Staring at yourself on Zoom has mental health implications – especially if you’re a woman

In recent years, people around the world have spent more time on video chat programs like Zoom and FaceTime than ever before. These applications mimic face-to-face encounters by showing users the people they interact with.

But unlike face-to-face communication, these programs often show users a video of themselves as well. Instead of catching a glimpse of themselves in a mirror every now and then, people now look at themselves for hours a day.

We are psychologists studying society’s focus on women’s appearance and the consequences of this constant scrutiny. We were immediately fascinated by the new dynamics that the Zoom world created. While critical to public safety during the pandemic, we believe that virtual classes, meetings and the like lead to a continuous focus on one’s own appearance – something that research shows is detrimental to mental health, especially for women.

Objectification is a bit of a buzzword, but the meaning is quite literal: to be seen or treated as an object. This often comes in the form of sexual objectification, where bodies and body parts are seen as separate from the person they are attached to. Advertisements are full of examples of this, often showing close-ups of certain body parts to market a product, such as a bottle of cologne graphically nestled between a woman’s breasts.

Not surprisingly, women’s bodies are treated as objects much more often than men’s. Because women and girls are socialized in a culture that prioritizes their appearance, they internalize the idea that they are objects. As a result, women make themselves objectifiable and treat themselves as objects to look at.

Researchers explore self-objectification in experimental studies by having study participants focus on their appearance and then measure cognitive, emotional, behavioral, or physiological outcomes. Research has shown that being near a mirror, taking a picture of yourself and feeling like your appearance is being judged by others increases your self-objectification. When you log into a virtual meeting, you are essentially doing all of these things at once.

Seeing yourself as an object can lead to changes in a person’s behavior and physical awareness, and it has also been shown to negatively affect mental health in a number of ways. While these experiences of self-objectification lead both women and men to focus on their appearance, women tend to experience far more negative consequences.

Research suggests that experiencing self-objectification is cognitively taxing for women. In a groundbreaking study conducted in 1998, researchers showed that when women put on a new swimsuit and looked at themselves in a mirror, the self-objectification it caused caused women to perform poorly on math problems. Men’s math performance was not affected by this objectifying experience.

Furthermore, experiencing objectification has behavioral and physiological consequences. In the above study, trying on a bathing suit in women caused feelings of shame, which in turn led to restraint in eating. Other research has shown that when women see themselves as objects, they speak less in mixed gender groups.

Self-objectification also leads women to a certain distance from their own bodies. This can lead to poorer motor performance and difficulties in recognizing one’s own emotional and physical states. One study found that girls prone to self-objectification were physically less coordinated than girls who showed less self-objectification.

In a paper we published in 2021, our team showed that women who see themselves as objects have trouble recognizing their own body temperature. To test this, we asked women how cold they felt standing outside of nightclubs and bars on cold nights. We found that the more focused a woman was on her appearance, the less correlation there was between the amount of clothes she wore and how cold she felt.

For some women, self-objectification can become the default way of thinking about themselves and navigating the world. High levels of this self-objectification may be associated with mental health consequences, including eating disorders, increased anxiety about appearance and depression.

While we’re not aware of any research that directly examines the link between video conferencing and self-objectification, some recent studies suggest that our concerns are valid.

One study found that the more time women who focus on their appearance spend on video calls, the less satisfied they are with their appearance. Facial dissatisfaction also appears to play a role in Zoom fatigue, with women of all races reporting higher levels of Zoom fatigue than their male counterparts.

For better or worse, the virtualization of everyday life is here to stay. One way to reduce the negative effects of endless video meetings is to use the “hide self-view” feature during online interactions. This will hide your image from yourself, but not from others.

Turning off self-esteem is easy to do and may help some people, but many others — including us — feel it puts them at a disadvantage. This may be because being aware of your appearance has benefits, despite the risk of self-objectification and the harm it brings. A vast body of research shows that looking attractive has tangible social and economic benefits, more so for women than for men. By keeping an eye on your appearance, it is possible to anticipate how you will be judged and adjust accordingly. Therefore, we expect that people, especially women, will continue to keep the camera on during their Zoom conversations.

A vast body of previous research suggests that Zoom calls are a perfect storm for self-objectification and that the harms disproportionately affect women. It seems that the already uneven playing field for women is exacerbated in online social interactions. Any little reprieve from staring at a literal projection of yourself will be a net gain for your well-being, especially for women.

Roxanne Felig is a PhD student in social psychology at the University of South Florida where: Jamie Goldenberg is a professor of psychology. A version of this piece originally appeared on The conversation

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