Hating Your Face on Zoom Is the New Hating Your Voice on the Phone

The video-chat renaissance is introducing people to a new type of awkwardness

Illustration: Heeje Min Heo

I’I’ve learned a lot about myself since going into quarantine. Like how my daily 3 p.m. anxiety spiral can be treated with a snack or four. That I prefer to wear the same sweatshirt multiple days in a row, alternating between wearing it inside out and right side in until it needs washing. How I find an entirely gray outfit — a groutfit, if you will — to be oddly satisfying. And just how much I absolutely cannot stand seeing my face on Zoom.

As a journalist, I’m no stranger to hating the excruciating sound of your voice: Listening to recordings of interviews and transcribing them is one of the most distressing parts of the job. Hating what you hear is just par for the course. Hating what you see, however, is new to me. And judging by the self-deprecating tweets I’ve seen over the past few weeks, it’s an experience plenty of other people are having right now, too.

Part of that discomfort is technology-induced. It depends on how old your device is, but it seems none of them were built with user hotness in mind. Even a relatively new MacBook camera isn’t going to make you look your best. (If you look at the camera on the back of your iPhone, you’ll notice it probably sticks out just a little while the camera on your computer does not. That protrusion translates to a world of difference in photo quality.)

“People often find themselves much more unattractive than usual on FaceTime calls,” Yvonne Thomas, an L.A.-based psychologist, explained to MEL last year. “The front-facing camera is an extreme wide-angle, which can cause shadows around the eyes and nose, highlight one’s facial imperfections like blemishes and wrinkles and add enough bloating that it can look like one has a double chin.” So widespread is the effect, in fact, that a plastic surgeon in Washington, D.C., made headlines in 2012 when he claimed that the FaceTime double chin was driving his patients to request more video-friendly faces.

Mostly, though, Zoom face is uncomfortable because it’s not your face — or at least, not the one you’re used to seeing. All the lumps and bumps and contours are flipped, a mirror image of what you usually see in your own reflection. Your left eyebrow will be where your brain thinks your right one is.

“The interesting thing is that people don’t really know what they look like,” Nicholas Epley, author of Mindwise: Why We Misunderstand What Others Think, Believe, Feel, and Want, told The Atlantic in 2014. “The image you have of yourself in your mind is not quite the same as what actually exists.” On video chat, you’re finally seeing yourself the way everyone else sees you. As we all get our bearings in this new reality, there’s something kind of poetic about that: Everything is new and uncertain, but here’s something that, for the first time, you can finally see clearly.

But if that doesn’t strike a chord, honestly, I don’t blame you. The good news is that it’s easy enough to get rid of the mind-bending face flip by turning on video mirroring in your Zoom preferences. And as long as you’re not recording yourself, a phone call is a pretty good alternative.

Madison Malone Kircher is a staff writer at New York Magazine. She lives in Brooklyn. Twitter: @4evrmalone

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