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As far as I can tell, most Residents in Second Life choose to have physically spectacular avatars. Sometimes this means being a vampire or a furry or a gremlin or something…but most of us seem to settle for a Plain Old Human (well, sometimes a POH with wings) who is Plain Old Physically Attractive.

Honey, you call that an inventory?

Of course, opinions on what’s attractive vary from person to person, so there’s the whole question of whether a person’s idea of what makes his or her avatar look sexy is actually working, and how well, and on whom-but for the moment let’s settle for the idea of making your avatar attractive by your own measure.

Wanting to be sexy seems perfectly sensible to me. If we’re in a world where we can be and do anything, wouldn’t we want to be hotter than anyone we knew in high school? From what I’ve seen, most human beings would rather be sexually attractive than not even when they’re not trying to attract anyone. I think this is built in: your carefully devised Life Plan may say “stand pat”, but your genes will say “Attract a healthy mate! Now!”

I keep saying attractive or sexy when I want to say beautiful, but really, people are much more often trying to be sexy than beautiful. More of us want to look desirable than want to look aesthetically pleasing. Fortunately there’s some beauty in Second Life avatars, too, and of course that’s often mixed together with the sexiness, but I’ll put it out there: is there anything you would want to do to make your avatar not necessarily more attractive, but more beautiful? (You could make an argument that’s what my wings are for, but they’re more for metaphor than aesthetics. I like being a flying girl more than I like being a winged creature, although I’m happy to be both.)

So all this is natural and predictable, but at the same time it’s a little embarrassing. Second Life is one of the few situations I can think of where there’s a derogatory word for just being attractive: Barbie. There’s kind of an implication in using that word that there’s something wrong with being attractive. Some ideas: maybe it’s self-indulgent, or it denies the sometimes less obvious beauty of our Real Life selves, or it strikes some people as deceitful. Maybe it focuses all the attention on the externals, the surface things, the distracting coating of prettiness that hides the deep and important things in the world. Maybe it takes a perfectly good Virtual World and makes it difficult for anyone to just enjoy it without getting aroused. Maybe it masks individuality or encourages the idea that there’s a single standard of beauty. Maybe it creates unrealistic expectations of Real Life lovers.

For my money, there’s a little truth in most of those concerns, but only a little. If Second Life were capable of making really, really realistic-looking avatars, like it probably will be in five or ten years, instead of avatars that are halfway between a well-drawn cartoon and a magazine photo, then maybe it would be worth getting into avatars that were less physically attractive for some people-but even then I’m not really sure non-Barbie avatars would be that common. It’s probably an indication that our culture isn’t as healthy as it should be that so many of us-whether we’re very attractive in Real Life or not-don’t want to be unattractive as we relate to people. Or maybe it’s part of that built-in thing, just natural for a human being to always want to look good for everyone, no matter what. Either way, it’s a little sad for us. A person can still be beautiful and not be generally considered sexually attractive. And beauty is a little more of a public gift than sexual attractiveness, kind of like the difference between a gorgeous spring day and a really exciting dance club. The gorgeous spring day is just making your life a little more enjoyable no matter what you’re; the dance club is trying to make you come in and dance, and is distracting and useless if you’re not going to be dancing that night.

Um, no comment on there being winged Barbies

My friend Andr3 (I pronounce that “Andrie,” but she doesn’t know that, and there is no official pronunciation) is both sexy and beautiful. She has a long-limbed grace that seems to have come not just from a desire to be desirable, but a desire to create something visually stunning in the world. I know a lot more of you out there are doing this, but I’ve only just realized the distinction, so bear with me. 🙂

I know a few people who have purposely adopted more realistic avatars, avoiding sexual attractiveness. I’m sure this is easier for people who aren’t interested in Second Life sex, but even in that case it must be hard. In a world full of women with perfect breasts, who wants to be the ugly duckling, and is it worth the trouble? But it must yield some interesting insights, and I think a couple of those have been posted in the Second Life LiveJournal community at http://community.livejournal.com/second_lifers

And a lot more people have adopted avatars that are somewhat realistic but also potentially a bit gorgeous. This is my attempted approach: I don’t want the perfect supermodel face or breasts that draw the eyes of any unwary pedestrian, but I also built myself in a very particular way, with certain proportions and attempts at grace that make me happy. I don’t get a lot of “hey baby, great tits!” (which is a mercy) but I do get to appreciate the benefits of looking like I have designed myself to look, expressing what is desirable and beautiful in my mind. I get what I want out of being (to some people) beautiful: kind words, attention, pleasure in being me, pleasure in seeing someone else enjoy how I look…and the ability to wear horizontal stripes without looking like a hippo.

I think I can usually make a case that I’m not a Barbie, but if sometimes that label sticks, well, Barbie needs love too, and if it makes Ken happy-at least the versions of Ken that aren’t flamboyantly gay-then so much the better.