In the past few years, people across the world have spent more time on video chat programs like Zoom and FaceTime than ever before. These applications mimic in-person encounters by allowing users to see the people they are communicating with. But unlike in-person communications, these programs often also show users a video of themselves. Instead of catching the occasional glimpse of themselves in a mirror, now people are looking at themselves for hours a day.
We are psychologists who study society’s focus on women’s appearance and the consequences of this constant scrutiny. We were immediately fascinated by the new dynamic created by the Zoom world. While critical for public safety during the pandemic, we believe that virtual classes, meetings and the like lead to a continuous focus on one’s own 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 rather literal: being seen or treated as an object. This often comes in the form of sexual objectification, where bodies and body parts are seen as separate from the person to which they are attached. Advertisements are rife with 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 nestled between a woman’s breasts.
Not surprisingly, women’s bodies are treated as objects way 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 self-objectify, 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 measure cognitive, emotional, behavioral or physiological outcomes. Research has shown that being near a mirror, taking a picture of oneself and feeling that one’s appearance is being evaluated by others all increase self-objectification. When you log in to a virtual meeting, you are essentially doing all of these things at once.