Obreanna McReynolds remembers how novel Zoom seemed in the early weeks of the pandemic.
At first, McReynolds enjoyed playing around with different filters, including one that layered makeup on her small, pixelated image.
But by the summer, McReynolds started hiding the self-view on video calls.
She would sit in meetings and notice dark circles under her eyes or puffiness. Or fixate on her messy hair. It was distracting, but she didn’t feel as if she could turn off her video.
Zoom “definitely makes me self-aware, which is not a good thing,” she said. It’s “an easy, slippery slope into being obsessed with fixing or optimizing.”
A year into the pandemic, Zoom and other videoconferencing services have shaped the lives and routines of many people working from home, triggering a new wave of vocabulary to describe what we’re collectively experiencing.
There’s “Zoom dysmorphia,” in which people feel anxiety about their looks, set off by hours spent looking at themselves on videoconferencing screens.
Then there’s “Zoom boom,” a spike in cosmetic surgery consultations believed to be rooted in the ceaseless stream of video meetings. A recent Guardian article, citing numbers from the American Society of Plastic Surgeons, reported that virtual consultations for cosmetic procedures had increased 64 percent since the start of the pandemic.
Jeremy Bailenson, the founding director of the Stanford University Virtual Human Interaction Lab, likened our sudden relationship with videoconference tools to spending our entire workdays with a mirror in our hand.
“Zoom users are seeing reflections of themselves at a frequency and duration that hasn’t been seen before in the history of media and likely the history of people,” Bailenson wrote in a recent paper on “Zoom fatigue.”
McReynolds, 31, says the constant video calls have made her more sensitive to signs of aging.
She’s replaced her pre-pandemic makeup routine with a five-to-six-step skin-care routine and began wearing press-on nails to help her feel more “polished and put together.”
Chantel Lucas, who works with McReynolds at the online education company Skillshare, says she didn’t begin to feel self-conscious on Zoom until the summer, when she first started feeling video-call fatigue.
“The big sign for me was a nervousness in presenting my ideas or presenting any presentation in a large group setting,” Lucas said. “I started to notice this weird red creeping flush that I never had before with public speaking.”
Around the same time, Lucas, who lives in New York City, was protesting regularly against police brutality. Lucas is a biracial Black woman, and as the only Black woman on her team, she started feeling self-conscious about how she was presenting herself.
She said she would question whether her natural hair looked all right, wondering how others might perceive her mixed-race identity. Lucas probably would have felt some of that isolation and self-consciousness if she were meeting her team in real life, she said, but staring at a 20-person grid heightened how much of an “outlier” she was.
She found respite in an employee resource group with other women of color, letting her see pieces of herself on the screen.
“It feels like a little like Zoom hug when you see curly hair,” Lucas said. “I feel more comfortable in my appearance when I’m in a Zoom grid with people who look like me.”
Therapist Ednesha Saulsbury says she has observed heightened anxiety about video calls among her clients during the pandemic, most of whom are women of color.
“A lot of us are tired,” she said, and worried about whether others will judge our competence because of it.
Saulsbury said she feels this during sessions. She knows her clients can see her up close in a way they couldn’t in person and is concerned how they might perceive her ability to care for them if she looks tired, anxious or sad.
Being on video calls all day has made her much more aware of one of her eyes, which “tends to get really low,” she said. But the shared concerns have also increased her comfort with her clients.
“This is probably one of the first times in history where clients and therapists are going through the exact same thing at the exact same time,” she said.
Keli Goff, a TV writer and playwright, said a year of nonstop videoconferencing helped affirm her career choices and gave her space to pursue creative projects.
A former cable news journalist, Goff began stepping away from the role pre-pandemic.
“I really didn’t enjoy how much of my time and brain power had to be spent on my appearance,” she said.
Goff barely wears makeup or spends much time on her hair now. She is instead embracing colorful, bold glasses and red lipstick.
“I’ve realized that if you put on red lipstick and a fun pair of glasses it looks like you made a real effort with your appearance even if you really haven’t,” said Goff, who added that she has at least 12 pairs of glasses now.
For journalist and podcaster Amy Dresner, the influx of video calls has been a double-edged sword.
She said that over the past year she has seen interest surge in her memoir about addiction, opening up more virtual opportunities to speak at panels, sobriety support groups and conferences.
It was during these video calls that Dresner would find herself fixated on her face — how crooked her nose looked, the softness around her jaw line, how much she didn’t like her smile or her laugh. As a 51-year-old living in Los Angeles, Dresner was already self-conscious about aging, but Zoom amplified it.
“Why do I look weird? Is that what I look like?” Dresner said she would constantly ask herself.
But after years of battling body dysmorphia, she said she can recognize that she’s becoming obsessive. She knows she’s not a reliable judge of how she looks.
“I just have accepted that this is part of who I am, that I have a distortion,” she said. “Knowing that I don’t see things properly, then I sort of just disregard my own opinion.”
Being forced to look at herself helped Sarah Sprague adjust to her new reality.
In late 2019, the 31-year-old tech executive discovered she had an aggressive form of leukemia, requiring immediate treatment.
Zoom not only helped her return to work sooner than she otherwise might have — it also helped her acclimate to the dramatically different way she looked.
Sprague doesn’t consider herself “high maintenance” in terms of her looks, but she prided herself on her long, thick blond hair.
“It always kind of defined me,” Sprague said.
She lost her hair during chemotherapy, and the steroids made her cheeks look puffier. Her face took on an entirely different shape. When she first returned to work, she kept her video turned off. At home, she would simply avoid looking at herself whenever she passed a mirror.
But eventually she had to present at a big meeting and couldn’t put it off anymore. After that, she preferred to keep her video on. She has a lot of new hires during the pandemic whom she’s never met in person, and it’s important to her that they see her smiling at and engaging with them.
“I actually think because I had to look at myself all day, it made me get used to my new look faster than I would have otherwise," she said.
She also credits Zoom with helping her be more open with her colleagues. She said she has enjoyed getting to know people beyond their work personas, seeing the inside of her co-workers’ homes and glimpsing each other’s family members.
“That’s not everyone’s cup of tea,” she said. “But for me, it’s been really, really nice because I feel like it has let me, in a more natural way, be vulnerable with the people who I work with.”