A Case of Zoom Dysmorphia
I don't hate my face. It's just that on Zoom, I don't recognize it.
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A photo is always somewhat of a lie. There are ones we like, particularly of ourselves, because they align with how we’ve come to imagine our place in the world. I can look at my friend’s Instagram and see, with great clarity, the angle she likes the most for her face — it looks like her, of course, but it doesn’t necessarily look like the her that lives in my head. Authors often use head shots that are years old, because what does it matter if the photo is of the author at age 30 or 40; it is still the author, still very much them. The camera — like any portrait, any written description of a person — shows as much as it elides.
Some love the control of the selfie, the way it theoretically allows you to author your own image. But I’ve always struggled with the skills of that particular sort of authorship. I don’t know my angles or filters or how to best hold the camera; the emotion I’m trying to convey, whatever it is, gets distorted and squeezed. One of my eyes has always crinkled shut more than the other. In a selfie, it’s always worse. I find I literally cannot see myself clearly. I look at the phone and feel one thing, look at the image and find it soured. My smile seems to be always melting, too eager, a farce.
This makes it sound like I hate my face — false! I love my Scandinavian squarehead, my very blue eyes, the eyebrows I overplucked in the ‘90s and never quite grew back, the moles that have shown up and settled in like invited guests, my nearly non-existent upper lip, the squat ski jump of my nose. The acne scars and hints of sun spots and wrinkles feel like evidence of a life lived, of good and bad decisions, of listening and not listening to even the best advice. I don’t hate my face. It’s just that on Zoom — which is essentially a selfie that lasts hours, with far fewer filtering mechanisms — I don’t recognize it.
There are hierarchies here: Zoom’s touch-up feature makes its rendering far superior to Teams, or Google Meetings, or the frankly hostile FaceTime, or the dozen other video programs I’ve used to do talks or podcasts or book events over the last two years. But all of them still pipe in a constant feed of that unrecognizable self. I catch myself in a moment when I’m not consciously composing my face — not holding every muscle taught, poised, at ready — and wonder: How did my Dad get into this Zoom Call?
I stopped wearing make-up on a daily basis a few months into the pandemic, and have come to recognize that make-up-less face as wonderfully my own. Yet on camera, it looks more tired than I feel: more wane, more hollowed out. Sometimes, when I’m on a call where I need to be impressive, I’ll put on a face of makeup, which makes me feel more “put-together” — which is to say, more in control — but somehow I still look more tired than I feel. In these cases, I often spend the call self-adjusting: if my cock my head this way, if I raise my brows this way, if I concentrate on keeping my mouth closed and not letting that little bit of front tooth stick out, then, then, will I feel more like myself?
On video, I’m constantly battling a wave of self-doubt and self-repulsion, the likes of which I haven’t felt since high school. I struggle to concentrate, and end a 20 minute call with the same sort of exhaustion I used to feel after teaching a class for 90 minutes. It’s like the webcam is sucking my lifeforce. It boggles the mind. But it shouldn’t.
Back in the summer of 2020, two researchers — one the University of Arizona, the other at the University of Georgia — became curious how videoconferencing was affecting workers. They wanted to study an organization that hadn’t just switched to all-remote and were still figuring the kinks. So they went to a company that had been remote for years, and experimenting with video meetings well before the pandemic. The researchers split a group of 103 employees in half. Group A would keep their cameras off for two weeks in meetings, while Group B would keep them on. After two weeks, they’d switch places. Throughout, they were asked to evaluate their fatigue and engagement levels, answering questions like “Today, I felt like I had something to say” or “Today, I felt engaged.”
Guess who felt more continuously fatigued? The people with their cameras on. Now guess who felt less engaged, and like they had less to say? Also the people with their cameras on. And the most fatigued when they had their cameras on? Women and junior employees.
For women, the authors of the study point out, the camera can “amplify self-presentation costs” as “they are often ascribed lower social status and judged more harshly, suggesting that being on camera could be more stressful for women than men.” For junior workers, the camera made them more conscious of ways to prove their engagement to superiors — always having your camera face on, always monitoring to make sure you don’t have “resting bitch face” (aka, a woman’s face when not smiling enthusiastically to assure all others of their value), always conscious of not looking “too young” and as such less reliable.
A full day of meetings is always draining. But it is even more draining when you’re in constant self-surveillance mode.
There are hacks to discourage you from staring at your face: one clergy member told me she places her sermon over her face on-screen when she does Zoom church; others put post-its over their little square. Many of the various videoconferencing programs (most recently, Teams) now allow you to “self-hide.” But these fixes feel akin to handing out rape whistles on college campuses: the real problem isn’t that people don’t have a means to yell for help. The problem is rape culture, and a campus and societal environment that permits if not outright encourages it.
Part the problem of Zoom Dysmorphia, then, is that no one is supposed to look at their faces all day. But the deeper problem is that women are trained to dislike those faces — not because they don’t look like their own, but because they don’t look like the ideal: supple but not plump, smooth but not shiny; made-up but not overly so; alert but not aggressive; listening but not overly-eager, not too pale (for white people) and not too dark (for POC) — with nothing about their demeanor, their accessories, their hair, or their teeth that reads as “unprofessional,” so often code for “looks poor,” “fat,” “not straight or cis-gender presenting,” and/or “Black.”
For people who aren’t cis-gender white men, professionalism entails endless maintenance. (For more testimonies on the specific labor of performing Black professionalism, for example, see Cassi Pittman Claytor’s Black Privilege). For women, it requires a contradictory combination of effort-full effortless: in skincare, in fillers and Botox (whose popularity has surged during the pandemic), in dental work, in electrolysis, in hair straightening or coloring, in haircare. This sort of effort requires a certain amount of money, but it also requires time: time thinking about and researching what products you need, time scheduling and attending appointments, time regimenting your body or your diet.
For many, the shift to more remote work has actually decreased the amount of perfunctory maintenance they perform — not being “fully” visible on camera has brought unexpected freedoms, like the ability to not disclose a pregnancy, or shield yourself from others’ casual body commentary. But it can also overburden the face itself. “My awareness of my hair has been heightened,” one woman told me over Instagram DM. “As a black woman with big natural hair, I was already very aware of it. In person, dressing ‘professionally’ helped push back against the stereotypes about my hair. But now the the full weight of looking ‘professional’ falls on my face and hair. I’ve found myself just slicking it back to avoid having to style it ‘just right’ for the sake of a few minutes on Zoom.”
Another woman told me she agonizes over how unprofessional she often looks on calls — but she’s also been pandemic parenting, and has no time to put in the “necessary” maintenance. Her solution: a bunch of earrings and beanies to distract others from her face. It’s a great hack. But it’s not a solution, not really. If it was, she wouldn’t still feel sheepish about it.
I’ve read pieces comparing the embrace of “Baby Botox” (not for babies, just “baby” amounts) to sunscreen use: before, people didn’t know that we needed it. Now, it’s the norm — just the way you take care of yourself. Of course, sun damage can actually be life threatening. Wrinkles are not, but they are threatening in a way that can feel just as terrifying. Along with other signs of aging and facial “unprofessionalism,” they undercut a woman’s perceived societal and organizational value. Depending on the organization, they can speak much louder than the woman’s actual work. It makes sense why women would want to neutralize that distraction.
It’s important to note that this neutralizing is rarely about aging itself. It’s about maintaining value within the existing hierarchy. I don’t judge anyone who gets Botox; I don’t think it’s fundamentally different from dying your hair, or spending significant time and energy on a specific diet, or Invisalign that’s not medically necessary, or the Drunk Elephant Vitamin-C in my medicine cabinet. But I wonder, too — as so many have before me — about all the energy we’re spending trying to win a game we’re set up to lose, instead of changing the parameters of the game itself.
When I asked people in my Instagram Stories to tell me how time on video calls has changed their understanding of their faces, dozens responded that they either have gotten Botox or are seriously considering it. Others said horrible things about their own faces: all the imperfections they see, the changes they loathe, the vigilance that feels necessary but impossible.
Consumer beauty culture absolutely feasts on this feeling of lack. And yes, sometimes products make the lack feel less devouring. But they never soothe it altogether. The game is unwinnable, and designed as such. The lack — and the shame that accompanies it — maintains the status quo. So what if we changed the game?
“Seeing my face all the time has sort of faced a little more face acceptance,” one woman told me. “Like, that’s my face, that’s what I look like!” Another said that seeing her face on video every day has been a form of exposure therapy — and she’s arrived at the point where she can see herself and think that’s my face and it’s okay.
Another woman said that for the last few years of her life, almost all of the photos she’s seen of herself had been taken by her husband — not a great photographer. Those images never felt like her. But the zoom camera — and the ability to control lighting — makes the image she sees in front of her feel more her, and less like someone else’s imprecise rendering. Another person said that the dysmorphia they experienced when seeing their face over and over again made them realize they were trans — and began the journey to transitioning. “For the first time in my life, I can look at my whole face without distress,” they said.
Images lie, in other words, but they also tell the truth. “I actually found that seeing myself on Zoom/video helped me to see my face as others did — dynamic, complex, and responsive,” one person said. “It helped correct some of the negative self-talk I had and still have when I see myself in pictures.”
In her exquisite essay on the history of the mirror, Katy Kelleher points to the way that male artists would paint their subjects holding mirrors — and then title the painting “Vanity.” These men, Kelleher argues, were missing the point. Mirror gazing for women “was (and still is) a survival technique. In reality, a woman at the mirror is practicing. She’s seeing herself how men see her, how society sees her. She’s assessing her value and figuring out how to enhance her worth, her power.”
Zoom can easily feel like the latest iteration of that mirror: yet another way to see ourselves the way those in power see us. But unlike the still image, which freezes our value in place, video does something slightly different. It catches us in communication, in doing, in being. It reminds us — uncomfortably at first — that the whole of the self is much more than the ability to set one’s face. It re-adds the complexity to the picture.
I think that’s the root of the confusion and alienation at the heart of so much Zoom Dysmorphia. Casual video reminds us of the wholeness of self: that our faces cannot be isolated from the collapse of our worlds. There is no work face and non-work face, no pandemic face and non-pandemic face, no parent face and non-parent face. We are whole beings, varied and true. No amount of concealer or Botox can change that, just as no amount of persistent maintenance can change one’s ultimate value in a hierarchy that persistently privileges cis-men and white, bourgeois standards of professionalism.
Sit with that reality for long and it’s hard not to feel overwhelmed by anger. But maybe that’s an anger we should lean towards, a fire we should feed. What enduring bullshit it is, that we view these images of ourselves doing our jobs, living our lives, communicating with friends and family, through such a dark lens, and with such great unkindness. What would it mean, to accept one’s face as is?
I’m now immune to others’ thoughts about my face, one woman told me. I stare at her all day. You can’t hurt me.
Should we turn off the video from time to time? Yes, absolutely: whenever it feels like that image is abjectly lying to you, debasing you, making you feel a lack that can never be filled. But don’t ignore the other truths that reflection is telling you.
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