Roxanne Felig, University of South Florida and Jamie Goldenberg, University of South Florida
In recent years, people around the world have been spending more time than ever on video chat programs like Zoom and FaceTime. These apps mimic in-person encounters by allowing users to see the people they are communicating with. But unlike in-person communications, these programs also often show users a video of themselves. Instead of taking an occasional glance in a mirror, people now look at themselves for hours a day.
We are psychologists who study society’s approach to women’s appearance and the consequences of this constant scrutiny. We were immediately fascinated by the new dynamic created by the world of Zoom. While critical to public safety during the pandemic, we believe virtual classes, gatherings and the like lead to a continued focus on one’s appearance, something research suggests is harmful to mental health, especially for women.
Objectification and self-objectification
Objectification is a bit of a buzzword, but the meaning is quite literal: to be seen or treated like an object. This often comes in the form of sexual objectification, where bodies and body parts are seen as separate from the person they are attached to. Ads 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 positioned between a woman’s breasts.
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Not surprisingly, women’s bodies are objectified far more often than men’s. Because women and girls are socialized in a culture that prioritizes their appearance, they internalize the idea that they are objects. Consequently, women objectify themselves, treating themselves as objects to be looked at.
Researchers investigate self-objectification in experimental studies by having study participants focus on their appearance and then measuring cognitive, emotional, behavioral, or physiological outcomes. Research has shown that standing near a mirror, taking a picture of oneself, and feeling that one’s appearance is being evaluated by others increases self-objectification. When you log into a virtual meeting, you’re essentially doing all of these things at once.
What does self-objectification do?
Thinking of oneself 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 with self-objectification lead both women and men to focus on their appearance, women tend to face far more negative consequences.
Research suggests that experiencing self-objectification is cognitively draining for women. In a seminal 1998 study, researchers showed that when women put on a new swimsuit and looked in a mirror, the self-objectification this produced caused the women to perform poorly on math problems. The men’s math performance was not affected by this objectifying experience.
Additionally, experiencing objectification has behavioral and physiological consequences. In the aforementioned study, trying on a bathing suit led to feelings of shame among women, which in turn led to restricted eating. Other research has shown that when women objectify themselves, they speak less in mixed-gender groups.
Self-objectification also leads women, in a sense, to distance themselves from their own bodies. This can cause poorer motor performance as well as difficulty recognizing one’s emotional and bodily states. One study showed that girls who were prone to self-objectification had less physical coordination than girls who showed less self-objectification.
In an article published in 2021, our team showed that women who consider themselves objects have difficulty recognizing their own body temperature. To test this, we asked women how cold they felt while outside nightclubs and bars on cold nights. We found that the more a woman focused on her appearance, the less 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 disordered eating, increased anxiety about appearance, and depression.
Evidence of harm and how to reduce it
While we’re not aware of any research that directly explores the connection between video conferencing and self-objectification, some recent studies suggest our concerns are well founded.
One study found that the more time women who focused on their appearance spent on video calls, the less satisfied they were with their appearance. Facial dissatisfaction also appears to play a role in Zoom fatigue, with women of all races reporting higher levels of Zoom fatigue than their male counterparts.
For better or worse, the virtualization of daily life is here to stay. One way to reduce the negative effects of endless video conferences is to use the “hide self view” feature during online interactions. This hides his image from himself but not from others.
Turning off selfview is easy to do and can help some people, but many others, including us, feel that it puts them at a disadvantage. This may be because there are benefits to being self-conscious about your appearance, despite the risk of self-objectification and the harm that comes with it. A large body of research shows that looking attractive has tangible social and economic benefits, more so for women than for men. By monitoring your appearance, it is possible to anticipate how you will be evaluated and adjust accordingly. So we hope that people, especially women, will continue to keep the camera on during their Zoom calls.
A wealth of previous research suggests that Zoom calls are a perfect storm for self-objectification and that the harms disproportionately affect women. It appears that the already uneven playing field for women is exacerbated in online social interactions. Any little respite from looking at a literal projection of yourself will be a net gain for your well-being, especially for women.
This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article here: https://theconversation.com/staring-at-an-image-of-yourself-on-zoom-has-serious-consequences-for-mental-health-special-for-women-180384.