From mirrors to Zoom calls and TikToks, we are constantly faced with our own reflections – and it is completely changing the way we conceive of ourselves
If it ever feels like you’re constantly looking at your own face, that’s because you probably are. Nowadays, we see ourselves on Zoom calls and FaceTime, we make TikToks and watch them back before posting, we take hundreds of selfies before deciding on the “one”, we have BeReal popping up and prompting us to look at ourselves. We’re faced with our reflection in so many instances throughout an average day, it’s no wonder we’re so preoccupied with the way we look.
It didn’t always used to be like this. Our ancestors’ realities were hugely different to our own. Before mirrors were invented, the earliest type of “mirror” used was nature – reflections in ponds, lakes and rivers when waters were calm enough to reveal a flat surface. But even then, we had never truly “seen” ourselves and, because of this, we had a very different concept of who we were. In his book Millennium: From Religion to Revolution: How Civilisation Has Changed Over a Thousand Years, author Ian Mortimer argues that before the invention of the mirror, the concept of individual identity that we have today didn’t exist. “The development of glass mirrors marks a crucial shift, for they allowed people to see themselves properly for the first time, with all their unique expressions and characteristics,” he writes.
Historically, our identities were heavily linked with where we lived, our families and friends. But as the quality of mirrors improved and candlelight gave way to gas and electricity, visual self-awareness was intensified and focus turned inwards – a shift which has had a significant impact. “The change in where the self resides is as fundamental a change as the change from feudalism to capitalism, or collectivism to individualism, and yet is hardly recognised,” says Heather Widdows, professor of Philosophy at Warwick University. “It has sneaked up on us, and yet is totally transformative.”
But what is the impact of constantly being aware of ourselves? Therapist Sally Baker says that seeing our faces frequently has an interesting effect on our brains and psyche. “Looking at neural pathways in our brain, viewing our own image activates an area of the brain called the fusiform face area, which processes facial recognition. This can heighten self-awareness and self-consciousness,” she explains. This of course can be great for development, but Baker adds that constant self-viewing may amplify self-criticism and fixation on our physical appearance.
“We become attuned to every angle and detail, losing perspective. Without healthy boundaries, it can feed an obsession with self-image,” she continues. “Occasional self-viewing is normal, but in excess it distorts self-perception. The brain can become habituated, altering how we see and judge ourselves. Recognising the mind’s tendency to self-scrutinise can help us shift from harsh criticism to more positive self-talk.”
The impact of this kind of self-scrutiny can be seen in the phenomenon known as “Zoom dysmorphia” which occurred over lockdown when everyone was forced to look at their own faces all day while on Zoom. “Body dysmorphic disorder in women is on the rise during the pandemic and worsened with increased use of videoconferencing,” researchers at Harvard University discovered. “Increased time spent videoconferencing, using social media and using filters on these platforms during the pandemic has led to worsening self-perception and mental health, especially in younger aged females.” The result was a surge in cosmetic procedures, particularly, says beauty theorist and author of Pixel Flesh, Ellen Atlanta, among Boomer generation women who were really being forced to look at themselves in detail for the first time – younger people were already used to constantly analysing their faces.
It can be hard to stop scrutinising and criticising our own faces, however, when increasingly so much value is being placed on appearances. Social media has shifted focus to prioritise our visual qualities above all else (the algorithm prefers selfies, after all). While beauty has always provided power and privilege, these days its importance feels bigger than it’s ever been. “In visual and virtual culture the image always speaks louder than the word. Dislocating our sense of self, from the ‘inside’ to the ‘outside’ is a fundamental change in how human beings see themselves and the world,” says Professor Widdows. “The focus on bodies and images has changed our sense of self. How we look has become ‘who we are’. This is radically different from previous generations, where identity or selfhood was about character or role.”
Of course, it doesn’t help that advancements in technology have meant that we are not only seeing ourselves so frequently but that it’s possible to change how we look through filters, photoshop and Facetune – and therefore see all the possibilities of what we could look like. And the more we alter our appearances digitally, the more dissonance it creates when we look in the mirror. “It’s not psychologically good for people for the image that you’re presenting online and the image that you’re crafting of yourself not matching the image you see in the mirror,” says Atlanta. “I’ve had girls tell me that they don’t want to go outside after school anymore because they don’t feel like they look pretty enough.”
The statistics back this up: a report by Parliament’s Women and Equalities Committee found that 48 per cent of adults and 66 per cent of children feel negatively about their body image most of the time. It certainly doesn’t help that it’s not just that we are seeing our own reflections constantly, we are also seeing countless beautiful faces. This is leading to its own problems and rise in cosmetic procedures. “We see more faces than we were ever meant to see,” says Atlanta. In a digital world saturated with glass skin and “perfect” bodies, we’re constantly striving for a beauty that’s ultimately unattainable.
“We become attuned to every angle and detail, losing perspective. Without healthy boundaries, it can feed an obsession with self-image” – Sally Baker
We still don’t know what the full impact of seeing ourselves so often will be, and what the end result will be of this seismic shift in culture that began with the advent of the mirror. While cameras and mirrors might be neutral objects, it’s becoming clear that the rate at which these technologies have become available to us is quicker than we’ve had the time to mentally adjust to. One solution to the growing self-esteem crisis might be to de-prioritise the importance placed on appearances and put the focus back on community-building, resisting the immense pressure to conform to impossible beauty standards. It’s a nice idea – and one we should always be working towards – but it will also take a seemingly insurmountable amount of collective power.
In the meantime, the more short-term solution may just be to log off. We may not be able to escape glass and mirrors, but we can always limit our exposure to social media. After all, as Atlanta says: “the phenomenon of self-scrutiny against the beauty standard isn’t new and predates social media, but it is exasperating the issue, just as we do as individuals when we conform to it.”