Video-calling with a visible difference

Here are some thoughts on how to manage worries and concerns when video-calling. It may be helpful for you if you are:

  • somebody with a mark, scar or condition affecting your appearance (visible difference)
  • the parent/guardian, teacher, youth worker or employer of somebody with a visible difference

What are the challenges?

The COVID-19 pandemic has prompted a big surge in the use of video-calling and we have all become familiar with software such as Zoom, Teams, FaceTime, Houseparty and Skype. Many people had to adjust suddenly to relying on these for work, as well as to socialise remotely with friends and family. Our whole lives moved online for a while – and it is likely we will all rely on these methods of contact more in the foreseeable future.

This can be a great way to stay connected, but there are many reasons you may find video-calling challenging – especially if you have a visible difference. If you do, you’re not alone. From what we hear from our community, this can raise particular challenges or anxieties for those with a visible difference.

Why do I feel more anxious on video camera?

The ‘mirror effect’

One strange side-effect of video-calling is the ability to see one’s image on-screen – creating a constant sense of ‘holding a mirror up to yourself’. This can feel especially disconcerting and distracting if you have a visible difference, as you may feel very self-conscious or as though certain features or aspects are being highlighted.

You might find yourself frequently drawn to look at your reflection, and you may feel worried, self-conscious or pre-occupied about the way you look.

You may find that you spend more time checking your own appearance than looking at anybody else – and you wouldn’t be alone! In one survey, six in ten people said they felt more self-conscious on camera than in real life, and 30% said they spent more than half of their video call time looking at their own face.

‘Help! I feel like I’m having to perform’

You may feel much more self-conscious and shy – both about your appearance and the limitations of how you can express yourself on a video-call. This might cause you to feel very anxious and you may try to find ways to compensate, in ways that can feel unnatural – like nodding or smiling a lot more that you normally would.

You may feel that you can’t break eye-contact, as you would naturally in a face-to-face interaction, in case this is seen as a lack of interest. It takes a lot of concentration and energy to ensure people know you’re paying attention. It can be exhausting – this is sometimes called ‘Zoom fatigue’. It may make you feel robotic, ‘on show’, or like you are performing or not being ‘you’.

Connectivity issues and body language

We rely on body language and tone of voice to understand each other – but issues with connectivity, voice distortion, freezing, sound delays can get in the way of this and conversations may feel unnatural or stilted. You may be unsure when it’s your turn to speak, or worry you haven’t made your point, expressed your interest or been understood. This can be even more challenging if you look different or your face moves in a different way.

Juggling different roles in the same space

Think about the roles you perform, and where and when these happen. We may behave differently at work or school, compared with how we are at home, or with family/friends. We all wear different ‘hats’ at different times in different places.

Juggling all these roles from one space – your home – can be hard. At any given time, your living space may be your home office, a makeshift school, the gym, socialising space, as well as where you cook, eat and sleep. You may feel on edge, cooped up, or stressed at the loss of control. You might find yourself reluctant to do things you normally would, because of having to do them online.

The crossover can feel intrusive, as your personal and professional/educational worlds become temporarily merged. You may worry that others can overhear you in ‘work mode’, or that people are judging the look of your house, its tidiness or your taste in décor.

So, what can I do?

  1. Make your environment calm and comfortable. If possible, try to have separate areas for work or study and socialising and relaxing, even if a different part of the same room.
  2. Communicate with the people at home. Explain you need the space and ask them not to enter at certain times, so you are not overheard or observed. You could put a sign on the door when you are on a call, so you are not disturbed.
  3. Play around with different lighting, positions and backdrops and see how they make you feel. Lots of people find natural light that shines evenly on their face to be flattering. You may prefer to be lit from a certain angle – experiment, and see what makes you feel the most confident and relaxed.
  4. Hide your video window. If you’re finding yourself distracted by checking your appearance, you might like to stay on camera but hide your window from view – most video-conferencing software has this option.
  5. Turn your camera off. There may be times when it does not feel comfortable to have your camera on – we all feel like this at times and the others on the video call should be supportive of that decision. You may wish to raise this with your employer or friend to explain. There may also be other reasons, such as having your children or partner around, your wifi is too slow to sustain video, or wanting to concentrate on looking at something or take notes.
  6. Have a phone call instead – take a break from video and have a phone call instead.
  7. Take regular breaks. Allow yourself breaks between video calls – when scheduling them, leave some time in between to relax, make a cuppa, take a small walk or stretch a little.

You may also be interested in looking at our information on self-care and relaxation or our COVID-19 resource hub.

COVID-19: advice and support


Practising self care


Relaxation to manage anxiety


If you are a parent, guardian, teacher or youth worker, you can try these resources for children instead.

What can I do about my anxiety?


How can I relax?


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