Last summer, when clinics are currently beginning to reopen, dermatologist Shadi Kourosh noted a worrying trend-an increase in appointment requests for appearance-related issues. “It seemed that at such times other issues would be central, but many people were really concerned with feeling that they looked much worse than usual,” she says.
Kourosh, an assistant professor of dermatology at Harvard Medical School, soon discovered that others in her field and related to plastic surgery had noticed a similar phenomenon. And when she and her colleagues asked patients what was the reason for their decision to seek treatment, many of them cited video conferencing. The pandemic had catapulted them into a world of Zoom conversations and team meetings, and staring at their own face on a screen all day every day ruined their self-image.
In the Zoom age, people became overly preoccupied with sagging skin around their necks and jowls; with the size and shape of the nose; with pallor in the skin. They wanted cosmetic procedures, everything from Botox and fillers to facelifts and nose jobs. Kourosh and colleagues examined physicians and surgeons and examined the question of whether video conferencing during the pandemic was a potential cause of dysmorphic disorder in the body. They called it “Zoom dysmorphia.”
Now, with the rise in vaccinations apparently pushing the pandemic to retreat, new research from Kourosh’s group at Harvard has revealed that Zoom dysmorphia is not disappearing. A survey among more than 7,000 people indicates that the mental scars of the coronavirus will stay with us for a while.
Even before Covid, plastic surgeons and dermatologists saw an increase in patients coming to them with demands that were “unrealistic and unnatural,” Kourosh said. The term “Snapchat dysmorphia” was coined in 2015 to describe the growing number of people who wanted to look like they had been put through a face-changing filter in real life, all big eyes and sparkling skin.
Before that, a patient could show up at a plastic surgeon with pictures of a celebrity they would look like cut from a magazine. Even before the advent of social media, psychologists found that people who stared at themselves in a mirror became more self-aware.
But Zoom dysmorphia is different. Unlike Snapchat, where people are aware that they are looking at themselves through a filter, video conferencing distorts our appearance in ways we may not even realize, as Kourosh and her co-authors identified in the original newspaper.
Forward-facing cameras distort your image like a “funhouse mirror”, she says – they make your nose look bigger and your eyes look smaller. This effect is exacerbated by the proximity of the lens, which is usually closer to you than a person would ever stand in a real conversation. Looking down on a smartphone or portable camera is the least flattering angle – as someone from the MySpace generation will tell you, the best camera position is from above, hence the proximity to the selfie stick.
We are also used to seeing our own reflection when our faces are relaxed – the concentrated wrinkled (or dull expression) you wear in a Zoom meeting jar with the image of yourself you are used to seeing in the mirror. “Changes in self-esteem and anxiety due to constant video conferencing can lead to unnecessary cosmetic procedures, especially in young adults who have had increased exposure to electronic platforms, including video conferencing, social media and filters through the pandemic,” write Kourosh, Channi Silence and other colleagues. .
The term “Zoom dysmorphia” was picked up by international media, and Kourosh was flooded with emails from friends and strangers with whom it resonated. In the new follow-up study to be published in International Journal of Women’s Dermatology, the research group found that 71 per cent of the 7,000 surveyed were anxious or stressed about returning to personal activities, and that almost 64 per cent had sought mental health care.