You may have heard the term “Zoom Dysmorphia” mentioned on the Today Show and in other media recently. It’s becoming a real issue.
As more professionals and students spend their days in video conference calls to avoid the COVID scourge, they’re forced to spend long periods of time staring at their distorted likeness, and it’s having a serious mental health impact.
So what can be done about it?
What Is Zoom Dysmorphia?
Named for the popular video conferencing app that has become ubiquitous in recent months, Zoom Dysmorphia is a form of Body Dysmorphic Disorder (BDD), more specifically a facial dysmorphia.
This is a condition in which an individual has a warped perception of their facial features. They may obsess over the appearance of their skin, nose, teeth, or other features, perceiving their appearance to be unsightly when in fact their own minds have created a sort of “fun house mirror” effect.
The International OCD Foundation reports that as much as 2.9% of the general population suffers from Body Dysmorphic Disorder. However, the real number is likely much higher as many people suffer in silence, never divulging their condition publicly.
The condition is believed to be more common than anorexia and schizophrenia and at least as common as obsessive-compulsive disorder.
Causes of Zoom Dysmorphia
Traditionally, the household mirror was the No. 1 trigger for people with body and face dysmorphia. Then social media came along and complicated matters even more. But recently, technology and the budding work-from-home culture have caused yet another trigger to emerge: the webcam.
To someone with these types of tendencies (and for many people with no history of dysmorphic disorders), a webcam can be much more sinister than a mirror. It shows you not a reflection of your appearance but a distortion of it.
Unflattering lighting, deceptive camera angles, and pixelation can significantly alter the way you look. The short focal length of a webcam can even distort the size and shape of your face (again, the “fun house mirror” effect).
These issues are compounded by the fact that some people are required to spend not minutes but hours every day in video calls. Add to that the increased social isolation that many people are experiencing during COVID-19, and you have a recipe for a truly severe dysmorphic state.
How to Know if You Have Zoom Dysmorphia
If you have an obsessive or unhealthy fixation with your own video feed on conference calls, you may have Zoom Dysmorphia. Body Dysmorphic Disorders can be challenging to diagnose because they’re not always characterized by severe symptoms. BDD is a spectrum disorder, meaning that it manifests differently in different people.
Some sufferers experience intense shame and emotional dread to the point where it interferes with their ability to function from day to day. High-functioning sufferers may experience varying levels of discomfort and preoccupation when examining their own likeness but are still able to cope fairly well.
If you experience any of the following, you may have some degree of Zoom Dysmorphia:
Moderate to severe anxiety about attending video meetings with your camera on.
An obsession with perfecting your appearance prior to video conference calls (this can be as simple as applying excess makeup or as serious as considering/pursuing cosmetic surgery).
A continued fixation on or disappointment with your on-screen appearance despite your efforts to improve your look.
A strong suspicion that people in the meeting are focusing on you and your perceived flaws/defects.
The need to constantly compare your own appearance with that of others.
Most importantly, we need to distinguish Zoom Dysmorphia from general awkwardness or insecurity. It’s normal to experience a certain degree of discomfort in social settings (be they in person or virtual), but Body Dysmorphic Disorder is something different entirely. It’s generally not due to a physical flaw but rather the exaggerated perception of a physical flaw.
For example, if you’re just self-conscious about a couple of crooked or discolored teeth, you might invest in some porcelain veneers and feel a natural boost of confidence. However, if you truly have Zoom Dysmorphia or another form of BDD, no amount of grooming, makeup, or surgery will quell your insecurity. The anxiety comes from a much deeper place and isn’t based on an honest, objective perception of your appearance.
Zoom Dysmorphia vs Selfie Dysmorphia
Selfie Dysmorphia, sometimes referred to as Snapchat Dysmorphia, has been in the public consciousness for a few years.
Social media has played into the Body Dysmorphia issue by increasing the pressure to look perfect and by providing filters that allow the illusion of enhanced beauty. Some users have gone to great lengths to achieve that “filtered” look in real life as they become increasingly disillusioned with their natural appearance off-camera.
While there’s some overlap between Selfie Dysmorphia and Zoom Dysmorphia, there are also some important distinctions to be made:
Selfie Dysmorphia is rooted in an idealized version of yourself that you see on a screen (e.g. airbrushed Snapchat filters).
Zoom Dysmorphia is based on an exaggerated perception of your own flaws as seen on a screen.
The Selfie Dysmorphia screen is deceptively flattering; the Zoom Dysmorphia screen is deceptively unforgiving. But ultimately, the result is the same: a perceived need to aspire to a better physical standard.
How to Overcome Zoom Dysmorphia
If you struggle with Zoom Dysmorphia, there are numerous steps you can take.
For severe sufferers: If your Zoom Dysmorphia is severe to the point where you’re considering self-harm, call 9-1-1 immediately or contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255. You are not alone, and there are knowledgeable, compassionate people who want to help.
For moderate to severe sufferers: If your dysmorphia isn’t quite so severe but it still interferes with your daily life, consider speaking with a mental health professional. Effective treatment of severe BDD often requires a combination of intensive psychotherapy and medication, but it is possible to learn effective coping mechanisms and reclaim control of your life.
For mild to moderate sufferers: If you have mild to moderate symptoms and just need to shake the persistent but manageable discomfort, the following techniques may be effective:
Turn off your camera. This might not always be an option, but if it is, do it. There’s no need to subject yourself to unnecessary discomfort, particularly if it takes a toll on your mental health. You may need to speak privately with the person administering the meetings and explain your situation ahead of time.
Consciously focus on the other participants. This may take some practice, but train yourself to stop fixating on your image. Instead, consciously focus on whomever is speaking. Not only will this help you to overcome your fixation, but it will help you to get the most out of the meeting. If you can’t resist the temptation to fixate on your own video feed, consider covering it with a sticky note (at least as a temporary fix).
Cultivate positive thoughts. Before each meeting, spend some time looking in the mirror. Recite a positive mantra, consider the details that you admire about your own appearance, and make a commitment not to get bogged down in self-destructive thinking. It might feel silly at first, but in time, it will start to feel natural.
If you need additional assistance, you can find BDD support groups online through the Body Dysmorphic Disorder Foundation and the International OCD Foundation. Don’t let Zoom Dysmorphia control your personal or professional life. Make a commitment right now to reclaim control.