Roughly a year-and-a-half ago, “zoom” was merely a verb that referred to fast-paced movement. Video calls were relegated to FaceTime. The only time we saw our own faces was after taking pictures or looking in mirrors. As of April 2021, all of this has changed. One of the most powerful of these changes has manifested in the fact that those of us working, studying, and connecting remotely have been forced to look at ourselves for hours a day, every day.
The transfer of all things online has led those implicated to see the world, their commitments, and themselves differently, even (especially) with regard to appearance. The video platform Zoom builds windows into our everyday lives, and we have no choice but to pull up the curtains. Our bosses, professors, and breakout rooms all need to see our faces––but this means that we have to look at them, as well.
The gut reaction from someone removed from this struggle, maybe a person interviewed prior to the eruption of COVID-19, would likely find the solution to be a simple one. Just don’t look. Anyone who has endured a week of online courses, meetings, and presentations knows that this is far more difficult than it sounds.
Journalist for "Medium", Allie Volpe, cites Dr. Tara Well, who is based at Barnard College of Columbia University). Well explains one possible reason for this difficulty: “Keeping our eyes fixed on our own reflection can feel stress-relieving in this high-stimuli environment.” One is reminded a bit of the psychologically rooted phenomenon in which it is irresistible to look away from even unpleasant or negative stimuli. Just as this tendency has its roots in the evolved inclination to keep ourselves safe by noting what went wrong for others and how to avoid it ourselves, Well told Volpe that staring at ourselves during video calls gives us a sense of agency in an otherwise hands-off environment. Among a grid of colleagues’ faces, we can only control our own, and we are most familiar with them, so staring at ourselves doubles as a source of comfort and self-monitoring.
Many people wouldn’t cite comfort as an immediate symptom of watching themselves operate on a video call, however. Professor Jeremy Bailenson of Stanford University wrote an academic article on “Zoom fatigue” in February 2021, and he summarized the findings of studies which prove that staring at oneself for prolonged periods can increase self-criticism.
“It’s taxing on us. It’s stressful,” Bailenson says, “And there’s lots of research showing that there are negative emotional consequences to seeing yourself in a mirror.”
Research conducted on the Boston College campus has demonstrated that the self-confidence of women at BC has a downhill projection, starting from freshmen year and moving onward. Just as an example, what does this statistic, combined with a busy online schedule, mean for the self-regard of a female senior? In short, the structure of Zoom doesn’t do them any favors. Psychologist and author Doreen Dodgen-Magee spoke with Volpe and emphasized the intersectional implications of this pattern. Dodgen-Magee explains that people of color, particularly women, “have more cultural expectations placed upon them to look certain ways.” Thus, seeing themselves on-screen calls to mind a longer checklist of concerns in terms of appearance.
One noteworthy takeaway from this research, perhaps rising above all others, is the simple fact that staring at ourselves on Zoom is almost never the product of vanity. “The line between simple curiosity and narcissism when looking at your own video feed is the overt feeling that you look better than everyone,” Well said. It’s unlikely that so many of us are so completely satisfied with our appearances on Zoom that we cannot bear to look away. Far more likely is the subconscious urge to calm ourselves, to pull our attention away from so many exciting images, and even to curate ideal reactions (which is ultimately an act for the benefit of those we engage with online).
“Just like the impulse to glance at your reflection in a car or boutique window—a totally normal instinct, Well says—looking at yourself on Zoom may reveal deeper emotional truths about how you’re feeling currently,” Volpe writes, referencing her discussion with Well. Watching ourselves on Zoom doesn’t make us self-absorbed. It makes us human.
The sheer irony of the situation lies in the fact that people miss seeing the faces of friends and family, but many say they’ve seen their own faces more than enough times. April 2020 saw the peak use of the term “self care” in Google searches. April 2020 also saw a global surge in downloads of Zoom. It’s a devastating thought to think that connection in the face of devastation came at the cost of self-confidence, particularly at a time when people urged one another to be good to themselves and acknowledge the difficulty of our global situation. There are ways around this unfortunate symptom of frequent Zooming—a person can hide themselves from view by using a right-click on their image, or even place a post-it over their personal windows for as long as needed during a call. But as we ride out the roller coaster of the last 18 months, consider the notion that self-monitoring on Zoom is a sort of psychological self care. For reasons sometimes below the realm of conscious awareness, we are quite literally keeping a protective eye on ourselves while going about our daily lives as best we can.