Digital Distortions: Reflections on Zoom and Body Dysmorphia
We’ve spent quarantine in faulty mirrors, sparking negative feedback loops.
Like me. I find myself struggling to write the next few sentences. Do it fast: overweight, bookish kid, late to puberty; high school bullies the cruelest mirror; I stopped understanding my own appearance. In college, I turned the distortion literal. No haircuts, drab, baggy clothes. I never smiled wide, but instead bit the insides of my cheeks and craned my head away from my body, even if no one was taking a photo. Vagueing myself out. I obsessed over my weight, my eating habits became erratic, and I fainted at least twice. I couldn’t understand when other people found me attractive. Insults were, of course, even more destabilizing. I avoided discussing my appearance, which grew increasingly irregular and shabby.
All along, I couldn’t stop staring at my reflection in mirrors. It wasn’t narcissism; it was a desire to understand the unknowable. Why was I a continual surprise to myself? Over the years, my therapist taught me to avoid mirrors and scales, and I’d believed that I’d fought these issues to a draw, occasional breakdown in Uniqlo changing rooms notwithstanding. But I go to therapy on Zoom now. I watch myself confessing, watch the little clock ticking time on my screen. Usually, exactly forty-five minutes in, I call the session myself.
Of course, there is some truth in this new font of imagistic despair. When we’re stressed (like, say, during an epochal pandemic), we age more quickly and change our eating habits. Our masks can cause acne. Our bodies bear the imprint of our annus horribilis, just as society has made screens mandatory.
Back in December, I hosted a web event with Pilar Quintana, in support of her excellent novel The Bitch. Beforehand, I shaped my image as best I could: setting up blank printer paper under my face to create a bounce effect; raising my laptop on a stack of books to avoid under-chin angles; carefully arranging the segment of my hair that would be visible. Then I conducted the interview. There was no visible audience, no cues about how we were doing. Six days later, a box arrived in the mail. After watching the event, my mother had sent me an assortment of skin-care products.
Dr. Kourosh told me that another group has studied Snapchat dysmorphia. People bring cosmetic surgeons edited photos of themselves that distort their facial proportions beyond the scope of even the most advanced plastic surgery, enlarging their eyes and changing their head shapes. Zoom dysmorphia, in contrast, is “subconscious, because people are not aware that front-facing cameras are actually altering their proportions,” exaggerating and flattening facial features. We are confronting a distorted image for hours on end, and worse, other people on our Zoom calls might be using filters that we’re unaware of, further amplifying self-image issues through negative comparison. That the phenomenon leaks into the brain until perception slips from actuality is true to my experience, and it strikes me as an example of the degrading, corrupting influence of lives led online, where we can understand that the “self” is manufactured, yet still invest heavily in it.
Lauren Oyler’s debut novel helped me gain insight on this contemporary problem of virtual identities outstripping what we consider reality.Fake Accounts, whichis consistently smart and very funny, is written from the perspective of an extremely online person whose self-deprecatory humor masks deep sadness. It begins as the unnamed lead snoops through the phone of her cypherish boyfriend, Felix. She learns that he is a secret anonymous right-wing conspiracy theorist on social media sites, very different from the smart, worldly person she thought she knew. His internet self is a conscious performance that doesn’t coincide with his actual beliefs, yet his persona is popular, a real-world inspiration to many. He is able, it seems, to separate the digital from the actual, something that the protagonist is unable to do. After an upending phone call, she decamps to Berlin, where she first met Felix, and where she tries on multiple online personalities, including on dating apps, refracting and obfuscating as Fake Accounts wheels through contemporary literary forms.
There’s a chicken-and-egg conundrum at work here—a novel written by a smart internet essayist (Oyler is known for sharp book reviews) could conceivably become distorted, pushing at the seams of the form, as would a convincing voice-driven novel told from the perspective of a smart internet essayist. The implications of the lead’s multiple online identities provoking the shifting structure of the book led me to reach out to Oyler for an interview. I thought she might be able to help me understand my struggles with Zoom.
When I asked Oyler about her use of digital spaces for her characters, she told me that she was “interested in the idea that the internet would limit or prohibit deceit or manipulation, because it creates a record that one could theoretically check another person’s image against . . . [but] creates parameters that are actually very easy to manipulate if you know the rules.” Indeed, Dr. Kourosh mentioned that 90 percent of the photos online are doctored in some way. Why, then, knowing this rule, does the lead of Fake Accounts still put so much stock in them?(And why can I knowthat Zoom is an unreliable narrator yet feel unable to tune it out?)
“I think what’s interesting about ‘our generation’ is that we do understand the rules very natively,” Oyler said. “But we still find them disturbing or unnerving, and part of the narrator’s experimentation is trying to determine if it ought to be as disturbing as it is—if there’s something really nefarious underneath the feeling.” This was very useful for me—learning from Dr. Kourosh had not stopped the phenomenon from occurring, and I hadn’t been able to understand why. Oyler’s lead keeps playing the digital game “because the alternatives are more or less to drop out, to specifically resist, which just isn’t something most people want to do.”
Indeed, I’m aware that there is a gallingly obvious solution to my conundrum. If I can’t stop looking at myself while on Zoom, why not turn off my camera, or at least put a Post-it over my share of the screen? Dr. Kourosh told me that her colleagues are unable to do this “because, if they turn off their camera on a conference call, people may feel that they’re less engaged.” I want to claim that moral justification for myself too. But it’s really the same old problem: I can’t stop looking at myself.
I was, at one point, going to dive into Fake Accounts for an essay. I was going to review it straight. Instead, I watched myself eat. I watched myself watch Jean-Claude Van Damme movies with my friend Gabe. I watched myself teach college classes to a sequence of students, many of whom, due to challenging home situations, didn’t show their faces. Once, a student’s camera turned on unexpectedly—they were shaving their head, staring into their bathroom mirror. My students’ essays this year were rawer than usual, yet strangely lacking in visuals. “Don’t forget to describe yourself,” I kept saying.
But it’s really the same old problem: I can’t stop looking at myself.
Sometimes, on happy days, I get a false positive from the Zoom screen. I look wonderful. Tight-jawed even when I smile, tanned, a glimmer in my eyes. My eyes are big and white and full of life, and my shoulders are broad. But if I go into the other room, suffer bad news, and return: disaster. The gray button-down that flowed so well clings unbearably to the twin globes of my lower back. My skin is too pale; the gap in my front teeth has gone from charming quirk to orthodontic mishap; my hair is as wide as it is tall, a dark storm cloud; and the mole on my cheek is blue. This has always been a hallmark of my issues of self-perception—my mood dramatically alters my appearance.
Dr. Kourosh told me that expression lines in moments of sadness or anger contribute to Zoom dysmorphia as well, since we’re not used to witnessing the distorting effects of our negative emotions. “Remember how they would classically teach, when you pick up the phone, to smile as you’re saying hello?” She recommended yoga as an example of positive posing. And so twice a week I’ve been doing a Zoom yoga class. I maximize the teacher on the screen, but I’m still visible in a corner. In motion, I’m able to focus on my actions, but whenever I go still to take a balance pose, invariably my eyes creep down to myself. Invariably, I fall.
And the picture on the Zoom screen is even more artificial than I’d realized. Because you’re used to seeing yourself in a mirror, Zoom automatically flips you—but it keeps you the “right way” for everyone else. You get the familiar mirror. They get the version that the world knows, the true self that you will likely find off-putting.
I am in Iceland, writing this paragraph at a residency in a small town called Laugarvatn. The sun doesn’t really set anymore, and in the last few days, a family emergency has negatively impacted my mood. Let’s do a test. I’ll turn on Zoom and deactivate the mirror feature: When I’m still, I don’t notice anything amiss, but in motion, I go Picasso. My blinks and head bobs seem asymmetrical. It feels genuinely sinister to see myself as I actually am. But then, the internet is a place of too much knowing. It’s not just that we’re conscious of the wolf at the door. We invite her in, then, like Oyler’s protagonist, wisecrack our way all the way down her gullet.
Zoom isn’t going anywhere, despite our recent progress with the pandemic. These are changes we’ll have to continue to adapt to, or at least learn to tune out. But I’m also nervous about returning to vaccinated socialization with my pandemic body, my pandemic skin. I feel permeable, in a way I haven’t since college. Dr. Kourosh helped. She told me that sometimes, when patients come to her clinic, she “may feel that it’s not the right time for them to do anything. Say they’re grief-stricken, if they think that it’s going to solve a problem that really needs other forms of treatment. Sometimes what they need is a hug. Sometimes what they need is to be told that, when they heal from their grief, they may find that they naturally are going to start looking better.”
This morning, I told my writing-accountability group about this piece. One friend confessed that he’d started using Invisalign because he kept staring at his bottom teeth in Zoom meetings. Is it too pat to say that I’ve never noticed his teeth? I hadn’t. But ever since he said it, I’ve realized that I can’t stand the sight of my bottom teeth on Zoom.
Adam Dalva’s writing has appeared in The New York Review of Books, The Paris Review, and The Guardian. His graphic novel, Olivia Twist, was published by Dark Horse in 2019. Adam serves on the board of the National Book Critics Circle and is a book critic for Guernica Magazine and Publishers Weekly. He teaches Creative Writing at Rutgers University and Marymount Manhattan College. Adam is a graduate of NYU's Fiction MFA Program, where he was a Veterans Writing Workshop Fellow.