I’m writing to you from January 2021.
Somehow, it’s been almost a year since we collectively adopted a life of hermitude. In that time, we’ve Zoomed, Hung out, Teamed, muted, un-muted, and screamed silently into the void of our virtual backgrounds. We moved beyond working from home and started living at work, and chances are you saw your colleagues’ and clients’ faces more than your friends and family.
You also saw your own face. A lot. Every day, in fact. For hours on end. Even as you tried to ignore it, there you were, watching yourself perform from the corner of your eye. Entranced, like a digital Narcissus.
Zooming out (ba-dum-tssh), it seems almost completely illogical that ‘self view’ was ever an essential feature to video calls. After all, we don’t turn up to real-life meetings with a small mirror kept in view at all times. But here we are. And I don’t know about you, but almost a year in, I’ve never been more aware of my chin. Of my stress acne. Of my treacherous face, hardly as inscrutable as I’d hoped it was.
So, mirrors are bad?
I had a suspicion that my tiny, constant face was having a big impact.
I spoke to Caterina Gentili, a body image researcher currently based at the Centre for Appearance Research at the University of the West of England. Caterina told me that existing research shows that exposure to mirrors is detrimental to people’s body image:
“When we think of gyms for example, gyms with a lot of mirrors tend to make people feel worse about their bodies as they work out. But working out in an environment where there’s not such a heavy mirror presence results in higher feelings of embodiment and better body image at the end of the work out. So we know that mirrors are bad when there’s too much of them. So digital mirrors such as on zoom are also likely to be quite bad.”
Caterina added that though she wasn’t aware of any existing research about the impact of mirror view in video chatting, it’s been a more prevalent topic in the last year:
“There’s been quite a few posts by some good body image activists and fat activists who have been encouraging people to turn off the mirror function or stick a post-it over it to ignore their image. However, setting up a study and securing funding takes some time, so research is still catching up on that.”
I was curious to find out to what extent ‘mirror view’ could be changing how we communicate and how we think about ourselves. I asked Caterina if there was anything I should bear in mind when investigating:
“I think in terms of researching virtual meetings, it’s probably going to be a bit of a challenge to control for all the variables.
For example, someone might put a post-it over the mirror view when they’re chatting with the office, but maybe chatting with a date at night they might want to see themselves to check that everything is in place, and check they’re looking cute.
It’s going to be challenging given the amount of virtual spaces we’re going to be in, but it’s definitely an important topic to tackle.”
Thankfully, at &us we’re big fans of experiments and challenges. I roped in a few colleagues to test the theory, in a lo-fi way. We decided we would spend a week without our mirror view to see if anything changed.
To help measure any change, we decided we’d answer a questionnaire before turning off mirror view, and again after the week. We wanted to focus on three areas:
1. How we believe others see us
For this, we used a scale suggested by Caterina — the Fear of Negative Appearance Evaluation (Lundgren, Anderson, & Thompson, 2004) which asks you to rate agreement with the following statements:
- I am concerned about what other people think of my appearance
- It bothers me if I know that someone is judging my physical shape
- I worry that people will find fault with the way I look
- When I meet new people, I wonder what they think of my appearance
- I am afraid other people will notice my physical flaws
- I think that other people’s opinions on my appearance are too important to me
(Scale runs from 1 (not at all) to 5 (extremely). Score is the sum total of item
scores. Higher score = greater fear of negative appearance)
2. The quality of our conversations
We had a hunch that maybe mirror view could be distracting us or impacting the quality of our conversations too. We couldn’t find an existing scale that met our needs, so we read up, and then pulled something together:
- Typically, I am satisfied with my conversations on video calls
- Typically, I am fully focused on the conversation
- Typically, I feel relaxed during video calls
- Typically, the other participant(s) express a lot of interest in what I have to say
- Typically, I express a lot of interest in what the other participant(s) have to say
(Scale runs from 1 (not at all) to 5 (extremely). Score is the sum total of item scores. Higher score = better quality of conversations)
3. Self conscious presentation
Finally, we wanted something that would measure to what extent we might be moderating our own presentation based on being able to see ourselves. Again, we couldn’t find exactly what we needed amongst existing research, so we created something:
- I am aware of my face when other people are talking
- I’m aware of my face when I’m talking
- I consciously modify or control my facial expressions
- Typically, I feel that during conversations I present myself as I want the other participant(s) to see me
(Scale runs from 1 (never) to 5 (always). Score is the sum total of item
scores. Higher score = more self-conscious presentation)
Some encouraging results
Based on our small group, we found that after our week of no mirror view:
- Fear of Negative Appearance Evaluation decreased from pre-test to post-test by 2.25 mean points. A decreased score indicates that we feel less anxiety about being judged on our appearance.
- Conversation quality increased from pre-test to post-test by 2 mean points. An increased score indicates an improvement in the quality of our conversations.
- Self-conscious presentation decreased by 3.25 mean points. This indicates that we are less likely to be consciously moderating our own presentation.
Exciting! One participant said:
“I felt like I was more able to be focused and invested in the conversation.”
BUT, with such a small group and over such a short time, this is more anecdotal than statistically significant, so we can’t draw a general conclusion. We also saw that one person experienced a much bigger positive effect post-test than others, which in a bigger group, we’d be able to exclude from analysis.
Was it worthwhile?
From my point of view, absolutely. Since the experiment, I’ve actually been continuing to turn off the mirror view whenever I can. I’ve felt much less self-conscious, and much more focused on the conversations I’ve been having as a result.
I asked Caterina about whether she expected interest to grow in researching the impact of remote working:
“I think that research in this area is definitely important given the situation that we’re living in. We are going to be working remotely for a bit longer. Some professions will likely never go back to in person meetings because working remotely opens up possibilities such as working internationally without needing to relocate. As for any environment that opens up there’s always mental health risks that can come with it.”
The context of this experiment is important too. Even aside from going virtual, this year has brought a lot of change and anxiety with it. Caterina told me about the huge impact that lockdowns and restrictions have had on mental health:
“Lockdown has really increased and heightened body image concerns. That’s mostly due to the fact we can’t move as much, we might eat a bit more to have a nicer time at home. That can translate into weight gain, and most people are very preoccupied with weight gain, and that can foster a lot of negative body image. But gaining weight is the least of our preoccupations, we are going through massive trauma, people are losing jobs, people are losing friends and family.
Any situation that puts a weight on people’s mental health can translate into different pathologies developing. For some people it can be depression, or anxiety, OCD, or eating disorders.”
It’s true, we’ve spent a lot of the last year keeping up and getting by, but the main thing that this experiment has made clear for me is that we don’t need to just accept the default online spaces that remote working tools create for us.
With a little time to think, we can consider the kinds of spaces that serve us, and that we want to work in in the future, both in person and remotely.
If you’d like to try the experiment for yourself, turn off self-view, or stick a post-it over your image for the week, use the questionnaires to get yourself a score before and after, and let us know how it went!
With big thanks to Caterina Gentili for her input and guidance.
Caterina Gentili, PhD candidate, M. Sc. is a body image researcher currently based at the Centre for Appearance Research at the University of the West of England. She is currently finishing her Ph.D. focusing on the effect of hormonal therapy on prostate cancer patient’s body image and the beneficial effects of exercise. She is interested in anything about body image and movement (especially dancing), representation of different appearances, and the intersection between body image and social justice.