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What Has Looking at Our Faces For Over Decade Done to Us?

What Has Looking Constantly at Our Faces For the Past Decade Done To Our Minds?

Woman wearing a hijab standing in front of a multi coloured background in the North East of England. She is holding a mobile phone and is surrounded by hands reaching towards her also holding phones with pictures of her on the screens.

When was the last time you looked at yourself? Maybe it was this morning as you brushed your teeth, or perhaps it was a sly glance at the black screen of your laptop. Between phone cameras, quick fit-checks to clip into "Day In The Life" videos and the seemingly mandatory floor-to-ceiling mirrors in all public bathrooms, it seems almost impossible to go through the day without looking at yourself at every angle.

Sure, having a go-to headshot album or never having to wonder if you successfully got through lunch without spinach in your teeth is nice, but what does this constant ability to look at our reflection actually mean for our self-perception?

It's a question that 28-year old Lorna has asked herself frequently. "On average, especially when my hair and nails have recently been done, I find that I'll look at myself at least five times a day," she says. "Mostly via apps on my phone, and I definitely find myself catching a glance on the screen pre-meetings." It's a habit that Lorna says has formed over the past few years as a way to "double check that I look presentable and to admire my appearance".

With OOTDs, life vlogs and even Instagram stories now positioned as a part of daily life, Lorna says: "I find that I spend a lot of time online and on my phone because of my job, which has in turn had massive impact on how I view myself." And crucially, she says: "It adds that extra pressure adhere to certain beauty standards — especially as a black woman."

It's a pressure that Lorna points out doesn't only apply to online spaces. "Gym Mirrors are floor-length and everywhere so it's hard not to look at all my angles and pick at issues even in the process of just exercising," she says. Now, says the 28-year-old, "I even find myself leaning away from being online, because although I love so many parts of myself — be it my skin or even my forehead because it's such a prominent representation of my [Kenyan] heritage — I am still so aware of how much even my style has changed because of the ability to see myself constantly and compare what I see to modern day beauty standard."

65 percent of under 18s thought there was an "ideal" body type

This unfettered access to our appearance — especially at a point in society where hyper-visibility online has become rewarded — is slowly becoming a recurring topic in sessions, says therapist Sarah Adebis. "More and more young women that I see have grown up with the awareness that having an online presence is vital for dating, friendships and work. This, matched with the increased pressure and access to beauty products that help them strive for perfection, has led to many of them unable to go more than a few hours without looking at their appearance."

According to Adebis, it's a habit that often affects us on a much deeper level. "If you consider the impact viewing our own image has on the neural pathways in our brain — because looking at ourselves in any capacity activates an area of the brain called the fusiform face area, which processes facial recognition — overexposure can often lead to this heightened self-awareness which can become tricky to navigate," she explains.

"It's not inherently dangerous to appreciate your appearance and in some cases it can be great for building self esteem and development." But, adds Adebis, constant self-viewing "which we've begun to see many young women and people become accustomed to, can encourage us to become hyper-focused on minute details, which over time can cause us to lose the wider perspective need to adequately assess our appearance".

Without healthy boundaries, "it can feed an obsession with self-image" says Adebis. In some extreme cases, the therapist says it can begin to "distort self-perception and create new pathways for the brain, ultimately altering how we see and judge ourselves".

Currently, young people are more likely to suffer from negative emotions about their appearance. According to a survey performed by the UK Parliament's Women and Equalities Committee, 65 percent of under 18s thought there was an "ideal" body type compared with 45 percent of adults. Of the group, women, people with a disability and transgender people were listed at an even higher risk of experiencing negative emotions around their appearance, so it's a problem that goes much deeper than just floor-length selfie bathrooms.

Despite this, for 27-year-old Hillary says: "I wouldn't want to live in a world without mirrors, social media and the ability to see your reflection because I think that ultimately, structurally so much needs to change in society." Still, the musician adds she believes "our ability to see ourselves 24/7 since we were teenagers, has left a massive mental health impact on us as a Generation"

Two-in-five women and girls would give up a year of their life to achieve an ideal look or body.

When considering the personal impact on her own relationship with her reflection, Hilary explains that "it's always been complex". "I've not been formally diagnosed with body dysmorphia, but I've had a few mental health crisis in the past and it's easy to see how appearance intersects with this because appearance has an effect on all relationships, be it work, dating or even who sees you as a valuable person to know," says the musician.

Now, in order to "not feel the full effects of beauty standard pressure or misogyny, when I am looking at myself in mirrors or on video, I've prioritised the self-work needed to build my self esteem" she says.

It's an endeavour that has led to her become more intentional about spending time in spaces that validate her view of her appearance in a more holistic way. "Growing up with the ability to see your reflection everywhere, but not necessarily also seeing representation, definitely had an impact on how I viewed myself. So now I find that I feel my best when I am in spaces that reinforce my new view of myself, be that a club filled with black, queer people or watching Beyonce on the Renaissance tour, where she was taking up space and being in her body in such a assured way."

For 24-year-old, self-confessed mirror lover, Aixa, looking at her reflection has become a pathway to self love. "I take a fit check selfie every day, sometimes I'll take up to 20 photos until I feel like I've got the right one," she says. Growing up, she says, "my association with beauty and being very conscious of style, makeup and hair was a positive one. It was my mum, aunties and women around me that were intentional about looking good, which I think has a big part in how I now choose to document and assess my appearance."

Although she says using daily selfies and photos have had a positive effect on her style and overall confidence, Aixa admits, "I definitely don't feel as comfortable looking in the mirror that many times when I'm freshly out of the shower, because that tends to be the point where I start to think about the things I would like to change."

Aixa isn't alone in having a complex body view — Dove's Global State of Beauty report found that two-in-five women and girls would give up a year of their life to achieve an ideal look or body.

As for if she would ever consider a day without mirrors, Aixa says: "I think I should try, but I feel like they are everywhere. I don't think I could live it a world without mirrors, but often find myself thinking 'What would a world without social media and all the ways to look at yourself [be like]?' How would I feel about my appearance without being able to scrutinise each angle? But I think we've become too conditioned for that to ever be a reality."


Ata Owaji-Victor is a lifestyle and beauty writer whose work has appeared in Refinery29, Elle UK and British Vogue. She has a keen eye for all things Afro haircare (which she frequently samples on her 4C coils), beauty tech and innovation. As someone with combination skin, she's always on the lookout for the latest dewy skin heroes.

Image Source: Getty / SolStock
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