Ever since kindergarten, school has been a home for me. It’s where I made friends, where I shared meals with other classmates, where I lost my first tooth, where I learned about how babies are made and where I learned Santa Claus wasn’t real. My parents and school are the two things that have most shaped me into who I am today. Yet, I don’t think I was fully able to appreciate how much school shaped me until we went virtual. It’s incredible how quickly new habits formed. Instead of constantly looking towards the clock, I found my eyes drifting towards self-view. Shoes used to be one of the most important parts of my outfit, but now checking the top of my head for frizz is what I’m most preoccupied with. The anxiety of stepping into the student center has been replaced with the anxiety caused by turning on my video. Though my habits have changed, the reasons behind them have not. Social acceptance, self-expression, and gender norms have remained, even in a virtual setting.
I reached out to female-identifying students within the Urban community to see to what extent virtual school has exemplified or subdued certain aspects of the female student experience.
“I feel like [virtual school] makes me a lot more insecure about myself as a whole.” Lauren Edwards ‘22 said “I get really insecure about how I present to other people [and] end up staring at myself the majority of the class.” Although Edwards knows she can turn off her self-view she said, “I know that other people are staring at me, so I need to have it on.” She said this dynamic was “weird and kind of sucks.”
Talia Harrison ‘22 agreed, she said “[it] is really distracting to see my face, and I keep looking at it to see if it’s flattering or what kind of face I’m making.”
The heightened emphasis put on appearance through self-view worries Page Sparks ‘24. She said, “that’s really powerful about being at school. It’s like, you get to know the people through their personalities rather than just how they look. And I think that that’s what is really missing, at least right now.”
However, Edwards also said, “I feel like I don’t have to dress up to impress anyone because I’m just in my home.” This highlights the complexities of how female-identifying students present themselves in virtual school. While appearance is more at the forefront of one’s mind, students are also given more control over how they choose to present.
Sparks said, “I always prop my camera [up] so it’s just my head. And I do that on purpose.” This way, she doesn’t have to worry about other students looking at parts of her body.
However, more control can also lead to an increase in body image issues, warns Harrison. She said that because “you’re around a mirror all the time, you can body check all the time.” She said, virtual school also gives you “so much more time to think about what you’re eating.”
Additionally, breaks can no longer be spent around other students, so Harrison often spends her breaks on TikTok. She said, “on Tik Tok I see like, these perfect women and like, they’re perfect.” She believes this makes it hard when “you’re at home and comparing yourself to perfect photos because you’re not around real bodies all the time.”
Edwards said she also “feels like I don’t have a real sense of what most people our age look like.” Having social media as the only safe means of communication, whilst the pandemic continues to pose a great risk means that Edwards is only able to see a highly edited version of how her female-identified classmates look.
Not only does virtual school emphasize unrealistic body standards, Harrison also said, “some of the differences for girls versus boys [are] reinforced by Zoom.” Specifically, Harrison remembers an English class where “boys would be sitting in their beds every class and my teacher never said anything. But I would wear a hoodie and my teacher would be like, ‘you look like you’re not here today.’”
The format of Zoom also plays into the hands of male privilege. Male-identified students often use the option to turn off their camera and microphone, Sparks said, which “[makes] it really easy for the male-identified students to…ignore me.”
Harrison agreed, and said that muted black screens of male-identified students made her feel “so intimidated.” She said that because of this, “I’ve still found it pretty hard to speak up in all-male breakout rooms.”