Call it the Curse of Zoom. Staring at our own faces on video calls has been tough on our egos and inspired record numbers of us to seek cosmetic help. But, asks Hattie Crisell, do nips, tucks and jabs solve our problems or just mask them?
A few years ago, I went to see a swanky celebrity facialist. It started well enough. She asked how I felt about my skin; I said cheerfully that while it wasn’t perfect, I didn’t have any major complaints. She shook her head sadly. ‘Even across the room, I can see pigmentation in your cheeks,’ she said. This turned out to be the beginning of a startlingly long list of flaws. I left an hour later, having undergone one facial and one nonsurgical deflation of my self-esteem, and immediately went online to order an expensive face cream.
I thought of that day recently when I heard that research by the cosmetic company Uvence had found that over six million Brits believe they’ve aged at least five years in lockdown. It seems the stress of living through this difficult period has had a devastating effect not only on our lives but on our faces – and our egos – too.
Certainly, being forced to spend hours looking at ourselves on-screen hasn’t helped. Pre-Covid, most of us spent just a few minutes looking in a mirror at the start and end of each day. But endless Zoom calls – whether for work or pleasure – has meant we are suddenly staring at our faces hour after hour, day after day. And our faces have come up wanting.
Small wrinkles we’d never seen before are suddenly canyons consuming our every thought. Double chins and eye bags have been spotted for the first time – then obsessed over. And minor imperfections we usually ignore are now atrocities we simply can’t live with any longer.
No wonder so many of us have been driven straight into the welcoming embrace of the local cosmetic clinic the minute they reopened.
In fact, not only did the numerous practitioners I spoke to all confirm numbers are up, but it seems interest was running high even when procedures were impossible due to earlier lockdown restrictions. The company Transform introduced phone and video consultations in mid-April, which increased from 797 that month to 1,360 in May. By August, with in-person appointments finally possible again, London’s Cadogan Clinic saw a 100 per cent increase in booked procedures versus the same time last year.
Dr Maryam Zamani, who works at the Cadogan Clinic, performs both surgical and noninvasive treatments (the latter are often referred to as ‘tweakments’, because they’re more subtle and involve less recovery time). She says that she was bombarded with messages even during lockdown.
‘Even people who I had seen in February or March were sending me emails: “Oh my God, my face has fallen!”’ she says. ‘And it hadn’t, obviously, but that was the perception they had. I call it the lockdown meltdown.’
Dr Zamani believes this panic has been caused by constant video calls triggering intense self-criticism. ‘My patients have been seeing themselves as never before,’ she says. ‘During video calls, you focus on your own face and most people don’t have their computer at the right angle, and your distance from the camera can also distort the visuals – your nose can look bigger.
‘They’ve also been seeing themselves in animation for perhaps the first time. When you talk you can see how things move, you can see fine lines and wrinkles, and you might notice the bags underneath your eyes.’
The most desired treatment right now is eyelid surgery, she says, perhaps in part because wearing masks focuses our attention on the upper third of the face. ‘My waiting list for blepharoplasties, to remove skin and excess fat on the upper and lower eyelids, is very long.’
Botox and fillers are as in demand as ever, as are treatments to tighten up the skin of the neck. Rhinoplasties (nose surgery) are also proving popular, helped by the fact that recovery time can be disguised by working from home.
One acquaintance of mine had been nervously researching fillers for years – but it was lockdown that finally persuaded her to go for it. She booked the earliest appointment she could get and had a chin and jawline filler which she believes has improved the proportions of her face and made her nose look smaller. ‘Because of lockdown, I was able to put money aside – I wasn’t out as much, so I could afford it,’ she explains.
Another glamorous friend in her late 30s, who had struggled to sleep during lockdown, told me: ‘I got sick of looking at my tired eyes on Zoom, so I decided to jazz up my tweakment routine.’ After booking in at her regular clinic as soon as it reopened and going along for her usual Botox and cheek filler, she mentioned the new problem her virtual meetings had alerted her to: ‘I said to the doctor, “I feel like my eyes are ageing me.”’
My friend was recommended tear-trough filler – an injection that adds volume under the eyes, reducing the appearance of bags. Although it was a procedure she hadn’t had before, she says she ‘didn’t really have time to reflect on it. The doctor told me, “It’s really good, I’ve had it done.” She looked beautiful and fresh, so I thought, “OK, let’s go for it.” I had some swelling for a week and I was worried. But now I’m very happy. It worked out well in the end – but I don’t think I would have had it if I hadn’t been on all those Zoom calls.’
The lockdown meltdown can’t entirely be blamed on tech, however. Many of us dropped our usual grooming routines and adopted a daily wardrobe of tracksuit bottoms. For those used to a certain level of activity and polish, it was an uneasy adjustment.
PR strategist Clodagh Coward, 29, says, ‘I was quite happy to wear my trackies and my slippers for the first few weeks, but as time went on, I just didn’t feel like me. I hadn’t had my hair cut or coloured, I was spending a lot of time looking at a computer screen and I was probably drinking more than I usually would. I felt my skin looked really tired and dull.’
Clodagh had Botox and lip fillers for the first time last year and had been about to have a top-up when lockdown began. By the time of her August appointment, she was desperate.
‘But the practitioner said, “Actually, your lips have held quite well. It’s not as bad as you’ve made out. More than anything, I think you’ve over-scrutinised yourself,”’ Clodagh recalls. She still went ahead with the treatment, though. ‘Straight away, I felt fresher and rejuvenated.’
No woman I spoke to who has had treatments post-lockdown has regretted it. But in this most difficult of years, packed with reminders of our mortality, is our obsession with our ageing looks actually misdirected worry? When we pay for hyaluronic acid to be injected into our faces, or for fat to be cut out, are we fixing the wrong problems?
‘There is evidence that body image is more negative when people are experiencing low mood or heightened anxiety, both of which have been more prevalent during the pandemic,’ says Dr Heather Naylor, clinical psychologist at the London Centre for Eating Disorders and Body Image. ‘When things feel out of control, it’s natural to seek an area of our lives that we can control, such as appearance – but this effect is only fleeting.’
Dr Maryam Zamani agrees some people are seeking cosmetic fixes to deeper problems of self-esteem or stress. ‘When some of my patients returned, I said, “You know what? You’re looking radiant,”’ she says.
Every treatment has associated risk, she points out, so if it’s not going to deliver a benefit then it really isn’t worthwhile. But if a minor tweak will cheer someone up, she sees that as a good reason: ‘If you’ve been worried sick for six months because someone’s been in hospital, or you’re doing a million things that you wouldn’t normally have to and you’re very fatigued, and I can put in a little bit of botulinum toxin to make that furrow between your eyebrows go away… when you look at yourself, you feel better. That’s the good part of my job; that’s what gives me satisfaction.’
However, this fix-to-feel-better approach isn’t one recommended by psychologist Dr Heather Naylor, who warns, ‘While having treatments to improve your appearance may feel like a logical solution, it typically makes body-image concerns worse. In fact, it’s likely to reinforce your belief that there was something “wrong” that needed to be “fixed”. This can lead you to scrutinise your body more, ending up with you looking for issues or signs of ageing, and then seeking more treatments.’
And, as we know, those treatments can go wrong.
Michael Saul, a lawyer at Cosmetic Surgery Solicitors, which specialises in negligence, has seen everything from ‘the eyelids being unable to close’ to ‘vision loss’ and ‘problems with breathing and eating’. He says finding a trustworthy, safe practitioner is of the utmost importance and shouldn’t fall by the wayside in the post-lockdown rush.
‘Ideally, patients should consider postponing their surgeries until the Covid risk is lower, or perhaps even until there’s a vaccine,’ he says. But if you really can’t wait, choose carefully. ‘Be aware of red flags such as reduced prices or time-limited offers. You shouldn’t feel rushed into going ahead – remember that you are in control of your decision. Read as much as you can about the procedure and practitioner.’
And consider whether your dissatisfaction with your ‘eye bags’ and ‘wrinkles’ really is that – or might just be about something else.
‘People often mislabel their feelings, saying that they feel old or ugly when they actually feel anxious, frustrated or low,’ says Heather Naylor. ‘When you notice these thoughts, try to see how else you are feeling and look at the triggers for your appearance concerns. Have you been comparing yourself with others or scrutinising yourself in the mirror? Try making some simple changes, such as unfollowing unhealthy ideals on social media. You may well find that your body image improves.’
After my humbling trip to that swanky facialist, I used the expensive cream and waited for a skin miracle to happen; it never did. Gradually, I forgot her list of problems with my face and went back to my old products. When we look for something about ourselves that needs improvement, it’s never hard to find; just remember that the person who benefits the most from your tweakment might be the one carrying it out.
How to look good on the small screen
1. Lighting can make or break an image. During the day, face a window for video calls, and after dark, position a lamp slightly above your camera, pointing directly at your face. If you’re doing something professional that requires self-camera work, invest in a ring light – it’s what all the YouTubers use.
2. Know your angles. A camera pointing up at you will make your chin and nose appear larger. Instead, raise your computer until the camera is at eye level, using a laptop stand or even just a stack of books – this is also a healthier position for your posture.
3. If your eye is drawn to the shininess of your face on camera, try a dusting of something such as Bobbi Brown Sheer Finish Pressed Powder, or use oil-absorbing sheets (eg, Boots Skin Clear Shine Blotting Papers). At a pinch, patting down your face with loo roll will help – but perhaps don’t do it on camera!
4. Above all, remember that people in your life know what you really look like – and just like you, during video calls, they’re only looking at themselves.