How body dysmorphia can be fueled by online learning

By Margaret Spratt

Most college and university students face the decision to turn their camera on or off every morning before school./MARGARET SPRATT

Camera on, or camera off?

It seems like a simple decision, but for students learning from home, this question can change the way they see themselves.

Ray Lyttle, 20, is a transgender student at the University of Winnipeg. He is currently learning from home. Lyttle began transitioning in 2020 when classes initially moved online. He said body dysmorphia deeply affected him during Manitoba’s first quarantine.

“I wasn’t on testosterone then,” said Lyttle. “And now I’m dealing with it [body dysmorphia] less because I’m on T and my face is changing shape.”

Lyttle said he would keep his camera off, otherwise he’d be too distracted to focus in class.

“I didn’t want my face to clock me,” said Lyttle. “And I also didn’t want to be reminded that this is how I look.”

‘Clocked’ is a term in the trans community. It means people are able to identity you as trans because of your appearance. Lyttle said that sometimes his face would change and contort—skewing his self-perception.  

“It was really disorienting to not know what I looked like,” said Lyttle. “So I kept my camera off.”

Online classes have disrupted Lyttle’s identity as a learner. His body image issues were less severe when classes were in-person, he said. 

“When we don’t have a relationship with one another, when we don’t experience space together, I feel like all we’ve got is how we look like on a screen,” said Lyttle. 

Ray Lyttle sits at his desk completing homework on April 5./NAOMI WOODFIELD

Lyttle isn’t alone in feeling that way. 

Danna McDonald is a student counsellor at the University of Manitoba. She said she’s seeing a staggering increase in students needing help and, at the same time, a decrease in student’s positive self-image.

Being on video all the time gives people the opportunity to scrutinize their appearance more, she said. She’s noticed how people are turning to the internet to find connection—but that connection is a double-edged sword.

“We’re seeing less real people, and we have less exposure to what reality is,” said McDonald.

Instead, students are being exposed to heavily edited images. And that’s where the comparisons occur. McDonald said there are two changes students can make to combat body image issues.

The first is to follow feeds that show size diversity, racial diversity and ability diversity, which offer a different lens of body-affirming media.

The second is to notice when you’re comparing yourself to others and to call yourself out “gently and compassionately.”

Lyttle said to combat his body dysmorphia, routine is everything. He said showering can be the difference between a good day and a bad day.

“The more habitable you can make it [your body], the easier it will be to be kind to it.”

Students can use the counselling or other student supports at their own schools, or reach out to organizations like Klinic if they need help.

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