In every Zoom meeting I attend, there’s at least one person using a virtual background. It ranges from a peaceful beach to the main entrance of my university to city skylines. My personal favorites are the people who record cheeky phantoms of themselves entering and exiting the frame every so often.
Maybe you’ve tried out one of these backgrounds yourself. I haven’t, but I do know that I’m cautious about what people can see when I turn on my camera.
I’ve set up two spaces within my room that I allow others virtual access to: the big brown chair at my desk and the carved headboard of my bed.
I’m either sitting alert for more serious gatherings or laid back in bed for more casual ones.
Either way, these are the spaces I’ve curated.
There are things just out of frame that I don’t want people to see. For example, when the camera turns on I banish my teddy bear to the foot of my bed. Or the fact that from the waist-up I look professional in a well-ironed shirt while the truth is I’m lounging in grey sweatpants.
Most recently, I laughed out loud during class when a friend joked that I looked like a model. “It’s the hair blowing in the wind and the drink in your hand,” he said.
In reality, I was in my pajamas sitting right next to the fan on its highest setting. I was drinking mate to keep me awake and trying to ignore the sounds of the television and the dogs barking from the living room.
For me, these are lighthearted examples of how people can curate the way they present themselves online. I don’t believe that there’s anything inherently bad about this.
Even when meeting others in person, I pay careful attention to how I look and decide which aspects of my personality to show or restrain, depending on who I’m with and the context.
What I do think warrants caution is that now more than ever, with physical intimacy replaced by a virtual one, it is important to practice vulnerability.
Having the power to control exactly how I show up on someone else’s screen, it’s a conscious effort to resist the temptation of hiding behind that facade.
In person, there are many more nonverbal and environmental cues that others can pick up on in discerning how I am feeling. Sitting in the comfort of my own home, I’ve felt the need to more actively try to be vulnerable and honest about how I’m doing.
For instance, if a friend had come over in person they would have noticed that even after a month back home I had yet to unpack my luggage, in denial about the situation I’d found myself in.
This isn’t something I would let them see from my spot at my desk. I would want to come across as someone who is adapting well to the changes in her life.
It may be easier to put up barriers shielding myself from perceived judgement but at the end of the day those barriers further isolate me in a time that I need to feel reassured that I am loved and cared for as I am.
As Brené Brown defines it in her Netflix special The Call to Courage, vulnerability is having the “courage to show up and be seen when you can’t control the outcome” and it invites an authentic sense of belonging.
This often starts with being honest with yourself before being able to speak honestly with others.
I’ve had many experiences of catching myself in the middle of brushing off something that actually was bothering me. In these moments, I recognize that I’m performing a cheerfulness that I don’t really feel.
And for what? To trick people into thinking I’m feeling better than I am?
In these moments, I recognize that I’m performing a cheerfulness that I don’t really feel.
Interrogating the reasons I try to come across in a certain why reveals truths that are hard to confront. I’m not the kind of person who’s been baking and finding other productive, wholesome ways of spending the quarantine.
On the contrary, I’m finding this an incredibly difficult time to do even the bare minimum. And I’m ashamed of that.
As difficult as it may be, it’s important that I reckon with how honest I am being with myself and others, especially now with the added ways in which I can hide behind a mask in virtual communication.
Vulnerability isn’t supposed to feel comfortable. But it is worthwhile.
It can lead the way to a meaningful sense of social connection and sustain a feeling of belonging in a time when we need it the most.
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