Why do we keep apologising for our appearance on video calls?

A slew of work meetings, friend meet-ups and family quizzes done via video call means we’re all looking at ourselves more than ever. But how is this affecting our relationship with our appearance?

A couple of weeks ago, I logged into a Zoom call with my family. Before even asking how my sister was doing, I spewed: “sorry, I look awful”. It just came out, like word vomit – to borrow a phrase from Mean Girls’ Cady Heron. It’s not the only time I’ve done that. Once, during a work call, I was asked to put on my camera to which I responded: “you don’t want to see me right now, TRUST ME”. Self-deprecating, yes – but it turns out I’m not alone in feeling that way.

Later that week, I logged into a video call to wish my friend a happy birthday. As we sat, waiting for the birthday boy to join, a friend told the rest of us: “ugh sorry, I should have put on some make-up for this”. Then there’s the multiple times I’ve heard appearance-related apologies on various work calls. It’s clear there’s a pattern.

So when a colleague sent me a link to a video created by beauty brand Billie, it spoke to me. The video shows multiple women on video calls, all apologising for various aspects of their appearance, from “nasty and cracked” lips to “designer” under-eye bags. There’s a multitude of critical jokes, too – one woman claims her phone won’t unlock with her current at-home face.

But at the end, we’re presented with an important question: “what if we stopped apologising for looking like ourselves?” Suddenly, there’s a flip and women are cheering each other on for turning on their webcams, while one woman strokes her hand through her grey roots, happily telling her friends “look at all this wisdom!”

The video raises an interesting point, though. Why do we apologise for simply looking like ourselves? We’re sitting at home trying to navigate a current pandemic. We’re doing our best. So what if your hair is greasy? Who cares if you haven’t covered up your dark circles?

At first thought, staying at home seemed like the perfect chance to practice self-love but it seems that being able to see ourselves more frequently, thanks to video calls, has actually had a damaging effect. A study by beauty and wellness brand Foreo discovered that a staggering nine out of 10 Brits says constantly staring at their own face on a video call has made them worry about their appearance.

“The vanity of human nature is such that we would all glance at ourselves as we pass a mirror, so the temptation to focus on our faces on a laptop [or smartphone] is huge,” says psychotherapist Clare Walker. “The majority of us all want to create a good impression, that includes visually.

This can turn into an obsession over how we look to each other and can effect how we feel about ourselves. “People who have feelings of defectiveness or perfectionist tendencies are likely to feel that they need to look their best at all times,” explains Dr Elena Touroni, a consultant psychologist and co-founder of The Chelsea Psychology Clinic.

“The perception that they’re not well ‘turned out’ can cause a lot of anxiety. They might fear that they won’t come across as professional or that they’ll be judged.”

Of course, that’s not the case at all, though. Dr Anna Mandeville, consultant clinical health psychologist, adds: “We are seeing ourselves reflected in a way that we are not used to, which only adds to the self-scrutiny.

“But we are not as fickle as we seem. Research into long-term relationships shows we really do tend to focus more on similarity of values, intellect or sociability and don’t just take people purely at face value.”

So next time you find yourself staring at yourself on camera, snap out of it and get involved in the conversation instead. It’s likely nobody will remember what you looked like (they’ll probably be too busy staring at themselves anyway) but they will remember the value you brought to the conversation.

Main image: Getty

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