We could never have imagined even 15 years ago that we would essentially be on camera, constantly seeing our own image throughout our days. This activity can have profound effects on our self-perception and self-esteem, but we can mindfully change our behavior to be more kind and accepting of ourselves just as we are.
I finally caught up with the mountain of work I had, only to realize that there was quite the stack of personal and non-urgent matters that I had ignored over the past few weeks that needed to be addressed. One of these, getting a haircut, might sound like something I could definitely set aside, but I’ve developed a weird thing about haircuts over the past few years and felt like this was something I’d be better off not procrastinating on.
My hair is, let’s say unruly. It’s mainly cowlicks so it does what it wants, regardless of what I try to make it do. In case you don’t know what a cowlick is, it’s a section of hair that stands straight up or lies at an angle at odds with the style of the rest of the hair on a head. I don’t have just one like many people, but according to a hairdresser about 7 years ago, my whole head is nothing but cowlicks. When I was young, I had straight long hair, but it changed over time. The cowlicks started perhaps in my 30s, here and there, and I fought them for a long time with hot rollers, curling irons, perms and a lengthy list of hair products, but by the end of the day, my hair always reverted to its own style.
I finally gave up in my mid-40s and decided to go with a messy look, which of course my previous type-a perfectionist personality would never have considered, but it means practicing a lot of acceptance. Some days, my hair looks great. Other days, not so much. The key is to recognize that it’s not up to me. My hair decides how it will look. Which circles back to the hairdresser problem. I finally found a hairdresser who listened to me, the one who described my cowlicked hair perfectly albeit with frustration and didn’t try to cut my hair with anything but plain scissors, didn’t blow dry it, because it frizzes it out, and didn’t suggest any products to use. Snip and tussle and I’m done. But she moved away during the pandemic and that’s when I felt the discomfort return. How many new hairdressers would I go through before I could find one who would really listen to me? Luckily (?) the shutdowns solved the problem for a couple of years, but I finally ventured out in 2022 and tried a new stylist. Terrible, so I vowed I would just take care of my own hair.
Which in a roundabout way leads to getting my haircut last weekend. I see myself all day long, every single workday because I’m on zoom so much. And spending that much time looking at myself, I notice my flaws. Every day. Don’t misunderstand, I know I have flaws without zoom, but without zoom, I don’t focus on them all day. In fact, I used to forget all about them the minute I walked out the door.
Think about our pre-pandemic lives. Most of us looked in the mirror in the morning, perhaps glanced in a mirror in the bathroom at work and maybe one more time as we brushed our teeth before bed. Now many of us are on camera daily and even if we don’t want to look at ourselves, we can’t help it. That little voice in our heads is saying, do you look okay, are you seated correctly, is your hair fine, and much more, causing us to keep glancing at our mug on screen multiple times an hour. And my glances were telling me I needed to get my dead-ends trimmed and self-inflicted snippets evened out.
So I prepared for the visit by setting an intention to focus on a positive outcome, to be curious at every stage of the process and to be politely assertive if the hairdresser didn’t listen to me. Deep breath as I walked in the door and after being whisked off to have my hair washed, was placed in a chair facing a giant, brightly-lit mirror. For about 15 minutes I had nothing to do but stare at myself. I glanced around for a magazine, but there were none to be found, so I focused on staring into my own eyes. They are kind eyes and I practiced self-compassion at my uncomfortable predicament. I told myself I looked fine, that my strength is my personality and most of that shows on my face, and that worst-case scenario, I could wear a hat for a couple of weeks until my hair recovered from a bad cut. Then, as thoughts do, one popped in my head asking why I don’t like looking at myself, followed by another one, why do I dislike having my picture taken, followed by the queen of them all, what’s wrong with me?
You know what I did when I got home. Researched. It turns out, seeing our own face on a screen for too long can distort our self-perception, but the increase in visual media has resulted in something of a tyranny of the camera. And of course, this doesn’t just pertain to zoom. Social media demands face and body appearances in order to be liked, subscribed to, shared and reshared. Many of us are spending an enormous amount of time in front of a camera, be it a webcam, smart-phone or video camera.
In just the past few years, people have spent more time on video chat programs like Zoom, Teams and FaceTime than ever before, and while these applications mimic in-person encounters by allowing us to see people we’re communicating with, they often show us a video of ourselves, which is not like in-person communications. Can you imagine sitting in a coffee shop across from someone with a mirror propped up next to them?
Psychologists studying society’s focus on women’s appearance have started to identify the consequences of the constant self-scrutiny that occurs in virtual classes, meetings, and other online communication, believing it leads to a continuous focus on one’s own appearance. Research suggests this is harmful to mental health, especially for women. Men can be affected too, of course, but women have historically been more likely to report issues with body image than men. One of the main areas of study has been on self-objectification.
Self-objectification occurs when we treat ourselves as objects to be viewed and evaluated based on our appearance. Studies have revealed links between self-objectification and damaging outcomes in both men and women. Researchers investigate self-objectification in experimental studies by having study participants focus on their appearance and then measure cognitive, emotional, behavioral, or physiological outcomes. Research shows that being near a mirror, taking a picture of ourselves, and feeling that our appearance is being evaluated by others all increase self-objectification. When we log in to a virtual session, we’re basically doing all of these things at once.
One study found that the more time women who are focused on their looks spent on video calls, the less satisfied they were with their appearance. Facial dissatisfaction also seems to play a role in Zoom fatigue, with women across all races reporting higher levels of Zoom fatigue than their male counterparts. A substantial amount of research suggests that Zoom calls are a perfect storm for self-objectification.
Thinking of ourselves as objects can lead to changes in behavior and physical awareness, and it’s also been shown to negatively affect mental health in a number of ways. While these experiences with self-objectification lead both women and men to focus on their appearance, women tend to face many more negative consequences. Research suggests that experiencing self-objectification is cognitively taxing for women. In one study, researchers showed that when women put on a new swimsuit and viewed themselves in a mirror, the self-objectification this produced caused women to perform poorly on math problems. Men’s math performance was not affected by the same experience.
Self-objectification can also lead women to unconsciously distance themselves from their own bodies. This can cause worse motor performance, as well as difficulty recognizing one’s own emotional and bodily states. One study showed that girls who were prone to self-objectification were less physically coordinated than girls who showed less.
In some women, self-objectification can become the default way of thinking of themselves and navigating the world. High levels of this self-objectification can be associated with mental health consequences, including disordered eating, increased anxiety over one’s appearance, and depression.
People who experience strong self-objectification could also be at risk of developing a body dysmorphic disorder, a mental health condition where we can't stop thinking about one or more perceived defects or flaws in our appearance, typically a flaw that appears minor or can't be seen by others.
A body dysmorphic disorder causes an intense focus on appearance and body image, resulting in repeatedly checking the mirror, grooming or seeking reassurance, sometimes for many hours each day. The perceived flaw and the repetitive behaviors can cause significant distress and impact our ability to function in daily life.
Body image refers to our perspective of our body's appearance and how it compares to societal standards. A negative body image can cause unrealistic expectations of how our bodies should look and could lead to unhealthy behaviors, like disordered eating. Obviously, with almost 4 billion social media users worldwide, pictures and videos of ourselves are a large part of today's culture. But consistently scrolling through posts, particularly images that evoke negative feelings or elevate a certain body type, can impact how we see ourselves. Social media is filled with people presenting themselves in their best light, so it can be difficult to avoid images and messages that might cause us to feel negatively about our own bodies. We compare ourselves to these idealized body types and determine that we’re coming up short.
These comparisons can be part of a vicious cycle. In a 2021 study of 15 to 35-year-olds, the more they compared themselves to people they followed on social media, the more dissatisfied they became with their bodies. The researchers also pointed out that, if the subjects were already dissatisfied with their bodies, it could increase the drive to compare themselves to others on social media.
While most studies on social media and body image focus on women, a 2020 study found similar effects in men. For men, the proliferation of a lean, muscle-laden body type on social media could lead to body dissatisfaction and muscle dysmorphia. Muscle dysmorphia, a type of body dysmorphia, is the self-perception that the body is not muscular or lean enough. It can cause people to engage in unhealthy amounts of exercise and may again lead to disordered eating. But stigmas around seeking help for mental illness and eating disorders could discourage some men from getting a diagnosis and treatment. Plus, the assumption that women are most affected by eating disorders could cause more men to go undiagnosed and less likely to receive treatment early on, when it would be most effective.
Even the process of editing your own images can play a role in how you perceive your body. According to a 2022 review, research found that taking and editing selfies was more harmful than posting them, perhaps because it allows us to focus on and try to fix our flaws. I can attest to this myself. It takes a lot longer to edit the audio and video versions of this podcast than it does to record them. I have found myself satisfied with my work after recording, only to have to work very hard to quell the negative nellie in my mind as I edit. When you look at yourself for several hours, frame by frame no less, it’s not that much different than staring at yourself all day on zoom. It can be exhausting.
But for better or worse, the virtualization of daily life as well as social media are here to stay, so it’s key to be self-aware and take action to reduce the strain it puts on our self-image, body-image and overall self-esteem. One way to reduce the negative effects of endless video meetings is to use the “hide self-view” function during virtual sessions. This hides your image from yourself but not others. I’ve noticed a big difference in how fatigued I am after facilitating meetings with the self-view on versus off. Unfortunately, I frequently need to see myself to ensure that my audience can see my hand gestures or something I’m holding up to the screen, but when I can, I turn off my view of my kisser and just focus on my topics. I’m not nearly as fatigued afterwards.
Any small reprieve from staring at a literal projection of yourself will be a net gain for your well-being. Another important step we can take is to be mindful with our social media. Studies show that positive body content, which seeks to show appreciation and acceptance for all types of bodies, results in us feeling not only better about our bodies, but also improving our moods. We can also connect with others online that help build a body-accepting community, including supportive groups that can help shift your mindset about ideal body types.
Practicing mindfulness reduces judgment and that’s what comparison is. When you compare yourself to someone else, you’re judging yourself as either better or worse than that person. So when you hear that little voice comparing, simply say to yourself “judging” which will help break that cycle. Do the same if you’re editing your own image. I’m diligently practicing this now, so as soon as my inner critic starts pointing out my self-perceived shortcomings, I remind myself that it takes courage to be vulnerable through exposure and it’s normal to feel somewhat uncomfortable about it. I don’t have to fix anything about me and with that attitude, I can enjoy the process much more.
Remember to check in with yourself, even if you’re just scrolling. If you find your mood dropping or are experiencing any negative emotions, take a break. See how you feel after disengaging. If you feel better, put the phone away for a while. A study in 2022 showed that a week-long break can be enough to make a significant difference in your mood and well-being, but even if it’s just for an hour, it will help.
Stop following accounts that don't make you feel good. Pay attention to which accounts, people, and images lift you up. Simply start replacing content that makes you feel bad with content that makes you feel better.
If you’re in virtual sessions all day for work, try to schedule them with breaks in between. I’ve found just stepping outside for 5 minutes greatly improves my mood and fatigue level. Turn off that self-view and experiment to determine if that helps or not. Change your lighting, background or location in between meetings to see yourself differently multiple times a day.
Remember to practice self-compassion. We all have flaws. We are not all gorgeous models or body builders. We’re human and despite what the media shows us, we’re valuable for much more than our appearance. My haircut didn’t really change much about the way my hair looks, but at least I found a hairdresser who listens. It was also a good reminder that I look how I look. I’m not on YouTube or conducting online workshops to show off my stunning beauty. I’m doing it to spread mindfulness as far and wide as possible so that people can thrive in their lives.
Spend some time this week considering why you’re on video or social media. If you’re contributing something to the world, that’s what’s important. If the inner critic shows up, just say thanks but no thanks, I’m fine just the way I am.
This podcast is part of the Airwave Media podcast network. Visit AirwaveMedia.com to listen and subscribe to other great shows like The Daily Meditation Podcast, Everything Everywhere and Movie Therapy. We’d deeply appreciate your support at patreon.com/amindfulmoment. Our podcast is now available to view on our YouTube Channel, so be sure to follow us there and on Instagram @amindfulmomentpodcast. Visit our website, amindfulmoment.com to access podcasts, scripts and book recommendations.
A Mindful Moment is written and hosted by Teresa McKee and/or Melissa Sims. The Spanish version is translated and hosted by Paola Theil. Intro music, Retreat, by Jason Farnham. Outro music, Morning Stroll by Josh Kirsch, Media Right Productions. Thank you for tuning in! This podcast is produced by Work2Live Productions.