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  • Teresa McKee

Effects of Constant Self-Scrutiny

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.

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 likely much more! This is causing us to keep glancing at our mug on screen multiple times an hour.

How often are you scrutinizing your self image? Are you looking at your flaws? Or are you looking at the wonderful attributes that make up YOU? 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 re-shared. Many of us are spending an enormous amount of time in front of a camera, be it a webcam, smartphone or video camera.

Applications like Zoom, Teams, and FaceTime mimic in-person encounters by allowing us to see people we’re communicating with, usually showing us a video of ourselves. This does not mimic real life, in any shape or form…can you imagine staring at yourself while hanging out with friends at a coffee shop?

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. 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, such as cognitive impairment. 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.

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 constantly 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.

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.

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.

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.

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. Try stepping outside for 5 minutes - it greatly improves 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.

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.

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