Staring at the Gargoyle on My Screen

Everyone looks awful on video conference calls. Can that change?

A lower school substitute teacher works from her home due to the Coronavirus outbreak on April 1, 2020 in Arlington, Virginia. - Her role in the school changed significantly when Coronavirus hit. She was previously working part time to support teachers when they needed to be absent from the classroom and now she helps them to build skills with new digital platforms so they can continue to teach in the best way for their students and their families.The middle school (grades 6-8) has most regularly been using Zoom and the lower grades have been using Zoom with parents. (Photo by Olivier DOULIERY / AFP) (Photo by OLIVIER DOULIERY/AFP via Getty Images)
Zoom is trying to help you look better. OLIVIER DOULIERY/Getty Images

I’ve just clicked on the link for Zoom, the video conferencing service, for Slate’s weekly editorial meeting, and now a gargoyle is staring back at me from my laptop screen. But I can’t look away from the gargoyle because she is me, only my skin is a dull shade of greige (you know, gray-beige), there’s an inexplicable spotlight on my nose, my head is casting a weird shadow onto my neck, and I swear one of my eyes is wonky. Is that what I look like?

It’s like this every single time. I so hate video conferencing that in one of my weekly meetings, I’ve taken to sitting against the wall instead of at the central table, so that I’m just out of the range of the camera at the front of the room. But ignoring the problem isn’t going to make it go away. In fact, the very opposite is true: Video conferences and calls are only growing more prevalent. In a survey from Nexmo released earlier this year, millennials self-reported a 175 percent increase in their usage of live video over the past few years, and, according to a different survey, companies, too, are seeing their video call numbers steadily ticking up. It’s even started to infiltrate workplaces you wouldn’t expect to be able to make use of such software—the New York Times recently wrote about a choreographer who Skypes into dance rehearsals. But it’s also not just professional obligations that demand video calls: They’re also starting to be used in all sorts of extracurricular ways—you might attend an Astrology 101 livestream, or give dating via video call a whirl.

This does not make the prospect of video calls any more palatable. I don’t think it’s especially vain of me or anyone else to worry about my on-camera grotesquery; video conferencing awakens the vanity in all of us. For some reason, it’s almost impossible to stop staring at your gargoyle video self when you’re on a conference call. A few years ago, Highfive, a company whose users log more than 1 million call minutes per week, conducted research that found that 59 percent of people feel more self-conscious on camera than they do in real life, and 39 percent don’t like being on camera at all. Highfive even got people to confess that they’ve made up excuses, like bad Wi-Fi and fake appointments, to avoid video calls.

This uneasiness has led to the proliferation of endless guides on how to make yourself look better on web cameras. Sometimes, it’s been tempting to write off the whole enterprise. Mel magazine blamed the FaceTime version of this problem on the cameras themselves: Their extreme wide angles “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,” a psychologist told the magazine. They also flip our images, confronting us with portraits that look suspiciously unlike the ones we’re used to seeing in mirrors.

The persistent malaise of confronting ourselves on camera is something video conference companies themselves are keenly aware of—and recognize as a barrier to their world domination.

“It does surprise me what percentage of users and companies still aren’t comfortable with video, still are really audio first,” said Mark Strassman, who works on what’s called “unified collaboration and communications” at LogMeIn, a remote connectivity company.

Video conference services and tech companies are working to build software fixes to human worries. GoToMeeting, the conferencing software from LogMeIn, recently introduced a feature that lets users test their cameras and microphones before they enter meetings. “Right before the meeting starts now, it gives you a preview,” Strassman said. “So don’t drop me into the meeting with my webcam on; let me know what I look like,” he went on. “Some people internally call this the hair-check screen.” Zoom, too, added a similar preview feature this year, which has allowed me to make de-gargoyle-ifying adjustments to my lighting.

Many of the services have also recently added features that allow users to touch up their appearances. They’re kind of like Snapchat filters for the corporate set, adding soft focus “to help smooth out the skin tone on your face, to present a more polished looking appearance when you display your video to others,” as Zoom’s help center puts it.

Apple, too, has gotten in the game: The most recent update of iOS introduced a feature that corrects people’s eyes in FaceTime so it looks like they’re making eye contact, rather than each staring into their own cameras.

Marissa Salazar works on Microsoft Teams, the company’s Slack competitor (“We call ourselves the Teams team; sometimes we repeat the word teams a hundred times a day”), which includes a video feature that’s powered by Skype. “When I did go into the office every day, I was never self-conscious about how I looked face to face,” she said. “I was always fine, like, ‘Oh, she knows what I look like.’ ” But even Salazar, someone who works on video conferencing software, had to get over the initial uncomfortableness hump.

“From our engineering team’s perspective, if there are things that we can do and we can plan for to help make people feel more comfortable, we’re willing to make those things happen,” she said. “That’s absolutely the direction that we want to head.”

Salazar pointed to background blur and the ability to insert custom backgrounds as examples of how Teams is working on the user self-consciousness problem: If users think their background is unprofessional, or don’t want to stick out for being the only remote worker, these allow them to fake it a little.

But ultimately, the people who work on video conferencing software say getting comfortable on camera isn’t really about the features. “We certainly find the use of video and the comfort with coming into a meeting with video on is cultural from an organizational perspective,” said Strassman, from GoToMeeting. “We find it’s often very top-down—it’s, ‘OK, the boss wanted us to use it, or the CEO wanted to use it, or our COO is off-site and he said everyone’s gonna use video.’ And then we find it is very uncomfortable for a number of weeks or months, and then once people get used to it, they can’t go back.”

Salazar had a similar story. “Maybe like two years ago or so, when I started working on the product, our team started really leaning into the use of video,” she said. “The more and more we turned on video by default in meetings, the more and more it became the cultural norm in the organization that ‘Hey, if you don’t turn on video, you sort of feel like the odd man out there.’ ”

At Slate, I’ve been lucky enough not to have to use video conferencing much, since I work in one of our main offices in New York. That’s probably why I have never quite gotten comfortable with it. I decided to briefly experiment with leaning into video myself. And because I could, I also decided to get a few tips on looking better on screen from experts. After all, until the Zooms of the world develop a deepfake version of me (which I’m sure they’re working on), I’m pretty much on my own.

“I really do treat any online meeting that I’m going to have with someone almost like I’m going to be on TV,” Rosana Vollmerhausen, who runs a personal styling company, told me when I reached out to her for advice. “This is a medium where you’re trying to project a little more because you’re not there in person. It’s a little bit like projecting an elevated reality if that makes sense.”

“It’s just like when you’re on camera in any other situation; you want to wear way more makeup than you would in real life,” Lani Inlander, a style consultant, advised me. “Even if you’re normally a minimal makeup person, it’s just because your features get so washed out. It’s really just about people being able to see your features.”

Oh and also, I was under no circumstances allowed to wear a cardigan on camera, according to Inlander. “Nobody really feels good in a cardigan,” she said. “You need a little bit of structure.” Instead, if I wanted to look polished on camera, she said, I needed to get myself a jardigan, aka a hybrid of a jacket and a cardigan; she pointed me toward the ones at M.M. LaFleur, which go for $225 or so. I wasn’t sure Slate would let me expense that, but Inlander did inspire me to ask a colleague if I could borrow the blazer I saw her wearing one day.

Vollmerhausen recommended staging the scene behind me a little bit. One of the new indignities of our open-office era is that the little phone booths we’ve brought into workspaces for privacy tend to have terrible lighting. Inlander said I might look into purchasing a ring light, a more affordable version of the kind YouTubers use, if I really care about lighting.

Screengrabs of the author on conference calls.
Before and after. Photo illustration by Slate. Screenshots by the author.

Meanwhile, Mark Bernheimer, a founder and principal at a company called MediaWorks Resource Group, which does media training for clients, reminded me that no one was giving me as much scrutiny as I was giving myself. “At least I would say half my clients come to me with an inaccurately negative perception of how they are going to perform on camera or look on camera,” he said.

It was very possible that I was the only one looking at me. Still, when that next editorial meeting came, I staked out a conference room with decent lighting. I wore my poor woman’s version of a jardigan. I put on more makeup than I have ever worn to work. I looked a lot better. I imagined getting used to this, transforming permanently from schlubby journalist to confident, influential industry leader. But did I really want to put that much effort into it? With apologies to my new friends in the video conferencing world, it’s still awfully easy to click “join without video.”