You’re Not Staring at Yourself on Zoom, You’re Judging Yourself

How that little image of your face on video chat harms your self-image through ‘self-objectification’

Businesswoman having a video call meeting with her team.
Photo: Luis Alvarez/Getty Images

I’ve never looked at myself as frequently as I do these days. Before the pandemic turned me into a remote worker, I’d see my own image a few times a day — while getting ready in the morning, in the bathroom mirror, or maybe in the occasional selfie. I’m a college professor, so my job has always involved an element of performance. But teaching on Zoom, I’m not just on stage: I’m also in the audience. Inside a rectangle alongside everyone else, I’ve found myself wondering daily: Is that what I really look like?

In my own case, and those of many whose work has moved online this year, there is a certain horror that comes from seeing one’s own expressions while speaking. My vision of my competent self simply doesn’t match up with my facial contortions on camera. It’s not just that I don’t recognize what I see — it’s that I don’t like it.

Not everyone has the relative luxury of using video technology to work and socialize during this time. But for those of us who do, the prevalence of seeing our own images speaks to a broader issue with our increasingly digital culture. Well before the pandemic, access to smartphones and social media brought about a “selfie culture” of unprecedented focus on our own faces. And, while body-positivity activists tout potential positive effects of posting selfies, research increasingly draws attention to their negative effects on self-esteem and well-being.

There’s also something unsettling in the way that platforms such as Zoom and FaceTime focus on, well, your face. Although I’m not complaining about teaching in my slippers, the facial focus means an increasing reliance on the sense of vision. We recognize our own faces through primarily visual cues, but recognize our bodies through multisensory integration. When so much of our day is spent staring at our own faces, we become detached from the feeling of full-body awareness. This is especially pernicious when so many are starved for physical touch during the pandemic. Already deprived of contact with others’ bodies, we risk losing contact with our own.

How focusing on yourself leads to self-objectification

Any time we mistake our self-image for who we really are, we’re engaging in “self-objectification,” or treating oneself as an object based on one’s appearance. Self-objectification involves shifting from experiencing one’s body as an active, living subject to seeing one’s body as a mere thing in the world.

Self-objectification makes it hard for us to get things done. By focusing our attention on our own image, we have little left over for focusing on what we’re trying to do. It’s nearly impossible to finish a thought when you’re fixated on how you look while expressing it. Self-objectification inhibits task completion and saps attention.

It’s been linked to feelings of shame, anxiety about one’s appearance, and negative mood. It inhibits agency and confidence. This issue is especially high-stakes for those socialized to objectify themselves, such as women and BIPOC. It’s also an issue for those whose self-presentation may be in flux, such as individuals going through gender transition. Where self-presentation and one’s sense of self are at odds, constantly facing one’s own image may trigger dysphoria.

Why you judge yourself negatively onscreen

Looking at ourselves on screen, we imagine we see ourselves as others see us. Yet we’re far from neutral self-observers. We see ourselves quite differently from how others perceive us, and this involves judging ourselves — usually negatively, as it turns out.

For one, we attribute more emotional expressiveness to our faces than others perceive. We aren’t very good at knowing how others perceive our appearances, frequently thinking our neutral faces convey negative emotions. So your grimace at a co-worker’s bad idea is likely not giving you away as much as you think (even if anyone on the call is looking at you, which is unlikely).

How to overcome self-objectification

With many Americans working and socializing on-screen for the foreseeable future, how can we overcome self-objectification — whether it’s triggered by your image in a mirror or on a Zoom screen?

Don’t judge yourself for judging yourself on-screen. Clinical psychologist Heather LaFace, PhD, tells me that our fixation with our on-screen selves arises from the impulse to connect. With few chances to relate, seeing others see you can make you feel recognized. Being recognized by others is an important human need. But when this need outweighs all other forms of self-relating, and can only be channeled on-screen, we fall out of step with our own being.

Luckily, it’s possible to change this, even for those who have little in-person interaction with others during the pandemic. As LaFace suggests, the absence of other people “can impede or empower your sense of self.” Empowering our sense of self requires a different approach.

LaFace suggests that the best antidote is to “Do something different, something that engages the senses.” Break up screen time with walks, savoring every bite of a meal, or playing with watercolors. Go for activities that require patience. You can even create different habits while you’re onscreen. Pay attention to your own breath or the sensation of your feet on the floor. Do something that engages your hands, such as knitting.

Mindfully placing your attention back on others is another crucial way to overcome self-objectification. Hide “self view” on Zoom and other apps; when this option isn’t available, try training yourself to look less at your own image by gently noticing when we’re staring at ourselves and moving our focus elsewhere. When we focus on others, self-consciousness recedes into the background, and others’ ideas and expressions can enchant us.

Ellie Anderson is a Philosophy professor at Pomona College and co-host of the new podcast, Overthink. She specializes in European philosophy & feminist theory.

Get the Medium app