This semester, I’m registered for twenty-one course credits. That, in addition to extracurriculars and other general social meetings also being conducted online, means I am on Zoom A LOT. I almost always have my video turned on during meetings, both because I am required to do so by certain professors and because I would like to when chatting with friends. I know millions of other students and professionals working from home are in the same situation. So I want to take this opportunity to ask the following: Does anyone else get distracted by their own appearance on Zoom?
Now I don’t think this question need necessarily be correlated to narcissism. When on Zoom, I can be distracted by something in any person’s video — a cute pet, a wandering roommate, or someone clearly scrolling through a phone in their lap for an hour. I just find my own appearance especially distracting.
As a fashion- and beauty-lover, I’m still getting “dressed up” for Zoom. But no matter how much I love my outfit or how presentable I feel the last time I check myself in the bathroom mirror, bad lighting in my apartment can wreak havoc on it all. I have spent an hour getting dressed only to look bald on my webcam.
And it’s not just my appearance; I also find myself judging my facial expressions and reactions in real-time. Do I look engaged enough? Do I look sleepy today? Does it look evident that I have an exam plus two papers due tomorrow?
The distractions don’t always have to be due to how my static appearance looks either. I find myself checking my video during a meeting to see if my room looks messy, if my boyfriend is in the background, or if I am sitting too close to or far away from the camera.
Zoom does offer solutions on its platform for some of these issues, such as virtual backgrounds and the option to “touch up”, or filter, your appearance. The filter smooths and brightens your skin and makes flyaways in your hair less noticeable. It’s a subtle yet noticeable change. I could justify using the filter in a professional meeting where I’d like to look particularly prepared and presentable, but I have yet to use the “touch up” option for myself. I’m worried that I’ll grow accustomed to my filtered face and subsequently be disappointed by what I see in the mirror.
Psychologists would tell me that my concerns aren’t isolated. A lot of people, adolescents and young adults in particular, fall victim to the imaginary audience phenomenon — they believe that more people are paying attention to them than realistically are. From an evolutionary perspective, it makes sense that we want to be seen positively by our peers and to thus self-monitor our appearance and behavior. However, all this self-conscious self-monitoring can be especially dangerous for people who, whether temporarily, due to stressors, or more lastingly, due to a psychiatric disorder, view themselves in a negative light. For example, individuals with body dysmorphic disorder can view their own appearance negatively, and this issue is exacerbated by the overwhelming need to be on camera online during quarantine. In other words, seeing ourselves on a screen can force us to face whatever emotions we were trying to set aside.
So far, my solution has been to manually hide my own video from my Zoom screen, which is an option that Zoom does offer. It has been mostly effective but leaves me questioning whether I am overly petty or vain for needing to hide my own video to stay focused in class. For now, I’m going to keep hiding my video and focusing on doing well in my classes. But I’m not alone in this struggle, and hopefully professors and school administrators can note this issue, in addition to all the other issues, which make Zoom both a strange and uncomfortable setting for learning.