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First, can we all agree that a random sampling of Second Life avatars will usually give us a skinnier crop of people than a random sampling of First Life women? I admire those women who do their best to echo their First Life, heavier shapes with Second Life tools that are sometimes not entirely up to the task, but there aren’t many of them, so this entry is about the rest of us.

From left to right, Torrid Midnight, me, and Moran Singh, who writes a blog called Dilettanteville

And when I say “us”, I have to include myself. Like most Resis, I’m idealizing myself with my avatar, even though only by about ten pounds (and those ten pounds have been pretty stubborn, actually! Maybe someone can invent a controller for Second Life where dancing requires actual dancing!). For today I won’t concern myself with our proportions, the way we can get particular parts of ourselves to be just the way we might prefer then: I’ll just talk a little (well OK, a lot) about skinniness.

I have no idea whether Torrid and our blogger friend at Dilettanteville are idealizing or even (and I don’t mean any offense by this!) whether their First Life selves are female, but their shapes look to me in the usual range for (tasteful) women in Second Life, with Dilettanteville’s being on the skinny end of the scale. Torrid’s shape isn’t too skinny at all: she seems to have opted for rocking the curves. 🙂

Before I go much farther, I just want to mention that it was very hard to find pictures that could easily be compared. Since I couldn’t get people all facing in exactly the same direction, and anyway the pictures are just two-dimensional and we can’t get around-the-body measurements, I just did my best to size everyone to about the same scale and hope that we could learn some things by judging with our eyes.

All right, as to ideals: I’m going to completely ignore the whole thinspo thing (that’s people who think you’re not skinny enough if any of your bones aren’t showing) – although I’ve seen avatars who are very unhealthily thin, and I worry about their First Life counterparts and those people’s female friends, relatives, and lovers! But let’s move right on to movie stars and supermodels. I picked a couple of movie stars who need to look attractive but who don’t seem obsessed with thinness…and then for fun I threw in Kate Moss, who’s much too skinny and seems to like it that way. Let’s take a look.

Kate Moss, Renée Zellweger, and Sandra Bullock

OK, and for contrast (and a reality check!) here’s a group photo from a PTA convention (I’m not in it, by the way! The PTA isn’t quite my speed.), showing a nice range of shapes, neither of the extremes being healthy ones, but everyone wearing the shape they’ve managed to put together in First Life, no sliders allowed.

A range of real life women’s body shapes

Now let’s make some observations! I was worried that Second Life avatars might be upholding a painfully unrealistic standard. Although, really, you might ask me why this would be a problem. The thing is, while I think either a body type that reflects your First Life shape or an idealized but plausible shape is fine, an unrealistically slim body – one that wouldn’t be possible in First Life for most women – buys into the same problems we have with movie stars and supermodels, who are chosen (a friend pointed out to me) because their shapes look appealing when projected in two dimensions. In other words, the Kate Mosses and Angelina Jolies of the world aren’t successful because they’re really, really healthy, or because their bodies are ideally sensuous for real life passion, but because when you project them on a screen, something in men’s (and some women’s) minds revs up. Idealized body shapes aren’t beauty itself: they’re a hieroglyph for it! And they’re certainly not health itself.

Ancient Egyptians would have been able to read this movie poster…

So as a culture we’re brainwashing ourselves a little into confusing these cut-out shapes on a screen or a piece of paper with what we should look like in real life. Although when I say we’re doing it to ourselves, actually I think most of it is being done to consumers by businesses, some of whom, in a kind of cold-blooded and distanced way, notice that these hieroglyphs for beauty are good at selling things (movies, fashion, beer…), and so they keep pushing the envelope with them, and making them more and more widespread…and more and more extreme! I don’t know that this is actually evil of the businesses, but it’s not helping!

Which bombards us women (and to some extent men, in the way they think of women and in some ways themselves) with images that say “THIS, women, is what you’re supposed to look like!”

OK, OK, enough of Intro to Women’s Studies. What about in Second Life?

The thing is, in Second Life we get to create our own image of what we want to be. It’s like a self-expressive art class! So what images are we choosing?

I was worried that across the board we’d be unrealistic, foolishly exaggerated. But looking at the pictures, it doesn’t seem like that’s so! Some Second Life shapes are movie star-slim, or even just I-go-to-the-gym-a-lot-and-don’t-eat-carbs-slim, and while that’s not exactly the sanest picture of things, at least in those cases we’re not making things worse than they already are. In other cases, though, even among non-Thinspo avatars, we see bodies that are thinner than we could physically get without drastic surgery.

(Later addition: I wasn’t being entirely clear, so I’d better say I’m just talking about more-or-less human shapes, not people whose avatars are furries or robots or boxes of spaghetti or something.)

If you have an implausibly skinny shape, what are you telling yourself? If you’re a woman, are you trying to sell yourself on a shape you can never come close to having, and if so, is that making you happy or unhappy? If you’re a man, what are you telling yourself about what an attractive woman is? Have you ever snuggled up to an underweight woman? Does bony feel good?

Sorry, I’m lecturing. I try not to do that, but then sometimes I can’t stop myself. I’ll just do the cartoon thing and then hush. 🙂

Now, the cartoon thing is this: I’ve heard some people describe Second Life avatars as cartoons. That’s kind of disturbing, because I identify with my Second Life self, and I am most certainly not a silly little sketch of a person – and neither are you. If a person’s just using their avatar as a puppet, that’s fine, but it would be sweet if everyone would be willing not to use the words “toon” or “cartoon”, just because it will make the rest of us feel better. (But that’s part of the whole augmentationalist versus immersionist thing, which is just to say that some people use their avatars and others are their avatars.)

I think Disney Princesses have to get rid of some of their internal organs to fit more conveniently into the available wardrobe

But of course some people do design their avatars like cartoons, which is where we see the hieroglyphic thing taken to ridiculous lengths. I mean, cartoons are meant to exaggerate: real deer don’t have eyes nearly as big as Bambi’s! But I think some cartoons go too far, especially some of the ones that children watch over and over. Can Second Life help bring a little more sanity to body image? Or are we doomed to only reflect the most aggressive images that are pushed on us from the outside? And what else can we do beyond considering our own body shapes?

Later addition: You know, there’s something exciting about this! Usually only people involved in advertising, media and entertainment get to influence what ideals of womanhood everyone sees – virtual worlds finally give that power to everyone. So now that we have it, what shall we do with it?

^^^\ Kate /^^^