I first saw her the Wednesday after the world shut down. She appeared in the upper right-hand window of my Zoom gallery during a virtual PTA meeting. I recognized her, this woman I’d glimpsed each morning, an OK-looking lady staring down middle age and, until recently, winning that contest — or at least, not losing it badly.
She jogged regularly and had often announced her intentions to remain gluten-free. Pre-pandemic, she had looked fine, and for her mid-to-late 40s, fine was good enough.
But each time I saw her on Zoom, she looked worse. Eyeliner-less, her eyes seemed to bulge, and the dark circles beneath them darkened all the more. Clearly, she’d stopped jogging and had taken to eating gluten; her skin was dry, flaky, loosening. Where did those neck wrinkles come from? Had she always had them? Also: jowls? Already?
If you haven’t figured out, that woman was me. I would stare at my own face, unable to concentrate on the stories people shared, convinced I was aging prematurely, or at least badly. It helped when I discovered Zoom’s “hide self-view” feature, but by then, the damage was done. Staring into Zoom day after day had changed the way I saw myself.
“Like most women, I have been taught that what matters most about us is our looks in a society that rarely focuses on the changing beauty of middle age. How fitting that an app named Zoom magnifies those feelings of insecurity and loss.”
Zoom fatigue is real and well-documented. It’s psychologically and physically draining to be on camera all the time, unwitting reality TV stars, constantly making eye contact. And we’re not meant to witness ourselves at all times.
But what I have experienced goes beyond that: the lowering of a few rungs on the self-esteem ladder, which wasn’t that high to begin with.
There are many horrors taking place in the world right now, more than anyone can list or accommodate or fix, far graver than dealing with my face on Zoom. The pandemic has claimed lives, devastated families, evaporated bank accounts and exacerbated inequality in all forms. It is a privilege to complain about how looking at myself on Zoom has affected me. And yet, though COVID-19 has robbed me of more than my self-esteem, this is a real and insistent part of how I’ve been affected.
After all, like most women, I have been taught that what matters most about us is our looks in a society that rarely focuses on the changing beauty of middle age. How fitting that an app named Zoom magnifies those feelings of insecurity and loss.
I polled people who are similarly struggling.
“Do you have a moment to discuss my chins?” my friend Deborah asked.
My friend Bliss said she thinks about the title of Nora Ephron’s memoir, “I Feel Bad About My Neck,” at least once each workday.
“I space out on Zoom calls, picturing various jowl minimizing gadgets I could invent,” said Catherine.
Melissa added, “I sometimes put a Post-It note over my face. It helps.”
Vanessa, who is Black, spoke of the additional challenge of finding lighting that will properly capture her features since, like so much face-related technology, the app is geared toward lighter skin; there’s a kind of Zoom racism causing her additional distress.
She started wearing more makeup to emphasize her features, but that, she says, defeats the whole purpose of working from home, which she’s done for 10 years. “Part of the benefit is not having to get dressed and put on makeup and think about how you look,” she said. “Now all these new work-from-homers have ruined it.”
For me, the problem is the compounding of low self-esteem and its intersection with paranoia and self-absorption. I have always felt ashamed of my looks, which I would categorize as exceedingly average with the occasional interruption of cute until I was 40 and had my second kid. That’s when the overarching adjective to describe my face became: tired. I was ignorable. I was fine.
And fine was good enough, especially when I was able to control the amount of time I spent staring at my face. A glimpse in the mirror, adjustment of the chin, positioning the head to avoid the sagging skin — I wasn’t so continuously confronted with myself the way I am these days, in Zoom life.
“I’d love to turn on Zoom and find beauty in the face staring back at me, to think, 'You’ve been through a lot. You’re still here. That in itself is beautiful. Also: Think about other human beings now.'”
Once regularly on Zoom, I wondered how others saw me, if they felt sorry for me that I was aging badly, if they felt sorry for my husband. I wondered if, after leaving the Zoom meeting, they said to their partners, ”She was staring down middle age and now she’s lost that battle.”
They may seem like superficial and indulgent feelings, but consider the real-life consequences of disorders like body dysmorphia: depression, anxiety, self-harm, and, in its less potent versions, annoying the crap out of your spouses.
At least outside I can retreat into the protective fabric of my mask, with only my bulging eyes visible above the seam. Pandemic upside.
Meanwhile, my 76-year-old father has reminded me that he’d happily trade ages with me. Others have suggested Zoom’s touch-up feature, a filter that apparently offers a virtual facelift, though I fear further distorting my view of myself.
What I would like instead is to turn on Zoom, and see my friends, my students, my comrades, and just not care about how I look. So many women in their 40s get to this mythical land I’ve heard about, where they “don’t give a fuck.” About anything. I have tried to find the train to that land and it’s just not running from wherever I am.
Or I’d love to turn on Zoom and find beauty in the face staring back at me, to think, “You’ve been through a lot. You’re still here. That in itself is beautiful. Also: Think about other human beings now.”
And some days, I do. Some days, even without hiding my self-view, I’m able to concentrate on the millions of things more important than the transformation of my face or to realize what a luxury it is to complain about it.
Those days, I’m more than a slightly foreign-looking face in a box. I’m a friend, sister, daughter, colleague, trying to connect in a world gone mad, and gone online. Those days, I remember, with a pandemic stealing so many lives, to see aging for what it is: a gift and a privilege.