Reflections on our digital reflection

Why do we self-monitor on Zoom?

Art by Zara Paleologos

I can’t stop looking at myself.

We’re staring at ourselves a lot lately through these Zoom portals. I find my eyes constantly flitting back towards my own camera asking; is my hair ok? Do I look interested enough? No wait, not too interested though, that’s weird.

Perhaps I’m simply incredibly narcissistic and, like a child enamoured by their reflection for the first time, am enjoying constantly rediscovering my appearance more than my lecture content. Though this wouldn’t be too surprising, I wouldn’t say my compulsion to stare at myself comes from a place of self-love and delightful discovery. I’m not looking in admiration at all, I’m monitoring myself.

In The Robber Bride, Margaret Atwood writes, “You are a woman with a man inside watching a woman. You are your own voyeur.” Every morning I get up and look at — no, I inspect — my body in the mirror. I log into class and watch myself watching myself. Even though I’m aware of this internalised male gaze I can’t seem to shake it. This is an issue embedded within feminist theory, but it is not limited to the experience of women. Especially on Zoom, everyone is constantly affronted by their own image. 

In the Zoom world my options are fairly clear; I can turn my camera off or I can hide self-view, meaning I won’t see what my camera shows everyone else. This option somehow makes me feel worse, as if I’ve eviscerated myself from digital existence. I’d rather have a grey box with my name than no space whatsoever, even if I know others can still see me. As for turning off my camera, I’ve found this perhaps a little rude — there’s a mutual respect in allowing yourself to be seen when you can see your lecturer. I know in their place I’d want at least a few faces looking back at me, and I think it creates a more human feel to the digital learning space. Although, as the semester drags on I’m giving myself permission more often to not be seen. 

Perhaps I’m late to learn this lesson, most of my tutorials are already endless seas of grey boxes. At the very least, I’ve learned to appreciate anonymity. I could not have understood the power of my own gaze until I turned it so harshly against myself. For now, I’ll keep the camera on when I’m up for it, and try to stop feeling guilty when I turn it off.

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