By Cassie Powney via Cosmopolitan
Since the world went virtual, aestheticians have noticed a dramatic rise in the number of “tweakments” being booked. The culprit? Zoom Face. So as our real-life interactions start to increase, will our skewed perceptions of how we look ever return to normal?
What the f*ck am I doing?
THOSE ARE THE WORDS REVERBERATING AROUND MY HEAD AS THE BLINDING SURGICAL LIGHT FLOATS ABOVE ME.
But it’s too late to change my mind – the needle has already pierced the skin on my upper cheekbone, and a cannula is now running slowly towards my under-eye. No, I haven’t been abducted by aliens – I’m having tear-trough fillers to fix the dark circles I’ve now been staring at for almost a year over Zoom (and Teams, and FaceTime…). Weeks later, once the bruising has subsided, I’m pleased with the results. But would I have gone through such a nerve-racking treatment pre-pandemic? Unlikely. And it isn’t the only face fix I’ve succumbed to in the short space of time between lockdowns. I’ve had Botox for my over-animated forehead, hydrating Profhilo injections and cosmetic acupuncture to get my glow back, Invisalign to straighten my teeth and HD Brows to perfect my arches. Even for a beauty editor, that’s a pretty extensive list – and I know exactly what’s inspired my “tweakment” spree.
Working from home has proved a revelation for many – no more stressful commutes, a better work-life balance, egg on toast for lunch (game-changer). But cosmetic doctors have noticed a sharp rise in the number of bookings since COVID-19 forced the world online – DrMediSpa and the Cadogan Clinic both tell me they’ve seen a 100% increase, in fact. “We’re far more comfortable looking at ourselves as still, non-animated images,” explains GP and cosmetic dermatology expert Dr Saleena Zimri. “Live chats have forced us to analyse the way we talk and pull facial expressions, highlighting every wrinkle, spot and saggy bit.” Dr Zimri has noticed a dramatic surge in bookings for tear-trough fillers, chin liposuction and neck and jowl tightening, citing poor lighting and the unflattering angles created by forward-facing cameras as the catalyst.
Amelia,* a 29-year-old PR from London, echoes my Zoom-induced insecurities, blaming long client-facing meetings during which the majority of the focus is on her. “It got to the point where I felt physically sick before a video conference,” she confides during our (camera-off) chat. “I was too busy checking my face in the mirror to actually prep for the meeting, and while my friends were stocking up on skincare and pampering products during lockdown, I was looking up the best concealers and the cost of Botox.” Amelia admits the problem got so bad she had to ask her manager to limit the number of internal meetings she was being asked to join, in order to balance out the client-facing ones. Luckily, they were understanding, and even rolled out a camera-off policy for anyone who felt more comfortable with it. “I felt bad even broaching the subject because I was hired for being a people person,” Amelia tells me. “But my anxiety levels have improved tenfold and my work is suffering less, so I can’t regret it.” I’ve seen pictures of Amelia, and trust me, she has nothing to feel insecure about – so why do we always see the bad over the good when it comes to the way we look?
“From an evolutionary perspective, our brains are hardwired to look out for anything that could be a threat to our survival,” explains clinical psychologist Dr Khodayar Shahriyarmolki, who specialises in the treatment of anxiety disorders such as BDD (body dysmorphic disorder). “Being accepted as part of a group was so essential for the survival of early humans that it’s no wonder our minds are still checking in on how we measure up against the rest of society.” So we’re all negative Nellies because we’re stuck in a primeval-style survival mode? “There are predisposing factors that can make someone more vulnerable to developing a body-image difficulty,” adds Dr Shahriyarmolki, citing genetics (such as a family history of mental health problems), personality traits (like being highly perfectionist) and life experiences (a history of abuse or being bullied, for example).
I’m lucky enough to be at the milder end of this spectrum. Back-to-back beauty treatments aside, the extra attention I’m paying to my appearance isn’t impacting my life in any way, and will no doubt ease as soon as the virtual interactions drop off. But when should someone seek professional help? “If these preoccupations persist and start to interfere with a person’s work or social life, then they should discuss professional help with their GP,” advises Dr Shahriyarmolki. “This may include a talking therapy, such as cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT).”
Since the pandemic kicked in, I’ve also spent a lot more time on social media. My doom-scrolling has, admittedly, got a little out of hand ever since Boris uttered those year-defining words, “stay at home” – and it doesn’t take a genius to work out that staring at the sun-dappled skin of an influencer followed by my own unfiltered face has all the makings of a perfect storm. Sure, plenty of Gen Z-ers might be happy dancing around on TikTok without make-up, but there’s still a corner of Instagram that remains heavily airbrushed, and a generation of millennials like Amelia who are feeling the pressure to look as though they’ve got their life together at a pivotal point in their career. “People with clinical body-image difficulties such as BDD tend to get into a pattern of spending hours on social media comparing themselves to other people,” says Dr Shahriyarmolki. “And what makes this so unhelpful is that they’re often comparing themselves to totally unreasonable images.”
It’s no wonder, then, that warts-and-all Zoom calls – laid out like a grid of prison mugshots – are beginning to take their toll on our psyches. Although I have just discovered the “touch up my appearance” feature in Zoom’s video settings, as well as the “mirror my video” tick-box, which flips your appearance to the arguably more flattering one you’re used to seeing in the mirror or in a selfie – and there’s no going back.
A BIT OF ME
Dr Shahriyarmolki tells me to imagine a pie chart made up of all the things that contribute to a sense of who I am as a person. “Before the pandemic, a large part of it may have been made up of activities you took part in outside the home, or relationships you have with family and friends,” he explains. “Then suddenly you’re stuck indoors, and those things are wiped away, and the slice of the pie allocated to your appearance – a huge part of our identity, which is fine – starts to become disproportionately large.” I think about my pie chart – which is currently made up of work, trying to control my feral children and eating cake – and realise he’s right. Huge slices of it just vanished overnight. Our worlds have shrunk down to fit into the four walls we live in, and that, combined with seeing ourselves for hours at a time on a computer screen, has caused something we may have once written off as vanity to set in and take hold.
A week after my chat with Dr Shahriyarmolki, I host a virtual work event – one I haven’t exactly been looking forward to, considering it’s a facial massage session (that’s right, massaging my make-up-free face in front of 150 of Cosmopolitan’s commercial clients). I decide to use it as an opportunity to work through Dr Shahriyarmolki’s advice; focusing on what the facialist is saying and doing rather than staring at the blur of skin where my cheekbones once sat. It goes well – in fact, I’d even go as far as to say I enjoy it – but I make a point of continuing to follow his advice once it ends, and rather than heading to a mirror to check my face close up, or to social media where people will no doubt be tagging me in screenshots of the session (whelp!), I go and make a cup of tea. “Make a conscious effort to do something very different straight after an online interaction,” Dr Shahriyarmolki advises. “[It’s] an opportunity to absorb your attention into something else, even if it’s just going to a different room and stretching for a few minutes.”
There’s another, less urgent impact of virtual meetings replacing IRL ones: our faces’ increased exposure to blue light (AKA high-energy visible or HEV light), which is emitted from all digital screens. Sunlight is the main source of blue light, but most sunscreens don’t protect against it in the way they do UVA and UVB light. “Although HEV doesn’t increase our risk of skin cancer, it accelerates the ageing process, leading to fine lines and wrinkles, dullness and hyperpigmentation,” explains Dr Sophie Shotter, founder of Illuminate Skin Clinics.
Screen protectors will help, as will altering your laptop’s display settings, but skincare that acts as a blue-light shield is also a must if you want to safeguard your skin from excessive screen time. Skincare expert Dr Johanna Ward advises the daily application of a broad-spectrum sunscreen alongside an effective antioxidant serum. “Together, they act as a shield to protect against UV and HEV light, and help to minimise the chain reaction of damage before it visibly impacts the skin,” she says.
FACE THE FUTURE
I feel bad talking about Zoom this way – it’s like I’m bitching about a friend behind their back and then continuing to hang out with them. The platform has enabled drunken quizzes with my family and birthday celebrations that would have otherwise been struck off the calendar. Not to mention that for people who live alone, it’s a lifeline during the darker days. But what if working from home becomes a new way of life for most people, even post-pandemic? What changes can company bosses make to ensure their remote employees can continue to communicate effectively without developing a face-flaw fixation?
It appears tech experts are already on the case, with avatars paving the way for a less “exposing” virtual office. “There are times when it’s easier to talk it out,” says Doug Safreno, co-founder of virtual office Pragli. “But there are also times when you haven’t brushed your hair, put a work shirt on or sorted out your lighting.” Safreno and his co-founder set out to develop an audio-first online office, where every meeting starts without video, and participants have to opt in to be seen. “You can still visually present your personality and build a connection using customisable avatars,” he explains. “This gives remote workers a face in the room without the stresses of video.” He adds that video calls are best when the goal is to build closeness within a team or with a client, and I have to agree. Seeing my colleagues’ smiling faces during Monday morning’s production meeting does wonders for my endorphins (once I’ve stopped scrutinising my two-day topknot and puffy under-eyes). Would seeing avatar versions of Team Cosmo make me as happy? Probably not – but it might just save me a fortune in Botox…
Screen skincare saviours
Concerned your laptop might be ageing you? Slather on these blue-light blockers, then cross it off your worry list:
Higher Nature Digital Defence Day & Night Moisturising Protection Cream, £40
The Body Shop Drops Of Youth Bouncy Jelly Mist, £16
Oio Lab The E-Serum, £60
REN Clean Screen Mineral SPF 30, £32
PHOTOGRAPHS GETTY IMAGES, POSED BY MODELS. *NAME HAS BEEN CHANGED