in March, when I went to the grocery store and saw—for the first time in my life—empty shelves everywhere. In a pre-lockdown panic, anxious and aggressive shoppers had cleared them, and stores were out of stock of everything. I quickly found I couldn’t get fresh produce, or even my typical binge foods.
Still, I felt lucky enough. As a graduate student and teacher, I am very grateful to have a job when the unemployment rate was so high. I feel safer teaching online because I’m less exposed to COVID-19, but the effects of communicating purely through video chat platforms like Zoom, Webex, Skype and Facetime have certainly taken their toll.
The constant ability to look at myself brings up intense feelings of insecurity. Who has pinned my little square? Who took a screenshot? What are the people with the videos off really doing? Does my face look bloated and fat today? Is this an unflattering light or angle? I become overwhelmed by old thoughts of self-hatred and comparison, and I feel the urge to turn to food as the one thing I can control.
My tendency to focus on my own little video square comes from a place of anxiety, not vanity. Still, this preoccupation takes up brain space that might otherwise be used to engage with the people on these calls. I can’t help but focus on myself, though: I don’t want to look stupid, be caught with my mouth hanging open or with a booger in my nose, or see my face crinkling in real-time reaction. I feel like a bird standing on a perch in front of a mirror: fascinated yet terrified by my own reflection.
Try as I might to resist, the staring at myself never stops. More often than not, it leads to spiraling into depressive episodes, binges or sleeping the day away, letting my work pile up bit by ignored bit.
Prior to the world of constant video calls, I could concentrate on other aspects of in-person interactions beyond my own appearance. Fashion choices, smells, touch—or, you know, actually listening to the other person, reading their face for social cues. With no virtual delays and no internet interruptions, it was easy to converse without looking at myself. Now that Zoom is my only option, I can’t help but grow more and more self-obsessed.
Turning off my camera is an easy option that I can get away with on occasion, depending on the meeting, but it’s no perfect solution. If no one can see me or hear me, there’s a freedom to scroll and multitask. This leads to a struggle concentration. And, hypocritically, I do not like when others have their cameras turned off. I can’t help but wonder what they’re really doing.
In order to help alleviate some of my more intrusive self-conscious thoughts while Zooming, I purchased a ring light online. I even have the Zoom ‘Enhance Appearance’ filter turned up to the max effect. Still, all I can see is everything I’d like to change. My shoulders, collarbones and face are areas I once found photogenic, but my raging dysmorphia finds fault in them nonetheless. I find comfort in the fact that at least my body isn’t on camera too.
My tendency to focus on my own little video square comes from a place of anxiety, not vanity.
Acknowledging my struggle and these obsessive thoughts is one thing; acquiring help is entirely another. Due to insurance issues, I resort to therapy via small squares on Instagram and 280-character tweets. Both are free, accessible right when I need them, and (sometimes) pretty helpful. But online venting is not enough, as social media only further fuels my insecurities. Though I try to curate my feed and unfollow problematic accounts, they always seem to find me. Perhaps targeted ads really are that good.
Even knowing that, yes, the content is highly curated, edited, photoshopped and there’s an entire team behind even the seemingly effortless shots, they still manage to make me feel less than. My brain latches on to these idealized faces and bodies and constantly compares them to my own reflection. These images are everything my appearance on Zoom is not.
I am grateful for the technological advances that allow me to talk to my 93-year-old grandmother in another country without leaving my home. Still, video meetings have created as many problems for me as they’ve solved. I’ve yet to figure out the key to unconditional self-love and acceptance, and now that my job now requires seeing my own face on camera every day, I have work to find peace with my reflection and ignore the negative thoughts I’ve grown so accustomed to.
Ring lights and filters can make a difference in the moment, but I know I’ll have to turn inward to truly fix the problem and improve my self-esteem.