This topic is a bit of a rabbit hole, and longer than my usual article, but I feel that it’s an important issue to address.
On one hand, living in a digital age is a blessing: It allows us to reach out and stay in contact with distant friends, family and, in these months of lockdowns and home offices, our co-workers. It allows us to learn anything, with a world of libraries and teachers and experts at our fingertips, but on the other hand, this age has also brought with it a phenomenon known as Digital Dysmorphia, Zoom-, Instagram-, Snapchat-, Facebook-, or simply Body Dysmorphia.
When lockdowns started in 2020, it wasn’t only a personal challenge for many, but also a huge challenge for businesses of every branch. Suddenly their personnel could no longer travel to international, or even national, meetings; they couldn’t meet their co-workers face to face, or even go into the office. Home office became, for many that still had work, a dream come true: Businesses that for years had claimed that home office would be too impractical suddenly found ways to carry on using tools like Zoom and Skype to gather virtual groups together for meetings. It became a common joke that many would be dressed for success on the top half, while the unseen half was PJs or boxer shorts or tutus, like John Krasinski’s “Some Good News” YouTube channel.
So what is Digital Dysmorphia? It’s the separating of oneself from one’s own real image by the distortion brought about through filters, enhancers and additions of body parts (e.g. large eyes, or bunny ears), using apps such as Snapchat; it’s the altering of reality, modifying self-perceived flaws, and presenting an altered reality of not only one’s physical appearance, but even one’s lifestyle (Instagram). Its danger is the destruction of self-esteem, fear of getting “caught in the lie” by being seen face-to-face by someone who only knows your digitalized self-image, and therefore fear of seeing people in person. It’s a different phenomenon than, say, knowing you need to update your online profile picture that was taken a decade ago. This dysmorphia, also known as BDD (Body Dysmorphic Disorder), is an active destruction of self-esteem through choosing distortions over reality. When someone has BDD, they are focused on their supposed physical flaws for hours a day, and they may take drastic measures to hide or fix them. BDD is sometimes diagnostically confused with OCD, social anxiety disorders, social phobia or depression. BDD was first described around the turn of the 20th century, but has only been taken seriously as an illness in the past few decades. To find out more, here is an interesting YouTube video (~8 min.)
The reason visual apps such as Zoom have made a negative impact on people is because we often see the image of ourselves onscreen as unflattering, perhaps because the camera sits too low, but also because we are looking at our own face for an hour or more at a time (it’s natural to be curious about how others see us, and our eyes are drawn to our own image because of it); while you might not be a teenager glued to your phone, if you’ve used Zoom or Skype, you’ve seen yourself through digital eyes.
Women especially, but not exclusively, have an added challenge: Every magazine image, and many social media images, are all air-brushed, photo-shopped and tweaked beyond humanly-attainable standards. We can never live up to the standard of beauty that marketing companies press on us, and that can wear on someone’s self-esteem.
Another danger in the digital age is the addiction to selfies: Trying to capture the perfect shot, the perfect moment, keeps people so focused on themselves that they completely miss the actual moment they’re trying to capture themselves in. Once in Scotland, my husband and I were enjoying a window-side lunch in a small road-side restaurant on the Isle of Skye; a bus-load of Asian tourists pulled up, and they faced the restaurant to take selfies of themselves with the background (which was the majestic Cuillin mountain range); they did not once turn around to see the actual scenery, but took dozens of photos of themselves before loading back up into the bus and leaving. They could have just saved themselves the trip, stayed at home, and put up a green screen with an image in the background.
Although we may tend to think of girls when we think of selfie addiction, the first British documented case was in 2014, then-19-year-old Danny Bowman. To read a fascinating article, click here: “Faking it: How Selfie Dysmorphia is Driving People to Seek Surgery”. Danny got to the point that he tried to commit suicide but was found in time by his parents and rehabilitated. He now raises awareness about mental health issues.
A few years ago, plastic surgeons were being asked to make a person look like this or that celebrity. Then lockdowns came into our collective lives, and Zoom became a household name; but with the sudden increase in digital contact, another, darker phenomena also increased, dubbed by cosmetic surgeons as the “Zoom Boom” to describe the increase. Now to be fair, Zoom is by no means solely responsible; every social media platform has the same dangers. Today, cosmetic surgeons are getting requests to make a person look like their digitalized self; but the requests are often not only impossible (e.g. Anime eyes or removing skin pores to give a porcelain complexion), but would also damage the person’s self-image further. A psychological anorexia, of sorts, it’s addictive and destructive. Plastic surgeons that place the patient’s mental health above their dollar signs must draw moral lines of age limits (younger and younger people are trying to get “preventative Botox” or “corrective” surgeries) and psychological screening.
For more in-depth articles on the topic, just click on the images in this article.
So, how can we avoid falling into the BDD traps? There are a few things you can do:
- TURN OFF THE CAMERA: Just because you have the ability to have a visual call does not mean you must. If the caller complains that they can’t see you, just tell them to use their imagination, but leave the camera off. This can also apply to phone cameras – if you’re tempted to take selfies, put a sticker over the camera [this is something I do anyway, over front and back cameras – not because I take selfies, but because apps such as Google can and do hijack your camera to see you and your environment, and listen in… so keep your cell phone on flight-mode whenever possible, and “blindfold” them!].
- LEARN TO IDENTIFY NEGATIVE THOUGHT PATTERNS: Everyone has something about their physical appearance that they don’t like; but if you catch yourself dwelling on a particular feature, try to change your perspective about it – try to compliment yourself, and then move on… positively focus on someone or something else besides yourself.
- APPRECIATE YOURSELF: Taking care of yourself, getting enough rest, eating wisely, and exercising will all go a long way to restoring your self-esteem. Set small goals for yourself each day, and celebrate those times your reach those goals, giving yourself a big dose of grace when you’ve not been able to reach them. Taking this attitude will alleviate stress, which goes a long way toward supporting mental health.
- GIVE COMPLIMENTS: This not only takes the focus off of ourselves, but it may be that the other person is struggling in this area, and a timely compliment may be the thing that saves their lives, literally. It’s never wrong to compliment someone, friend or stranger.
I hope that this “undusts” this topic a bit for you; if you know anyone who’s struggling with their self-image, let them know that they’re not alone, and that they’re beautiful.