Credit: Envato Elements

When I was a child, looking in the mirror was considered an act of vanity. I vaguely remember being chastised by my granny when I was caught checking myself out. The mirror served simply as a way of making sure you didn’t have a smudge on your nose or tangled hair. I’m not old enough that a man had to hide his head under a blanket to take family pictures, but certainly, my childhood took place before digital cameras. There was no delete button and just 24 or 36 exposures on a roll of film, and we would sometimes have to wait months before mum or dad visited the pharmacy to develop the blurry shots from family trips.

Digital media and then social media changed all that. Every shot can be retaken, results are instant, we know our best angles and lighting, and posting a selfie on Instagram is normal, not needy. All that may have caused myriad problems with self-image, but I, a middle-aged person, was largely unaffected, or so I thought. And then the pandemic hit.

Zoom and FaceTime had been a part of my life pre-Covid, for work and to connect with friends and family overseas. However, when I started working from home, the video meetings went from weekly to multiple times a day. My company has a cameras-on-where-possible policy to facilitate communication that closely resembles real life. My parents just wanted to see my face. I did not.

On a typical, pre-Covid day, I would look in the mirror perhaps three or four times. The rest of the time, I didn’t think about my appearance a great deal – I perhaps held a vision of what I looked like in my head that was the most flattering version of myself. It was occasionally shattered by accidental glances into shop windows or unflattering elevator mirrors, but mostly, it held true.

Zoom exploded that. I was looking at myself all the time – you could argue that we shouldn’t be looking at ourselves in meetings, but rather other people, but we all know that’s not true. There’s even a psychological reason that we tend to fixate on our own faces during video calls.

“Social psychologically, people are always looking for feedback about themselves and their own behaviour. We use the available clues in our surroundings to obtain this feedback, and often, this is by gauging how others respond to us during the interaction,” explains Dr Jenny Davis, a senior lecturer at the School of Sociology, The Australian National University. “With Zoom, we’re given another piece of information to use: Our own image. It makes sense that we would be drawn to this new piece of information and perhaps particularly so because the feedback is so immediate and direct.”

This isn’t an entirely new phenomenon – Dr Davis points out that if we have a conversation near a mirror, we can often feel distracted and drawn to our reflections. “What’s different about Zoom is that this reflection is built into the interface. We are thus systematically dropped into our own interactions, and it’s hard to look away,” she says.

Credit: Envato Elements

At first, it was an amplified version of the usual litany of things I dislike about my appearance. My crows’ feet. That scar in the middle of my forehead. The dark circles. The way one of my eyelids is more hooded than the other. Then I started to see other flaws that usually I would have missed because I rarely catch myself off guard or in motion. My resting face is getting bitchier. My neck looks crêpey. The icing on the cake was that the stress of the pandemic made me look more tired and worried, and less glowy than ever before.

It turned out I was not alone – when I broached the subject with friends, they told me they had developed new insecurities. Some were considering laser, Invisalign, or even surgery to correct new problems that had actually been there for years, and maybe weren’t problems at all.

Dr Davis says that isn’t surprising. “The human body is unruly, especially when in motion. Normally we can curate the image we present of ourselves, to ourselves. The availability of real-time moving images is disconcerting because it undermines these careful curations. It doesn’t help that we’re hyper-focused on the image and (over) analysing it to gather feedback about the self.” Some people become more at peace with their own image thanks to the over-exposure. Others – those who tend to be self-critical anyway – obsess.

The Zoom filter function that digitally retouches your image in real-time is an option to take away the bad feelings, but that didn’t appeal much to me. Imagine seeing the slick and polished version on screen, only to be ambushed by the reality in the mirror. Makeup artist Alexandre Deslauriers suggests that a lot can be done with forward planning. “If you want to look beautiful, it’s not the foundation; it’s the lighting – soft lighting that hits you without shadow. Light from behind is terrible! When I do video, I reposition myself in front of a wall, so people don’t see things in my place, and I put a light there to make myself look radiant.”

Dr Melvin Tan, Medical Director and Founder of Epion Clinic, says he’s seen an increase in inquiries from new patients about aesthetic procedures. Acne is a big concern, thanks to face masks. Some people are also taking the chance to have procedures like laser resurfacing that have downtime and would invite questioning if you turned up to the office with a red face. But, he says, some people are specifically mentioning Zoom when they get in touch. “The videos are usually taken from low camera angles, so many people have complained about dark circles, laugh lines and jowling,” he explains. “Seeing yourself constantly and in high resolution makes people notice more issues.”

I can’t deny, it’s been on my mind, whether to get a little something-something – tear-trough fillers for my tired eyes, or Botox for, well, everything. What puts me off is what’s always put me off – the maintenance. I stopped dyeing my hair a couple of years ago. And I don’t want to start an expensive new habit I need to keep up. There are my daughters to think of too. I love beauty products and playing with makeup, and so do they, but I also want them to be happy in their skin.

Dr Davis says that to help calm those niggling feelings, the easiest thing is to use the Zoom feature that lets you hide your own video. “If the feedback is causing distress, then get rid of the feedback!” she says. “However, it may also be a chance for all of us to practice self-acceptance. Our hair isn’t perfect during the day, and our faces do weird things when we concentrate. We accept these facts without judgement when interacting with others, and others accept these facts about us. Maybe we can also learn to accept these less curated elements of ourselves.”

I understood what she meant in the strangest of ways: On our annual camping trip with friends. I’m a lousy camper – I like beds and toilets and not being grubby all day – but it always feels good to be immersed in nature and far from it all. This year, that took a special significance. Cameras were directed only at children playing, and there were no FaceTimes or Zoom chats. The mirrors in the communal bathrooms were mostly misted over, and the pandemic meant no one lingered there anyway. I drank gin and played cards with old friends who listened to what I said, and I listened to them, not knowing or caring about how I looked. Re-entering the world, covered in mud, I was revitalised. I don’t know if that feeling will last forever, but for now, I’m happy in my skin.

Text: Aileen Lalor