Do you keep your Video ON during meetings? I do. Mostly. I’m not too shy, nor am I embarrassed about my hair popping out like a bent antenna under my headphone. Well, that’s what I tell others, but I have to admit a secret— I pep up my appearance before I hit the Video ON button.

I got caught doing that. Once, I was alone in the chambers of a zoom call, waiting for others to join. I hurriedly tidied up my hair by squinting into the digital version of me. I moved close to the camera, like one would do in a powder room of a dim lit restaurant and arched my face in various angles to see how my hair looks. I didn’t realise my colleague had logged in and caught me at the end of my face exploration. That was the first time I realised, Video OFF has some reeeaaaal good advantages.

Since the 2020 WFH phenomenon, people can be sorted into two camps— the video ON camp vs the video OFF camp, as social intentions have changed. Before 2020, power dressing came from expensive clothes— now it comes from free digital backgrounds. Before 2020, you’d show attendance in boring meetings by prying your sleepy eyes open– now OFF your video and sleep or snore– this is the new digital attendance-by-proxy!  How did people get into these camps? Which camp are you in?

More than half of my colleagues don’t put their videos ON. They were not born like this— they were slowly agonised into shutting their videos. The camera isn’t always kind, and neither are people. “What happened to your hair?!”, “You look different”, “You didn’t shave!” are all comments innocently made— but not taken easily. The homely look– offset hair, no makeup and un-ironed t-shirts which has become default and dominant— were met with “You look sick today? All ok?”. This forced numerous people as innocent refugees into the video OFF camps. No man wants to be judged on an unshaven day, and no woman wants to be mistaken for sick the day she gave her kajal a break.

In my meetings, I watch my Video OFF colleagues’ pictures. They talk from inside that picture circle– imitating radiating sound waves like a boombox. Sometimes I wonder, what do they look like, behind that circular frame? What are they doing, behind the curtains of a switched OFF video? Surfing Twitter? Writing emails? Nose-picking?

In meetings where my video is OFF, I sometimes push my chair back, stand up to go hang out with the mirror. Still listening in on the meeting, I deeply scoop out some lipstick from the already dented lipstick palette— using varied colours to paint my lips. What if someone asks a question while I’m not at my desk? I can’t take that guilt, and I hurry back. Last time all of it took me 17 seconds. Standup, dash to the mirror, pout, paint, keep the lipstick down, and hurry back to the desk.

 Once in a blue moon, in a meeting, we might request all employees to put their video ON— you can almost hear a silent scurry and a loooong delay in videos turning ON. You’re sure the attendees would have hit a bed corner in their hurry to get to their mirror, to pass the needles of a quick comb through their hair, and limp back in time — to look neat for the online show. 

Since I cannot change too much of how I look, I have invested heavily in how my background looks. There is a burst of fake flowers behind me, the pink petals glued together to make tulips, enticing many digital onlookers to ask “Wow, are they real?”. There’s an antique alarm clock I’ve perched on the window— and the wall behind me, has a mural of stickers of random words like “HEART, TREASURE, HONESTY” in different fonts. So dolled is my background that one might wonder if I’m trying hard to live inside an Instagram account of an IKEA Store. 

Meanwhile, I have a bad hair day today— lucky me, I just reached out to the video OFF button. I am wondering how I’ll go back to the physical office— there’s no video OFF button when I want to re-apply my faded lipstick or tweet through a boring meeting!