Why Zoom reflections are a feminist issue

Monday, September 14, 2020 - 2:32pm

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Illustration by Maggie Wiebe

Perhaps one of the most cursed images a young woman can conjure is the female dressing room — the one tucked in the backstage corner of every theatre, dance studio and concert hall. With its taunting mirrored walls and the rancid stenches of burnt hair and the nervous sweat only starved teenage girls can produce, the place is hellish in the most basic sense. 

Having grown up doing theatre and competitive show choir, I’ve experienced that hairspray-scented inferno countless times. Girls in dressing rooms like to act as though they’re unbothered by the horror of it all — the sheepish undressing and anxious glances in floor-length mirrors, frantically stuffing your clothes in the deepest corners of the room so no one sees how ugly your underwear is or how enormously-sized your jeans are. But, no matter how strong you like to think you are, the hyper-consciousness we, as women, already feel toward our bodies increases ten-fold the moment we walk through that door. We know that the quicker we undress, the less time other girls have to observe our stomach rolls or our stretch marks or, God forbid, that one patch of cellulite on your left thigh that no exfoliant can seem to alleviate. So, to minimize the gaze of the observer, you move like your life depends on it and get out of there as fast as you can.

I thought I had escaped this unforgiving landscape when I graduated high school. I was wrong. 

I was sitting in my third — but what felt like my ninetieth — Zoom class of the week when I took in the image of our virtual classroom, with its stacked profiles and rows of women staring into their reflection. A moment of clarity came over me as I realized what it really resembled: A dressing room — that horrific call to my girlhood. 

Zoom’s rectangular profiles act as the room’s mirrored walls. We may be in class, listening and participating, but we’re also primping. The girl mid-center fixes her hair there, then another girl on the bottom left corner adjusts her glasses. Another quickly sits more upright when she sees the look of her slouched posture in the camera.

As my professor went on about the class syllabus, all I could think about was this dystopian-looking and completely depressing grid of reflections: girls primping, then fixing, then checking, then fixing again. And I was doing it too — obsessively fixing my bangs, turning over my necklaces until they fell at the perfect spot on my chest, using the camera to analyze whether or not I was smiling enough in class. We were fidgeting robots, adhering to the automated voices in our head telling us to move our head, fix that one stray strand of hair, smile a bit more — anything to appease the cameras in front of us. We were stuck in a figurative dressing room, bound only by the strength of our internet connection, hyperconscious of our appearance, fixated on the reflections we saw.

So why do we fidget and primp our way through virtual classes?

Believe it or not, the narrative of women as vain creatures originated long before the time of cameras and video calls. A woman staring into a mirror — an image so sacred — is the product of centuries of historical, psychological and socio-political precedent — even Shakespeare was gifting us with sonnets about vanity, beauty and fertility as captured by a woman’s reflection.

At the beginning of the 20th century, American psychologists assigned terminology to this enduring phenomenon when they explored the notion of the “looking-glass self,” which asserts that a person’s sense of self is partially constructed by how others perceive them. While initial theorizing mostly mused on the non-physical sense of self, in later years there was a greater focus on the idea of the looking-glass self as applied to how women view our physical bodies.

Enter feminist theorist Simone de Beauvoir. Beauvoir argued that “when a girl becomes a woman, she becomes doubled; so instead of existing only within herself, she also exists outside herself.” Thus, once she enters womanhood, the adolescent girl is socialized to “exist outside herself,” or in other terms, objectify herself as others — usually men — would objectify her.

The psychological study of women’s self-objectification gained significant momentum when Barbara L. Fredrickson of the University of Michigan and Tomi-Ann Roberts of Colorado College gave this doubled womanly existence a name and a reason: objectification theory. The conjecture proposes that girls and women tend to internalize a third-person perspective — an observer’s perspective — as the principal view of their physical bodies. This internalized perspective can lead to shame (woohoo!), anxiety (fun!), self-disgust (sounds about right) and behavior of constant adjusting that psychologists like to call “habitual body monitoring.” 

Sounds familiar? That’s because this kind of obsessive preening is taking place in every Zoom call across campus, where you’re forced to stare at — and scrutinize — yourself in the camera for hours at a time. 

LSA freshman Rebekah Turner told The Daily how she has become accustomed to this very kind of behavior.

“The first week of classes, I didn’t necessarily feel pressure to look good for Zoom, but I could constantly see myself playing with my hair and looking at myself,” Turner said. “It is distracting thinking, ‘Oh, is my hair good? ... Should I do my makeup?’ I feel like I stare at myself a lot and think, ‘Oh, I look so bad.’”

We’re constantly trying to assume the perspective of this imaginary, third-person observer. And Zoom simply digitizes this experience. 

Turner said, “For my PoliSci class, there’s like 200 people there. It’s hard because I’m thinking, ‘Oh, is someone looking at me right now?’”

The way your female classmates check their profile image throughout Zoom lectures is not based on some shallow, girlish tendency to obsess over their appearance. It’s rooted in a deeply misogynistic notion we’re fed that our identity and our value rests entirely on how we are physically perceived by others. These enduring effects of self-objectification by women means sexism endures, deeply embedded in the subconscious. 

Turner summarized this experience in a few words: “(On Zoom,) you really are sitting in front of a mirror for an hour and a half,” she said.

I interviewed two other random students on the Diag about their Zoom experience, and the similarities between their remarks and Turner’s are striking.

Public Health junior Reem Farjo said, “I am definitely more aware of my appearance than when I was in in-person classes. It’s like if I showed up to class with a mirror.”

LSA freshman Gabi Skinner concluded with, “(On Zoom,) it’s like you’re sitting in front of a mirror, with 200 other mini-mirrors, so comparison is really, really easy.”

In Zoom classes, in dressing rooms, walking down a dark street, walking through a crowded lecture hall, we’re there and we’re outside ourselves, observing, self-criticizing, listening to our subconscious as we adjust appropriately, with a swift brush of the hair or tucking of the shirt, with a rapid Chapstick application or adjustment of our dress strap. We’re fixing like robots — like the very pixels making up your Zoom screens. This time around, virtual learning means we have a monitor to keep track of this obsessive primping and the habitual body monitoring. Just don’t call it laughable, don’t call it a distraction. Call it what it is: Sexism that endures and a true feminist issue.