Casting my mind back to 2020, a year when most of the world could only connect with their loved ones via webcam, I remember patiently waiting for my friends to hop on a video call. With nowhere else to shift my view, all that was staring back at me was my own digital reflection. It was then that I noticed the subtle sag of my brows and how uneven they were. The lines in my neck, magnified by pixels, mortified me, and the crooked shadow cast by my nose felt more jarring than ever, as did the asymmetry of my eyes.
Even once chatting away—and a few wines deep—I couldn’t shake the focus on what my mouth looked like when I spoke certain words or how my skin scrunched up when I laughed. ‘Is that really how I look?’ I thought. The picture didn’t change once I closed my laptop, either. My reflection, or rather, how I saw it, was changed. And I’m not alone in this.
Since the dawn of social media and blogspots, humans have become enraptured by their own image. Surveying it, capturing it, maintaining it. According to graphics analysis company Eksposure, around 93 million selfies are taken each day—and of those 93 million, a substantial amount end up shared, maybe even ending up on our feeds. While an obsession with his own image saw the demise of Narcissus, much of life as we know it can be traced back to the discovery of our reflections.
As historian Ian Mortimer notes in his book, Millennium: From Religion to Revolution: How Civilization Has Changed Over a Thousand Years, the advent of the mirror reshaped humanity’s idea of what it means to be an individual. “The very act of a person seeing himself in a mirror encouraged him to think of himself in a different way. He began to see himself as unique,” Mortimer writes. “Previously,people only understood their identity in relation to groups—their household, their manor, their town or parish—and in relation to God.”
In the 21st century, a reflection holds many powers, and you’d be hard-pressed to get through the day without passing a reflective surface. From bathrooms, stores, streets, offices, cars and even in gardens, forms of mirrors are everywhere, and they don’t just remind us that we exist as individuals moving through the world, they show us how that changes with the slightest head tilt. But beyond demonstrating the disturbing power of bad lighting, what does it do to us to see our faces so much?
The modern world is steeped in biases towards attractive people—sure, attractiveness can shift based on non- physical qualities, but for the most part, looks really do count for something. Individuals who are considered conventionally good-looking are not only perceived more positively, on average, but are even more likely to experience social rewards in the form of attention, pleasant treatment and admiration.
And when you consider the swarms of media and commercial messaging we’ve grown up with, illuminating all the ways we need to improve—and how much it’ll cost us— it’s easy to see why one might zoom in a little on one’s selfies. Sometimes, though, there’s a disconnect in what we see. The thing about photos, videos and other offcuts of our likeness, is that part of what makes them so fascinating to us is that they don’t necessarily align with how we view ourselves, causing some concern.
Dr Kate Goldie, an aesthetic physician who has written about this phenomenon, explains that how we perceive ourselves and the ways it can change in moments, comes down to what she refers to as our “visual diets”. Just as you are what you eat, you tend to see what you see. Or, more specifically, what you’ve come to think of as normal, or attractive.
“There’s a process called ‘norm-based coding’, where we hold an image for everyone in our brain, including ourselves and the average person,” she tells me. “These images are constantly updating every time we’re exposed to new faces or different versions of the same face. So, when we’re taking in extreme iterations of faces, it shifts this baseline we have in our heads of what is normal or ideal.”
She uses the example of the Mona Lisa to demonstrate how this visual adaptation impacts how we assess our looks. In a study where two pictures of the Mona Lisa are shown to subjects, one being the original, and one where her iconic face has been slightly elongated, people were able to identify the original immediately. But after staring at a hyper-stretched version for 90 seconds, the slightly elongated version appeared to be the correct one. She explains that through a complex set of processes, our brains are naturally drawn to find the medium normal.
For many of us, we’re able to take in a healthy visual diet, consisting of a diverse range of looks—something that ultimately helps us accept our own. But with the rise of the “Instagram face” and normalising of filters, our baseline is becoming more and more skewed.
“Generally, as we go about our lives, we’re exposed to normal, everyday people in unfiltered states, so it shifts our brains back to an [equilibrium],” she says. “But if you’re on Instagram, and you’re in an aesthetic bubble, because your feeds are filled with filters and fillers, that’s going to have an impact on what you view as normal.”
Despite what many self-help books tell us, this process is kind of immune to positive affirmations, Dr Goldie explains. “You can’t just tell yourself ‘I will not be taken in by this’, because the brain is a system that constantly adapts to the world around it, the average of the features it sees is, to an extent, not a person’s choice, but does have profound effects on their judgement,” she says, likening it to being a bit visually drunk.
What’s more concerning is that things are moving faster, and with the normalising of cosmetic enhancements and filters, our exposure to “extremes” are beyond common. As a result, our mental averages are getting warped rapidly with the constant barrage of photos and images and selfies we’re seeing every day, leading to cases of facial dysmorphia.
As Dr Jeretine Tan, a clinical psychologist who works with the Centre for Eating, Weight & Body Image (CEWBI) outlines, facial dysmorphia is a subset of body dysmorphic disorder (BDD). Characterised by “an excessive preoccupation with one or more perceived defects or flaws in one’s own physical appearance”, BDD typically involves defects that, according to Dr Tran, are “not directly observable or appear only slight to other people.”
“Global statistics suggest that BDD is relatively common, affecting at least two percent of the population, but is on the rise. A Melbourne-based study in 2021 by Dr Toni Pikoos and colleagues revealed that 5-25 percent of people who attended consultation appointments for cosmetic procedures (both surgical and non-surgical) exhibited symptoms consistent with BDD,” says Dr Tan, adding that it can be all-consuming.
“Individuals can become fixated on these perceived defects that they feel define them, and experience chronic feelings of shame, low mood, anxiety, hopelessness, increased social withdrawal and isolation.” It’s not a big leap for a sufferer of BDD to want to actively change these flaws, and in 2023, it’s never been easier to do so.
With an indisputable focus on self maintenance in the last decade, especially as we emerged from lockdowns, demand for cosmetic procedures skyrocketed. Practitioners noted an increase of more than 29 percent between 2019 and 2021, and the request to look not like celebrities but filtered versions of themselves, is occurring more and more. “Snatched” is the new “pretty”, and if you hadn’t already noticed, there’s a vast spectrum in which we’ve come to define our looks, and by which we can alter them.
For women of colour this can be a particularly confounding phenomenon, especially for those who have come of age under the sweeping influence of Western media. As Samira, 29, tells me, reconciling with her South East Asian appearance took a lot of palate cleansing.
“I’ll never forget being 12 years old and spending a month’s allowance on a concealer,” she recalls. “All my friends were using it, and even Hilary Duff reportedly didn’t go anywhere without it. But it was a ‘one-shade-fits-all’ product, and I remember being absolutely heartbroken that it didn’t come close to my skintone.“I felt really stupid, because one look at the product and anyone could’ve told me that that was the case. But in my head, I just thought that a concealer that fit all my white friends would fit me.”
Western beauty standards have reached far and wide over the last century, especially with the rapid distribution social media offers. And with an inundation of faces from celebrities and beyond that not only boast augmented appearances, but entirely differing genetics, the visual adaptation process for BIPOC can become deeply skewed.
Dr Tan, who grew up in Singapore before moving to Australia in the ’90s, tells me that while there is limited research investigating ethnic disparities in body image disorders, body image dissatisfaction is common for acculturated BIPOC exposed to minimal representation. “In my opinion, the increased access to and consumption of Western media and technology is likely associated with an increase in comparisons of self and others based on cultural idealisations of physical attributes,” she says, recollecting her own lack of non-Western influences. Just as exposure can warp our views, it’s also the key to finding balance.
In a 2017 study, researchers found that humans had inconsistent aesthetic taste over a fortnight. Asked to rank a set of images by attractiveness, subjects reported different rankings when returning to the images after just two weeks. Funnily enough, two weeks is roughly how long it takes for many treatments such as dermal fillers to take full effect, which means that by the time one treatment is complete, a patient may want another entirely.
Of course, the sheer amount of choice and advertising doesn’t help, but humans are indeed fickle by nature, and once you change one thing, it can instigate a whack- a-mole effect as your visual diet fluctuates.
When these feelings do creep up on us, Dr Goldie recommends taking time to sit on what we see before dishing out the criticisms. “We need to lengthen the time between looking at ourselves and self-analysis,” she says. As she tries to emphasise with her clients and in her talks, no one is as caught up in the details of our faces as much as we are. And where I see lines in my neck, asymmetrical eyes and a larger nose than average, others see a culmination of my expressions, thoughts and behaviour. They see me. And while ‘me’ isn’t always what I see staring back at me on Zoom calls, Dr Goldie urges us to take time before labelling our features as different or unpleasant.
Sometimes, staring at our reflections can actually help us to normalise our features—a method of treatment commonly used with BDD sufferers and even to help limb amputees feel connected to their bodies again. Though there is no “cure” for finding the odd bit of fault in your face, there is consolation in knowing that you might just be in need of a visual palate cleanse.
HAIR IVAN KUZ
MAKEUP MICHEL KIWARKIS
SENIOR PRODUCER STEFF HAWKER
PRODUCTION COORDINATOR ANN VAAS
MODEL VALERIE URYADOVA/NONDESCRIPT STUDIOS LIGHTING ASSISTANT JEFFERY ZAMORA
STYLING ASSISTANT CHRISTINA LEIGHTON