By Hajrah Yousaf
TW: Body Dysmorphic Disorder
Hashim describes it as being hypnotized.
As much as he wants to stop looking into a warped version of himself in the mirror, he just can’t stop. No matter how exhausted he gets (and exhaustion is always a given), he can’t look away. The vision in the mirror is a snake charmer, and boy is Hashim charmed.
No, “charmed is the wrong word,” Hashim says. “It’s more like being repulsed yet still transfixed. If I could look away, I would.”
Hashim suffers from Body Dysmorphic Disorder (BDD), which is a psychological disorder recognized by the DSM 5 and characterized by a preoccupation with a perceived flaw(s) in one’s appearance. These flaws cause a lot of emotional distress and can often impact one’s functioning. BDD is frequently accompanied by other mental illnesses such as OCD, anxiety, depression, and also low self-esteem.
One way the symptoms of the disorder present themselves for Hashim is by prompting him to continuously check his appearance in the mirror. He admitted to having spent hours looking at his reflection and criticizing his weight. Regretting all this wasted time, he wished he’d spent it studying, getting some much-needed sleep, or taking care of his well being in general.
This particular symptom isn’t only faced by Hashim. Zara recalls being surrounded by mirrors in her A levels classrooms. “I am kind of obsessed with mirrors ever since I went to that school. I can’t not look at myself in the mirror because I need to see myself looking pretty so that no one else can see me ugly,” she says. “The irony of the situation is that I am currently looking in the mirror, watching myself speak,” she laughs.
With classes being online on Zoom, Zara faces having a mirror in the classroom once more: having her video on lets her see her reflection constantly. “It’s like being in class but having a huge mirror in front of you, and that is not healthy,” she sighs. She reports being unable to relax or concentrate in class because she’s always conscious of how she looks.
Unlike Hashim and Zara, Nirmeen never had issues with mirrors. Their reflection in a phone camera did seem to bother them, and the problem has been exacerbated with Zoom classes. They even recall trying to rearrange their furniture so as to catch their study-table in the best light. “I’m scared to drink water because I’m worried about how I’d look on camera. And these aren’t things that you think about in a traditional class setting since you’re not staring at other’s faces and they’re not staring at yours.” This forces Nirmeen to be confronted with their appearance and also makes them feel watched, self-conscious, and distracted.
Similarly, Nimra resorts to remaining physically still for the entirety of her classes so as to counteract the anxiety she feels about being able to see herself continuously. When she’s not motionless, she’s usually shaking. The back pain caused by stiff shoulders due to anxiety doesn’t seem to help, either. As of now, Nimra is unable to concentrate when an instructor is speaking or make notes. She’s always focused on how crooked she sees her nose as or is constantly comparing her weight or skin to the many videos next to hers.
What’s more, unaccommodating instructors make it even worse. According to Nimra, all her SDSB classes require her video to be switched on. If it is switched off for even a second, the instructors cold call her. They often also call people out for fixing their hair, etc., which only adds to the stress that Nimra feels. Under these conditions, going to class is an ordeal for her, and she is unable to reap many of the benefits of her education.
This particular uneasiness isn’t limited to students, either. Rahima is an alumnus and often uses Teams (an application similar to Zoom) for her work meetings. She usually keeps her video off. However, it is required at times. “I try to stay as still as possible and hope to not catch any attention,” she admits, a tactic similar to Nimra’s. “I’m not able to concentrate on the meeting at all, that’s for sure,” she replies, when asked about whether it affects her functioning. Rahima suspects her BDD is related to her OCD and that it makes some of her other conditions, including anxiety and depression, even worse.
Now, some readers may be inclined to suggest the ‘hide self-view option’ on Zoom. However, conversations with these people reveal that this isn’t a great solution and can even make the problem worse. “I can’t turn self-view off because I can’t not look at myself,” Zara explains. “If I don’t know what I look like, but everyone else sees me not looking beautiful, that is not okay with me.” In this way, this option adds to her anxiety. Similarly, Nimra recalls constantly imagining what she looks like even when she has the ‘hide self-view’ option enabled.
Many individuals are suffering through online classes (and meetings) in various ways. These problems don’t usually get talked about often because of the sufferer’s reluctance to do so. Yet, we must have these conversations and bring such issues to the administration’s notice because they have very potent impacts on people’s lives. Zoom is far from the perfect solution to the problem of online classes, as these conversations show. Adding to it, the fact that some instructors make it worse, the effects on students are devastating.
*Names have been changed to maintain anonymity.