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The inescapable pressure of being a woman on Zoom

Why are women bemoaning their hair, clothing choices, and more, even during a pandemic?

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Part of the May Issue of The Highlight, our home for ambitious stories that explain our world.

“Sorry about my hair today. It looks crazy.”

“Please excuse my wrinkles.”

“Just ignore my double chin.”

“Ugh, I look disgusting. I’m sorry.”

So goes the first five minutes of seemingly every pandemic-era Zoom meeting.

Atlanta business owner Shaun Chavis finds herself frequently apologizing at the start of video calls for her hair, which she has had chemically straightened for decades. After six weeks stuck at home, she now sports an inch of curly outgrowth at the roots. “I’m so sorry I don’t look 100 percent,” she said in a recent meeting with her entrepreneurial accountability group, stroking her hair. Chavis says she also uses a hack she learned from a friend: Use a dark background “and kind of lean back a bit so my edges don’t look as kinky and you can’t really see where my hair ends and the background begins.”

In online meetings with bosses or colleagues, teachers or fellow students, friends or family, chances are you’ve been on the receiving end of one of these apologies or uttered one yourself. Over the past seven weeks, sources told Vox, women of all ages and professions have been picking apart their own appearance via teleconference.

They include a literary agent brainstorming with authors (“I didn’t have the chance to put on makeup”), an executive recruiter interviewing C-suite candidates (“Sorry I’m so casual today”), the owner of an all-women marketing agency (a chorus of “I didn’t get to shower” disclaimers), a woman trying to enjoy a boozy virtual Sunday brunch with girlfriends (hair lamentations all around), and a high school senior whose science teacher apologized for looking like she just woke up and whose English teacher requested forgiveness for the fact that you could see her roots.

A recent New York Times piece reframed sheltering in place as a chance to conveniently shed the superficial trappings of femininity, swapping eye serum and shapewear for Ivory soap and caftans. Calling it JOLGO (the Joy of Letting Go), author Ruth La Ferla wrote that she’d found it liberating “to sign on with a sisterhood—people of varying ages, racial and social backgrounds, professions, and styles, openly engaging in a little self-neglect.”

But for other women adjusting to working from home (and, in many cases, home-schooling as well), our increasing reliance on Webex, Skype, Google Hangout, and Zoom has only triggered a virtual backslide on the body positivity front.

Beauty influencers and fashion experts are doling out advice on how to look hot when video chatting: blot away facial oil, highlight cheeks for dimension, use strategic natural lighting to avoid appearing “tired, ill or even creepy.” People are making liberal use of Zoom’s Touch Up My Appearance tool. And women are feeling the pressure to look as good as they did when they had access to a SoulCycle class and a Drybar membership.

We may be living in a dystopian society where schools and office buildings sit silent and empty and we can’t leave the house without wearing a mask, but a few things, including the sun rising and setting, the turning of the seasons, and women loathing their looks, remain unchanged.

Triggering our inner mean girl

Research shows that women say “I’m sorry” more often than men. We start sentences with tentative, minimizing language like, “I’m no expert, but,” and, “I’m probably wrong.” Compliment deflection is as deeply ingrained as breathing, which Amy Schumer brilliantly depicted in her viral 2013 skit featuring a group of girlfriends explaining away praise with such fervency and one-upmanship that, when one woman actually accepts a compliment, the listeners all literally self-destruct.

So the fact that so many women are now prefacing professional and personal video calls with demoralizing mea culpas about undereye circles and jokes about gaining the “Covid 19” shouldn’t come as much of a surprise to anyone.

But experts in body image and gender politics say that in this stress-rich, time-poor environment, the notion that women should be dolling up for virtual meetings, complete with white tablecloths beneath our laptops (they reflect light for a flattering little “fill and bounce,” Tom Ford told the New York Times), is simply the latest evidence of our society’s tenacious, lopsided beauty standards.

“This is just another iteration of the way women in our culture live with what I call our ‘inner monitor’— the voice in our head that acts like the mean girl from high school, constantly saying some version of ‘You’re not ____ enough,’” says Rebecca Scritchfield, author of Body Kindness: Transform Your Health from the Inside Out — and Never Say Diet Again. “If a global pandemic doesn’t call for a little self-compassion, I don’t know what does.”

But for so many women, self-compassion is elusive. Body positivity has been in full swing over the last few years. See: Photoshop-free ads, social media influencers revealing their posing techniques, Lizzo’s Instagram account. Yet even as women hear how important it is to love themselves, wrinkles, rolls, and all, “the grooming women are expected to do for the workplace is much different than men,” says Renee Engeln, a psychology professor at Northwestern University and author of Beauty Sick: How the Cultural Obsession with Appearance Hurts Girls and Women.

We’re far less likely to hear men pre-apologizing for their unkempt stubble or pimples because, Engeln says, pressure to keep up appearances is largely directed at women: “We need to wear makeup, color or blow out our hair, do our eyebrows or lashes, maybe get Botox.” That level of upkeep is impossible right now due to business closures (and frankly, impossible even under normal circumstances). “Whereas men are probably missing out on some haircuts and that’s about it,” she says. “So when men see themselves on a video platform, they don’t look that different. The reality of the differential demands we put on women are just showing up in a different context.”

Gina Barge, a Chicago-based executive recruiter, has seen this disconnect in action. She even slicks on eyeliner and lipstick for Cards Against Humanity wine nights with girlfriends, yet, she says, “The guys I work with are looking a little Willie Nelson, the hygiene is slipping, but they don’t apologize for it. They seem to enjoy it. Maybe they’ll joke about needing a man bun after all of this, or ask everyone what we think about their new pornstache.”

It may boil down to the fact that men simply don’t think they have as much to be sorry for. In a seminal 2010 Psychological Science study, researchers found that women apologize more than men mainly because women are more likely to think they did something that warrants apology. Men, they wrote, “have a higher threshold for what constitutes offensive behavior.”

Study co-author Karina Schumann, now a social psychologist at the University of Pittsburgh, says she doesn’t doubt that women are currently apologizing for an array of purported aesthetic offenses because, on the whole, “Women feel we need to be attractive to be liked, and now we’re worried we’re not meeting those standards, even though it’s because we’ve been running around like maniacs, and we just cleaned pee off the floor moments before starting the call.”

Even if our inner feminist wanted to look dewy-skinned and salon-blown-out on camera, unfair beauty standards be damned, that might not be emotionally possible right now, says Suzanne Degges-White, a professor of counseling at Northern Illinois University.

“We’re trying to get up every morning and pretend like it’s a normal day,” she says, “but this is not normal, especially for those who are working with kids crying, pets needing to go out, significant others in the next room.” Plus, our emotions bleed over into our visage, with fear, stress, and anxiety fracturing our sleep and aging our skin at a cellular level. “We look tired and worn out,” Degges-White says, “because we’re scared.”

She notes that in March, when working from home was new and manicures, eyebrow waxing, and hitting the gym were ostensibly still on the table, many women felt like they had the energy and bandwidth to carry out their usual morning beauty routine — probably the result of adrenaline, Degges-White says. “Now, it’s become monotonous, and the fear that life may not be what it was before is taking an emotional toll on our collective psyche.” Week seven of sheltering in place seems to have been a tipping point for many people, she says, bringing us to a place where virtual work meetings now begin with comments like I haven’t even brushed my hair.

And the self-hatred even starts early. Natasha Bloom, a teacher at an all-girls middle school in Los Angeles, says that when remote learning began, she was confused because “all I saw were ceiling fans.” With some gentle prodding, Bloom learned that her students hated seeing themselves on camera. Many of these same pre-teens are on Snapchat and Instagram, but, she says, “They use a lot of face filters so they don’t exactly look like themselves.”

“It’s more important that we’re on the call”

Superfluous apologizing, be it for our decaying pandemic beauty routine or, pre-Covid, our need for assistance in a store (I’m sorry to bother you) or a mistake made by a waiter (I’m sorry, I didn’t order this), is a decidedly female trait with a major downside. “It devalues whatever message you’re trying to send,” Degges-White says, “undermining our right to speak. It sounds like we’re assuming that we don’t have the right to say what we’re about to say.” Not an ideal way to start a work Zoom discussing Q1 profits with your team or delivering your pitch on how to expand market share.

Not all women feel the need to explain away their quarantine looks. New York City attorney Stacey Lager says she refuses to apologize for showing up to video conference calls without her usual makeup, straightened hair, or manicure because “I’m too busy working 16-hour days while managing my kids’ hourly school schedule and going to bed at 3 am, and I’m not getting up an hour earlier to do any of that stuff I used to do. I am exhausted, and looking glam as I advise my business partners or negotiate and close deals is just not my priority right now.”

When she sees other women feeling like they need to justify their looks, “I want to say, ‘Why are you apologizing? We’re in unimaginable circumstances. You’re performing at A+ levels. Thanks for working hard, for staying focused, thanks for not having a complete mental breakdown. It’s more important that we’re on the call and doing the work we’re being asked to do, not what we look like.”

Scritchfield, the body positivity author, applauds Lager’s perspective. “Just because someone else makes an appearance apology doesn’t mean you have to participate. You might feel pulled to engage as a form of small talk or emotional support, but consider the best support in this case saying nothing if you’re in a group.”

Or, you could try course-correcting with something compassionate along the lines of, “Yeah, I was thinking I should have spent more time getting ready, but that’s ridiculous, all things considered.” At least this way, Scritchfield says, “You’re helping to tear down the standards that suggest women should spend more time earning the right to be present at virtual meetings through their appearance.”

If that feels like more work in an already demanding time, you have other options. Engeln says there’s no shame in hitting the “Hide Me” button. Others will still see you, but you won’t be forced to stare at a live feed of yourself throughout every meeting, something that feels unnatural for most of us and can potentially be emotionally damaging for people with body image issues, she says.

And if you feel the urge to grab the mascara wand before a meeting and think that doing so will feel good to you, go for it. Both Degges-White and Engeln mentioned that while they’ve forgone makeup in quarantine, they both like applying lipstick before tele-meetings. “In this world where we feel like we have so little control, one thing we still have control over is how we look,” Degges-White says. “So if putting on some lipstick makes me feel better about myself, it gives a little more agency.”

If all else fails, take a page from Bloom’s teacher playbook. When she learned her female middle school charges were purposefully avoiding being on camera, she used the revelation as a springboard for several talks about empowerment. Bloom began setting up small benchmarks for her students, challenging them to show their face for 30 seconds at a time. Now, they start their virtual classes with Bloom asking, “What are we not apologizing for today?”

Says Bloom: “I’m trying to teach these girls that we don’t need to apologize for being ourselves.”

Leslie Goldman has a master’s degree in public health and is a health writer based in Chicago. She is a frequent contributor of feature stories and essays to Prevention, Women’s Health, O: The Oprah Magazine, Real Simple Parents, and more.

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