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Frame from Susanna Abler’s “BFRB.” Animation by Susanna Abler.

PAWS FOR ART: Student animator outshines mental health stigmas

Bright colors and naive stylization punctuate senior animation major Susanna Abler’s animated short, simply entitled “BFRB,” representing her own struggles with body-focused repetitive behaviors.

Hair-pulling, nail-biting and skin-picking are all manifestations of body-focused repetitive behaviors, disorders that affect at least one in twenty people. Abler’s short is deceptively informative, playfully depicting her own repetitive behaviors through gardening metaphors: de-weeding, mowing and digging. The initial childlike whims morph into frantic pulling, scraping and picking, revealing the true nature of BRFB. The simple narrative along with her creative imagery successfully informs the viewer about the damaging yet unconscious nature of BFRBs.

People who are diagnosed with a BFRB have self-grooming habits that escalate into compulsive rituals, leaving them with feelings of little to no control over these repetitive behaviors. Despite being so prevalent, individuals coping with these painful behaviors rarely vocalize their experiences. 

Some of her own repetitive behaviors stem from anxiety and that attempts for relief, seen through examples of compulsions, cause even more anxiety because the results are so visible. She shared that “[BFRB] is an unending cycle and putting [the animation] out there helped break the cycle a little bit.”

“BFRB” has been screened at the Lightstruck! Film Festival and at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County’s Undergraduate Research and Creative Achievement Day 2019. When she originally started creating the short in her Intro to Animation class, “it opened up a lot of opportunities to talk about [BFRBs] with my friends.” Now that her friends are more conscious, they let her know when she’s engaging in repetitive behaviors, so she can stop the process.

For friends and family of persons living with a BFRB, helping them stop the cycle is not as simple as pointing it out. Abler suggests that they do it subtly, such as by putting their hand on the hand performing the ritual. Many individuals repeat their behaviors unconsciously, so verbalizing it can be shocking and embarrassing for them. By allowing them to realize where their hand is, they can actively stop the process themselves.

After screenings, some audience members shared that Abler’s animation was their first exposure to BFRBs. When asked if anyone diagnosed with BFRB approached her afterward, she explained that, while there may have been audience members who related to her experience, the stigma is far too pervasive. Many individuals living with the illness are scared to speak up about their own experiences, fearful of being judged. 

Now that her friends and family have seen “BFRB,” Abler feels more comfortable and accepting of herself. She described feeling like her repeated behaviors are “weird” and off-putting, but that is not the case. Mental illness can be an isolating experience, but portraying illness through a visual medium like art garners deeper empathy and understanding. In sharing her experience in “BFRB,” Abler realized how much support and love she has, as her friends and family have rallied around her.

Readers are encouraged to watch Abler’s “BFRB” at She also posts art and animations on her Instagram handle @susannasartinsta, as well as her Youtube channel. For individuals wanting to learn more about BFRB, information can be found at

Article by Brianna Harper.