Oscar Holland, CNN
Avatars are nothing new — and nor is the idea that we care about how we look online.
As the drive towards immersive virtual worlds, or “metaverses,” gathers pace, personalized digital avatars have become more pervasive thanks to games like Fortnite and Roblox. But on the online platform Second Life, users have been able to create and customize their own digital appearances for almost two decades. And it was here that, in 2017, a body-shaming scandal laid bare an uncomfortable truth: Our real-life beauty standards will, invariably, follow us into the metaverse.
The incident began when an in-game fashion brand allegedly sent out offensive fat-shaming messages on a group channel. The label then embarked on a bizarre crusade against plus-size women. At its virtual store, which sold digital clothing aimed at thin avatars, the brand erected a “no fat chicks” sign alongside an image of a model wearing a crop top marked “no fat.”
Debate in the Second Life community ensued, and fuller-figured avatars began arriving at the store in protest. Some brandished customized placards (“I love you skinny, I love you fat,” read one, “diversity is all of that!”) while staging a sit-in demonstration.
As writer and longtime Second Life user Wagner James Au noted on his blog at the time, the foot traffic may have worsened matters by boosting the store’s visibility on the platform. The offending label’s owner certainly thought so. Another sign appeared thanking protesters for “promoting my brand, my store and my products… for free.”
Like most online flare-ups, the controversy died down within a few days. But according to Au, whose book “Why the Metaverse Matters” publishes next year, ongoing debates about Second Life’s customizable avatar shapes revealed a troubling undercurrent among certain users.
“People were saying, ‘You can be anything, you can be as beautiful as you want — or can afford — to be, so why are you choosing to be fat?'” he recalled in a video interview from California. “They got angry.”
Shifting standards for avatars
Things hadn’t always been this way. In fact, during the early years of Second Life, many users didn’t even look human, making it difficult to judge them against real-life standards.
“Avatar types used to be much more diverse,” said Au. “You were just as likely to find someone who was a fairy, or looked like an anthropomorphic animal or a robot — or some other fantastic combination of various identities — rather than what you might call a ‘Sims’ avatar that looks like a very attractive person in their 20s.”
The shift was, partly, technological. In 2011, amid improving graphics and processing power, Second Life allowed users to create 3D skins, or “meshes,” that could be uploaded to the platform. As a result, avatars’ appearances became increasingly realistic. On the one hand, this gave users more freedom to create characters that reflected what they really looked like — including those who preferred to appear curvier or heavier-set. On the other, it marked what Au called a “Pandora’s box” moment.
“It shifted both the culture and the economy around avatars,” he said. “Up until then, there was definitely much more tolerance for diversity of avatar types… But putting a premium on highly realistic, beautiful avatars amplified existing prejudices that we took from the real world into the virtual world.”
For those users whose avatars fall “outside the norm,” incidents of harassment still happen “all the time,” Au added. “Anyone with a large avatar is going to get at least a few nasty comments.”
If metaverses represent the internet’s next evolution, then platforms like Second Life — often dubbed the first metaverse — offer lessons for our digital future. For one, new platforms must decide how realistic avatars can be, and how much freedom users are given to alter their appearances.
Around 70% of US consumers, from generations X to Z, consider their digital identity to be “important” according to a 2021 study by The Business of Fashion. But, by empowering people to accurately recreate themselves, platforms may open the door to the bullying, harassment and even racism that unfolds in real life if users’ appearances don’t conform with prevailing beauty standards.
On Roblox, conversely, characters have a distinctly Lego-like appearance with highly simplistic faces, while Fortnite avatars often take the form of bipedal animals or robots. Decentraland avatars appear far more conventionally human. And while Mark Zuckerberg’s Meta has yet to unveil its full metaverse vision, the firm also appears to be opting for comparatively realistic figures. (Although cartoonish, the widely publicized Zuckerberg avatar is unmistakably him.)
Despite his experiences on Second Life, Au believes that the vast majority of online users want their virtual selves to be either “an idealized version of what they look like, or a completely different persona.”
“That’s why I’m kind of astounded that Meta is going on the assumption that you want to look like who you look like in real life,” Au said.
There is currently little consensus on the matter. How we choose to present ourselves in the metaverse may also depend on what we’re doing there. Socializing with friends and conducting work meetings, for instance, might call for significantly different avatars.
It may also vary between demographic groups. In a study published by the journal Proceedings of the ACM on Human-Computer Interaction, two Clemson University professors found that current virtual reality users “tend to present themselves consistently with their offline identity” when it came to physical features such as skin color and body shape. But this was particularly true of the study’s non-White participants, the researchers found.
“For (non-White users), presenting ethnicity is fundamental to create unique self-presentation in social VR,” the authors wrote, adding that just like in the real world, these avatars could be subject to social stigmas.
‘Freedom in abstraction’
From plus-size runways to genderless makeup, old beauty ideals are increasingly being challenged in today’s world. Eradicating them entirely from the real world is no simple task. But might there be a chance to sidestep these standards in virtual reality?
For artist and beauty futurist Alex Box, the metaverse offers an opportunity to tear down existing aesthetic conventions and rethink how we present ourselves.
“It’s very hard for people to imagine who they are without a body,” she said on a call from the Cotswolds region of England. “It’s a very different set of rules and ways of connecting with your identity if you say, ‘You’re just a shape, or you’re just an object.’
“But obviously, the more you go towards the abstract, the less you go towards body shaming, body logic, boundaries and ultimately everything that’s been forced upon us from the beginning of time about the rules of our bodies and autonomy. So, there’s freedom in abstraction,” she said, explaining that some people may opt for “a representation… of their energy, of their believed personhood, (or) something that is an extension of themselves.”
For now, users are being offered the familiar. Even platforms with unusual or playful avatars operate within conservative (or perhaps technologically necessary) parameters. They will usually have faces, eyes and hands, for instance. And, unlike us, they’re always symmetrical, too, Box noted. With the metaverse still in its early stages, the self-described identity designer predicts that the ways we can present ourselves — and thus how we perceive beauty and identity — will inevitably expand.
“Having infinite choice makes it very difficult for people to build,” she said. “If you can be anything, what do you choose? Do you just follow the same tropes as in real life? Yes, initially, I think people will. But then they’ll get bored.”
Quite what form such experimentation takes remains to be seen. And Box concedes that as long as sizeism and exclusionary beauty standards persist in real life, they will exist in some form online, too — especially when people are less accountable for their actions in virtual worlds than in the real one. (“People will be people… There’ll be trolls, there’ll be magic, there’ll be misgivings and there’ll be shaming because it’s people doing it,” she said).
The key to avoiding the kind of avatar-shaming seen in earlier iterations of the metaverse, Box argued, lies in ensuring that those building virtual worlds — the gatekeepers — themselves represent a broad range of races, shapes and sizes. For now, that appears to be an unlikely prospect. According to the US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, more than 83% of America’s tech executives are White and around 80% are male.
“The wider and more diverse the actual makers of the software are,” Box said, “the more diverse and closer you’ll get to a truth of identity in the choices that you have.”
Top image caption: Avatars from the online platform Second Life.
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