All of Us

A Dysfunctional Effect of Zoom Calls, Social Media, and Selfies

by Mike Critelli

When we formed the MakeUsWell Network 2½ years ago, we expected collateral damage from the single-minded focus on virus containment that dominated public policy and responses of employers. But many unintended consequences occurred that we would not have predicted.

One of these is “Zoom Dysmorphia,” a condition in which a person becomes overly concerned with their appearance on video calls, often resulting in body dysmorphic disorder (BDD) and other mental health issues. Symptoms may include excessive grooming and styling, constantly checking one's appearance on video calls, and avoiding video calls altogether due to fears about how one looks.

Remote work, the explosive growth of Zoom meetings and the comparably explosive growth of sites like TikTok, Snap, and Instagram, have also contributed to a significant increase in plastic surgery demand. 

That demand has been mirrored by equally aggressive plastic surgery marketing. For example, check out Top 5 Procedures to Improve Your Selfies - | Facial Plastic Reconstructive & Laser Surgery.

When I first heard about Zoom Dysmorphia, I assumed it was a niche problem for a small number of employees. I now believe that Zoom Dysmorphia is much more widespread and that employers need to address it in their decisions about how, when, and where work will be performed.

In an article entitled “Zoom Dysmorphia”: A New Diagnosis in the COVID-19 Pandemic Era? - PMC, the authors made this statement:

In 2019, 72 percent of the American Academy of Facial Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery members reported seeing patients seeking cosmetic procedures to improve their selfies. The exponential increase in Zoom and virtual meetings has led to a high demand for cosmetic surgery.

At first glance, employers might not care about this. Cosmetic surgeries are an out-of-pocket expense for employees, not covered under employer or commercial health insurance plans. They have been growing in popularity for the last several decades. 

Zoom dysmorphia and the plastic surgery demand it creates should be of deep concern for employers. Why?

First, it is often unsuccessful because it is designed to correct the already distortive effect of video cameras. Moreover, it is sometimes unsuccessful in ways that create harmful effects for which employers will end up paying. 

Many film and TV stars have regretted getting plastic surgery. Jamie Lee Curtis was one of the most blunt of 12 celebrities profiled in the article “12 Brutally Honest Confessions From Famous People Who Regret Getting Plastic Surgery Or Cosmetic Work”:

After a cameraman said she had puffy eyes, Jamie Lee Curtis had plastic surgery on them in her 20s. She later explained,

I tried plastic surgery and it didn’t work. It got me addicted to Vicodin… The current trend of fillers and procedures, and this obsession with filtering, and the things that we do to adjust our appearance on Zoom, are wiping out generations of beauty.

Second, it evidences deep employee anxieties and insecurities, initially triggered by the mandated transition to remote work and virtual meetings, but now deeply embedded in many organization’s work processes. Because of the multiple sources of distortion in someone’s on-camera appearance, plastic surgery patients often find that surgery does not adequately correct for the fact that a camera image 1-2 feet away from a laptop camera distorts the width of a nose by 30% and produces a wider face and deeper set eyes. “Fixing” these perceived flaws creates a potential source of dissatisfaction when that same individual confronts others in person. 

Third, it has created a new divide within workforces: those who can master looking impressive on Zoom and those who lack that mastery. 

The article 6 Ways to Look Better on Zoom Calls | Tiege Hanley contains six tips on how to look better on Zoom calls. These tips are quite different from how employees would look good when meeting others in person. In an in-person setting, there is no distortive effect as there is on videos.

I learned this as a film producer, particularly with respect to the challenges black or other dark-skinned men and women have looking on camera the way they look in real life. 

From the Rough, a full-length feature film I produced, is based on the true story of the first black woman to coach a men’s college athletic team. Taraji P. Henson played the coach, Dr. Catana Starks of Tennessee State University. I got a crash course in the complex problems of hairstyling, make-up and costume selection black women face in a video format.

Taraji P. Henson understood what she needed and negotiated the right to interview and approve each of the members of the production crew associated with these elements of her appearance. 

What we are doing with Zoom meetings and the significant emphasis on social media is throwing women and people of color into a work environment that requires them to learn on the fly about how to look good in a relatively low quality video setting, a setting at which many of them do not have the financial resources to be on a level playing field.

Fourth, we are requiring individuals to expose noisy and otherwise dysfunctional home environments that do not present them in the best light.

Is it any wonder that the term “Zoom dysmorphia” has been coined by medical and psychological professionals? Is it any wonder that this is triggering a wave of plastic surgery demand that would not have existed, but for this new way of having people work effectively and remotely?

We need to recognize that many other factors come into play with Zoom meetings, social media images, and selfies that have nothing to do with the quality of work employees are delivering: setting up lighting, having the right background, having good sound equipment, and placing seats and chairs at the right distance from a laptop.

We need to refocus employers and employees alike on work that adds value, energizes employees, and lifts the burden of these unintentionally imposed anxieties and insecurities.