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18 Sep

We were never imagined to see our own faces

We were never imagined to see our own faces

From mirrors to Zoom calls and TikToks, we’re continually faced with our own reflections – and it is totally changing the best way we conceive of ourselves

If it ever appears like you’re continually taking a look at your personal face, that’s because you almost certainly are. Nowadays, we see ourselves on Zoom calls and FaceTime, we make TikToks and watch them back before posting, we take lots of of selfies before deciding on the “one”, we’ve got BeReal popping up and prompting us to take a look at ourselves. We’re faced with our reflection in so many instances throughout a median day, it’s no wonder we’re so preoccupied with the best way we glance.

It didn’t at all times was like this. Our ancestors’ realities were hugely different to our own. Before mirrors were invented, the earliest sort of “mirror” used was nature – reflections in ponds, lakes and rivers when waters were calm enough to disclose a flat surface. But even then, we had never truly “seen” ourselves and, for this reason, we had a really different concept of who we were. In his book Millennium: From Religion to Revolution: How Civilisation Has Modified Over a Thousand Years, writer Ian Mortimer argues that before the invention of the mirror, the concept of individual identity that we’ve got today didn’t exist. “The event of glass mirrors marks a vital shift, for they allowed people to see themselves properly for the primary 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 standard of mirrors improved and candlelight gave technique to gas and electricity, visual self-awareness was intensified and focus turned inwards – a shift which has had a big impact. “The change in where the self resides is as fundamental a change because 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 completely transformative.”

But what’s the impact of continually being aware of ourselves? Therapist Sally Baker says that seeing our faces continuously has an interesting effect on our brains and psyche. “Taking a look at neural pathways in our brain, viewing our own image prompts an area of the brain called the fusiform face area, which processes facial recognition. This may heighten self-awareness and self-consciousness,” she explains. This in fact may be great for development, but Baker adds that constant self-viewing may amplify self-criticism and fixation on our physical appearance. 

“We develop into attuned to each angle and detail, losing perspective. Without healthy boundaries, it could possibly feed an obsession with self-image,” she continues. “Occasional self-viewing is normal, but in excess it distorts self-perception. The brain can develop into habituated, altering how we see and judge ourselves. Recognising the mind’s tendency to self-scrutinise might help us shift from harsh criticism to more positive self-talk.”

The impact of this sort of self-scrutiny may be seen within the phenomenon often known as “Zoom dysmorphia” which occurred over lockdown when everyone was forced to take a look at their very own faces all day while on Zoom. “Body dysmorphic disorder in women is on the rise in the course of 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 in the course of 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 writer of Pixel Flesh, Ellen Atlanta, amongst Boomer generation women who were really being forced to take a look at themselves intimately for the primary time – younger people were already used to continually analysing their faces.

It could possibly be hard to stop scrutinising and criticising our own faces, nevertheless, when increasingly a lot value is being placed on appearances. Social media has shifted focus to prioritise our visual qualities above all else (the algorithm prefers selfies, in any case). While beauty has at all times provided power and privilege, lately its importance feels greater than it’s ever been. “In visual and virtual culture the image at all times 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 give attention to bodies and pictures has modified our sense of self. How we glance has develop into ‘who we’re’. That is radically different from previous generations, where identity or selfhood was about character or role.”

In fact, it doesn’t help that advancements in technology have meant that we will not be only seeing ourselves so continuously but that it’s possible to alter how we leaf through filters, photoshop and Facetune – and due to this fact see all the chances of what we could appear like. And the more we alter our appearances digitally, the more dissonance it creates once we look within the mirror. “It’s not psychologically good for people for the image that you simply’re presenting online and the image that you simply’re crafting of yourself not matching the image you see within the mirror,” says Atlanta. “I’ve had girls tell me that they don’t wish to go outside after school anymore because they don’t feel like they appear 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 kids feel negatively about their body image more often than not. It definitely doesn’t help that it’s not only that we’re seeing our own reflections continually, we’re also seeing countless beautiful faces. That is resulting in 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 continually striving for a beauty that’s ultimately unattainable.

“We develop into attuned to each angle and detail, losing perspective. Without healthy boundaries, it could possibly feed an obsession with self-image” – Sally Baker

We still don’t know what the total impact of seeing ourselves so often will likely be, and what the final result will likely be of this seismic shift in culture that began with the arrival of the mirror. While cameras and mirrors is likely to be neutral objects, it’s becoming clear that the speed at which these technologies have develop into available to us is quicker than we’ve had the time to mentally adjust to. One solution to the growing self-esteem crisis is likely to be to de-prioritise the importance placed on appearances and put the main target back on community-building, resisting the immense pressure to evolve to unattainable beauty standards. It’s a pleasant idea – and one we should always at all times be working towards – but it’s going to also take a seemingly insurmountable amount of collective power.

Within the meantime, the more short-term solution could be to sign off. We may not give you the chance to flee glass and mirrors, but we are able to at all times limit our exposure to social media. In any case, as Atlanta says: “the phenomenon of self-scrutiny against the sweetness standard isn’t recent and predates social media, nevertheless it is exasperating the difficulty, just as we do as individuals once we conform to it.”

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