Over the past few years, people around the world have been spending more time on video chat programs like Zoom and FaceTime than ever before. These apps mimic in-person dating by allowing users to see the people they are communicating with.
But unlike in-person communications, these programs often show users a video of themselves. Instead of occasionally catching a glimpse of themselves in a mirror, people now stare at themselves for hours a day.
We are psychologists who study society’s attention to women’s appearance and the consequences of this constant scrutiny. We were immediately fascinated by the new dynamic created by the Zoom universe. Although essential for public safety during the pandemic, we believe that virtual classes, meetings and the like lead to constant focus on one’s own appearance – which research suggests is harmful to mental health, especially for young people. women.
Objectification is a bit of a buzzword, but the meaning is quite literal: to be seen or treated as an object. This often takes 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, where close-ups of certain body parts are often shown to help market a product, such as a bottle of cologne. graphically tucked between a woman’s breasts.
It’s no surprise that women’s bodies are treated like objects much more often than men. Because women and girls are socialized into a culture that prioritizes their appearance, they internalize the idea that they are objects. Therefore, women objectify themselves, treat themselves as objects to look at.
Researchers study self-objectification in experimental studies by having study participants focus on their appearance then measure cognitive, emotional, behavioral or physiological outcomes. Research has shown that being near a mirrortake a self picture and feeling that one’s appearance is being evaluated by others all increase self-objectification. When you log into a virtual meeting, you’re essentially doing all of these things at once.
Thinking of yourself as an object can lead to changes in a person’s behavior and physical awareness, and has also been shown to negatively affect mental health in a number of ways. While these experiences of self-objectification cause women and men to focus on their appearance, women tend to face many other negative consequences.
Research suggests that the experience of self-objectification is cognitively taxing for women. In a seminal study in 1998, researchers showed that when women put on a new bathing suit and looked in a mirror, the self-objectification it produced caused women to perform poorly on math problems. The men’s mathematical performance was not affected by this objectifying experience.
Moreover, experiencing objectification has behavioral and physiological consequences. In the aforementioned study, trying on a swimsuit produced feelings of shame in women, which in turn led to restricted eating. Other research has shown that when women see themselves as objects, they speak less in mixed groups.
Self-objectification also leads women to, in a sense, distance themselves from their own bodies. This can lead to engine performance degradation as well as difficulty recognizing own emotional and bodily states. A study showed that girls who were prone to self-objectification were less physically coordinated than girls who showed less self-objectification.
In an article we published in 2021, our team showed that women who see themselves as objects have difficulty recognizing their own body temperature. To test this, we asked women how cold they felt when standing outside nightclubs and bars on chilly nights. We found that the more a woman was focused on her appearance, the less of a connection there was between the amount of clothing 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 one’s appearance and depression.
Although we are not aware of any research directly exploring the link between video meetings and self-objectification, some recent studies suggest that our concerns are well-founded.
A study found that the more women who focus on their appearance make video calls, the more less satisfied than they were with their appearance. Facial dissatisfaction also appears to play a role in Zoom fatiguewith women of all races reporting higher levels of Zoom fatigue than their male counterparts.
For better or for worse, the the virtualization of everyday life is here to stay. One way to reduce the negative effects of endless video conferencing is to use the “hide personal picture” feature during online interactions. It hides your image from yourself but not from others.
Disabling auto-display is easy to do and may help some people, but many others – including us – feel it puts them at a disadvantage. It may be because there are benefits to being aware of your appearance, despite the risk of self-objectification and the harms it entails. A large body of research shows that attractive appearance has tangible social and economic benefits, for women more than for men. By monitoring your appearance, it is possible to anticipate how you will be assessed and adjust accordingly. Therefore, we expect people, especially women, to continue to keep the camera on for the duration of their Zoom calls.
A huge amount of previous research suggests that Zoom calls are a perfect storm for self-objectification and that harm disproportionately affects women. It seems that the already unequal level playing field for women is being exacerbated in online social interactions. Any little respite from staring at a literal projection of yourself will be a net gain for your well-being, especially for women.
Roxanne Felig is a doctoral candidate 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.