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Lauren Heintzman says she often keeps her camera off during video calls to preserve her privacy and to cut back on being distracted by her own image on screen.

vectorikart/iStockPhoto / Getty Images

Lauren Heintzman is a design editor at The Globe and Mail.

One year into the pandemic, people have mostly figured out video etiquette. That dreaded line – “You’re on mute” – comes less often, and it seems as though we’ve gotten more comfortable with video as a way to connect, both at work and with friends and family.

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Which is why it’s baffling to me that I’m still so bad at it. Don’t get me wrong: I’ve never been caught in an embarrassing act (or worse) on camera. As someone who is intensely aware of being filmed, I can’t imagine letting my guard down, even a little.

But the truth is I hate being on camera. I feel awkward and get too focused on my own face and expressions. More often than not, I opt out altogether and remain a faceless name on the screen.

I’m not the only one.

Studies confirm what we have known all along: meetings on video take more mental energy than in-person gatherings. We become too self aware. An overactive internal monologue when on screen is a common struggle: Do I seem engaged? Am I fidgeting too much? Mirror anxiety, the mental strain of having to constantly look at yourself, is a real thing. And it affects women more than men. Surprise.

All this has led to another new mental health phenomenon, “Zoom dysmorphia,” where gazing at your own face can lead to fixating on and exaggerating your perceived flaws. And the lenses that capture us on our computers are not exactly flattering.

Zoom fatigue is nothing new at this stage of the pandemic, and recent evidence shows it has more of an effect on women, younger people and introverts (hello). This comes not only from mirror anxiety but also from the added mental exhaustion of processing non-verbal cues. In person, we process these mostly automatically, but in a video chat we have to work harder at it. Normal fidgeting or multitasking becomes a distraction. When we would take a break to look at our notes or slides, we continue to see faces staring back at us. It’s unnatural and our brains know it.

On a recent work call, some of my male colleagues compared their long hair and shaggy beards. I loved this banter, and it made my stress before the call seem so silly. I’d been wondering if my hair was too wild (when did I wash it last?) and why I still hadn’t fixed the lighting in my apartment (why does it make me look like a ghoul?). They didn’t even mention how long my hair has gotten.

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Again, I’m not alone. Women are more likely to prep to be on video, while men are more comfortable appearing casual. Women are also much more likely to apologize for their appearance, or simply keep the camera off if they don’t like the way they look. This may be true, but I have to say, I can’t help but notice how naturally glamorous women can be, with their messy buns and no-makeup looks. The uneven standards have led to questions about what this will mean for beauty once the pandemic is over.

At the beginning of the lockdown, we had fun analyzing celebrities’ bookshelves or artwork as they conducted interviews from their homes. But I remain self-conscious of my own space. Some people are lucky enough to have separate workspaces, but that’s not a reality in many tiny condos like mine. I don’t mind sharing the gallery wall behind me, but the place where I lounge and watch Netflix is just a short camera pan away from my desk. Exposing that space can be a vulnerable act, and some days I just don’t have the mental space to do it.

I didn’t think I’d ever long for office small talk, but now every discussion seems transactional, without room for casual conversation, and it is taking a toll. Missing opportunities for a spontaneous coffee chat or wandering over to someone’s desk to see what they are working on, I feel distant from my co-workers. My awkwardness on video calls is widening this gap. Without body language to help show natural breaks in conversation, it can be too easy to start talking over each other. I don’t know about you but that just makes me want to go silent and I find myself defaulting to a role of observer. Plus, when work conversations veer into more personal territory, it seems others are somehow living much more interesting pandemic lives. The progress on my latest puzzle or my winning streak in Labyrinth only takes a conversation so far.

I honestly figured I’d be better at video calls by now. In a world where women need to work harder to be seen and heard, I know it’s something I’ll need to figure out. But in the meantime, it’s good to know that people are probably looking at their own faces more than they are looking at mine.

What else we’re thinking about:

As a person living in this digital world, I feel pressure to prove my existence online. I am not good at this (see above), and Jenny Odell’s book How to Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy has helped me get back to the core of why I actually love to do certain things – without being distracted by how they might look as a post on social media. Her book was written well before the pandemic, but in a time when it’s hard to escape from work, and our homes are either too crowded or especially lonely, it is especially important to find time for simple pleasures. Hobbies are commodified, side hustles are glamourized, and even self-care is subject to the “pics or it didn’t happen” mindset. To do things (or not do them) just for the sake of it is essential to personal growth. While I try to be mindful that it is a privilege not afforded to many who struggle to make ends meet, taking back my time also feels like a radical act right now.

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