Many of us have spent uncountable hours over the past 18 months staring at the faces of our friends, family, colleagues and clients in small Zoom boxes. We’ve also, often, been staring at our own face at the same time. Now that some of us are beginning to return to in-person work as well as family and social activities, we can look forward to engaging with others without our own image looming in front of us as we do so. Not a moment too soon, as far as I am concerned.
“Then it was pandemic, lockdown and Zoom. And my face, floating on screen, pink and awkward, and the mouth doing that thing. . . .I wonder, why is it so disturbing, watching yourself being watched? . . . Zoom meant I had to face my own face. Back at work, will I miss it?”
My response to her second question is a resounding no. While I am not horrified by my own face, I don’t especially like looking at it. I sometimes stare absentmindedly at it in the mirror while I am brushing my teeth, but I am usually thinking about something else and don’t really pay attention to it. I’ve never worn makeup, so no mirror time needed for that, and I usually flip my hair up into a vague sort of knot on top of my head, which also does not require a mirror.
In fact, until the pandemic arrived, with its endless Zoom meetings, I often went for days without looking at myself.
Face to face
Lest you think I am a sloth, I want you to know that, for more than 18 months, even on days when my partner and cat were my only associates, I have stuck to my one workplace wardrobe rule: what people wear for work should be different from what they wear for sleeping or lounging.
I have not once attended a Zoom meeting dressed only from the waist up. I am always attired in clothes that are clean, tidy and properly accessorized with jewellery. My wardrobe and jewellery selection may not be lavish or extensive, but I like to think I manage to pull off a tidy, pleasant look most of the time.
Having to stare at my own face as much as I have since March 2020 has been challenging. I don’t like to turn my camera off: I need to see my colleagues to pick up body language during meetings and I assume they feel the same way about seeing me. I considered using the function that keeps the camera on but hides the person’s image from herself, but then I worried that I might forget about the camera and start picking at my eyes, ears or nose or make faces about things other people were saying, so I discarded that option.
That first image, when I am the one hosting the meeting and my face fills the entire screen, never fails to terrify me. How, oh how, did I get to look so old? And why, on a day when I am feeling fairly cheerful, do I look so grim? Have I always wiggled my mouth around the way I seem to now? And when did I start pursing my lips?
Recently, after a Zoom meeting in which my face seemed to have a particularly deathly pallor to it, I googled “how to look good on Zoom.” There was no shortage of information available to help me, much of it combining helpful hints with product recommendations, followed by convenient “shop now” buttons. I quickly decided I was not interested in purchasing a nose hair clipper and assumed the suggestion that I “clean up my neck” was intended for men whose beards were getting a little untidy during the pandemic.
Out of curiosity, I gave the Zoom “touch up my appearance” button a try. Perhaps, I thought, I could change my hair colour, plump my lips, make my eyelashes longer. Nope, no options at all, just a line that I could move my curser along to the right, which I did. Did it make one of the creases on the left side of my mouth slightly softer? Maybe, but more likely not.
I have learned that I should have my camera higher than my face to avoid it focusing on my neither interesting nor terribly attractive chin and neck; so when I am speaking at a conference or recording a talk on my phone, I balance whichever device I am using precariously on top of a stack of books and hope we don’t all end up in a heap on the floor.
Having been irritated by the Deep Throat appearance of colleagues who are seated in front of windows filled with sunlight, I make sure to have my office window in front of me. I have not felt the need to upgrade to a separate webcam, even if, as the websites I looked at this week promised, I would look “more presentable” by doing so. Nor have I started wearing face powder or keeping a towel handy to blot away oil from my face.
I guess I have to face the truth: As long as I think I am presentable, I am not very concerned about the details of my physical appearance.
I have other concerns about how I look on Zoom, concerns that Eva Wiseman described like this:
“Are we showing others the person we want to show? Do we pass? As intelligent? As human? Can they see we’re pretending to care? If I narrow my eyes, does it show that I am listening, or do I look like I’m planning their death? . . .
“It is odd, isn’t it, to witness yourself?”