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Mark Kingwell is a professor of philosophy at the University of Toronto whose latest book is On Risk.

Most people have had some version of the feeling since the advent of COVID-19 shutdowns. I mean the unease and even dismay that overwhelms you as you watch yourself on screen during a Zoom call. Is that what my hair looks like? Is that how I smile? What’s wrong with my nose? Add the worries about out-of-frame sweatpants, random appearances by children, cats and half-clad spouses – not to mention the next-level embarrassments of Jeffrey Toobin or William Amos – and the situation becomes acute.

The feeling of being watched and judged has been so pronounced over the past 14 months that media reports now say people are seeking, in record numbers, corrective cosmetic surgery to cope with so-called “Zoom face-envy.” Despite all the selfie-taking and social-media feeds of our supposedly narcissistic era, people mostly don’t like how they look on camera, and think other people look better.

In 1996, the novelist David Foster Wallace included in his novel Infinite Jest a prescient reference to what he called “video physiognomic dysphoria.” He meant the cumulative sense of unease that attends constant exposure to your face when you’re not composing it for the mirror or a picture pasted into an album or posted on Instagram.

Think of the discomfort that comes when you are eating in a restaurant that has a mirror along one wall, to make the room seem more spacious. If you are the diner sitting across from that design feature, the natural act of eating can become almost paralyzing. Is that the way my mouth moves? Again, what’s wrong with my nose? And is that really my hair? Even walking, the most natural act in the world, is awkward when you know that you are being observed or filmed.

There are multiple ironies here, both of our moment but also some about baseline human status-seeking and amour-propre. We want to think well of ourselves, especially in social settings. We compete for acceptance, attention and approval. Then video connection, mostly with Skype, became a reality: That platform had 600 million users worldwide by 2010, long before the pandemic. We were living in a wondrous science-fiction world, like something from Star Trek or Blade Runner! The future is here, this is amazing. And so but then, as Mr. Wallace would have said, we realized how little we liked seeing ourselves being seen.

There is of course some envy in play here, even if it is not the dominant feature of the scenario. The camera loves some people more than others. Social feeds are designed to afford users the chance of curating their lives in ways that make other people feel jealous. But more than this, is it perhaps that we simply just shouldn’t see images of our own faces so much? Maybe, like mourners sitting shiva, we need to forget how we look in order to be present in a moment.

The best-looking person in the world takes an unflattering picture now and then. There isn’t a single magazine cover in existence that hasn’t been doctored to make its featured face look more perfect. Surgery is an extreme measure, yes, but it lies on the same continuum as using digital editing tools to smooth out a nose bump or cover over a blemish.

My nephew Dylan is a successful young actor, now in his late teens, who has done a lot of television, some movies and many ads. He’s a good-looking kid. He likes being on camera, obviously, but he also knows that image is not reality. Physical beauty and camera-lovability are fleeting qualities.

I asked Dylan about video dysphoria and dysmorphia. (The former is general disconnection in your life; the latter is specific to body image or a physical feature.) He said his favourite filmed sequence involved a superhero movie where he got to don a muscle suit over his skinny frame and then run on a treadmill against a green screen that was later CGI’d to make him look faster than a normal human. We should all be so digitally enhanced.

Will these Zoom-borne anxieties, and the resulting boom in cosmetic surgery, continue after COVID? I think so. Dysphoria is deeply rooted in human relations, and online meetings will surely live on. Meanwhile, there might be a small rush on muscle suits and good green-screen technology as alternatives to surgery.

We should also remember that we are always being watched – we are the most surveilled and face-recognized population in human history. The pandemic will end, but the cameras and data-gatherers will still be there, inside and outside. You don’t have to see yourself being seen to know that they see you.

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