“Why Is Your Avatar So Sexy?” Choice and the Two Cultures

“Why is your avatar so sexy?”

A number of years ago, I was a participant in a virtual presentation in and about Second Life that was projected upon a large screen to a group of academics in RL. I myself was only present virtually – I was in fact some 200 kilometers away – but another participant, a young female graduate student, was both “in-world” and in the same room as those viewing the presentation.

At the conclusion of the presentation, the graduate student (whom I will call “An”) was approached by a professor, a young woman whose very interesting work lies in the field marked by the intersection of feminist studies and First Nations studies. I know her (although not so well as I know the graduate student) personally: she has also always been strongly supportive of young scholars, and offers herself as a sort of mentor. It was in this capacity, I think, that she approached the graduate student following the presentation and asked her, privately, the question with which I have opened this post: “Why is your avatar so sexy?”

When I was first told of this afterwards by “An,” my initial response was irritation. It struck me at the time as a classic “Gotcha!” moment, a transparent attempt to call out someone whose feminist “credentials” were apparently wanting. In fact, it had not occurred to me that the avatar employed by “An” was particularly sexualized: she was curvy in a typically Second Life way, of course, but she was quite modestly dressed, and wore, moreover, a white “archangel” skin and eyes that (in theory, at least) might be seen to be subverting RL norms of feminine beauty.

I discussed this incident recently with “An,” who remains a good friend (and who has given me permission to quote her here). She confessed that her first reaction was surprise and defensiveness:

Conventionally sexual features are SO ubiquitous in SL that it surprised me that she brought it up. She was not familiar with the general look of most avatars. Anyone who lives in SL would look at me as if I were a noob (white, featureless skin?), yet from her perspective I must have looked as if I were simply recreating conventional hyperreal feminine stereotypes.

Although one interpretation offered by my friend was that her avatar didn’t look “professional” enough for an academic context, her comments above come, I think, nearer to the truth: there is a slippage in cultural expectations about appearance, sexuality, and behaviour between RL and SL. What is normative in one translates poorly, or as an often grotesque parody, into the other.

A great deal has been written about Second Life and gender expectations or body image, but what I think is often missed is that the cultural correspondences between SL and RL are remediated by what “An” calls “the hyperreal.” Real life culture and assumptions about sexuality suggest that large breasts and long legs are “sexy.” “Hyperreality” means that, in Second Life, these characteristics become manifested transcendentally: a female avatar that has been consciously marked as “sexy” doesn’t merely have “long legs,” she is mounted on fleshy stilts. Large breasts, in a Second Life context, are not merely DD cups; they are enormous nippled zeppelins tethered, if only barely, to the torso by revealing skin-tight tops.

Prim Breasts

The current vogue for prim breasts is making it much more difficult to find room on the dance floor. These ones for sale are . . . “Natural.”

It’s important to realize that “hyperreal” in this context doesn’t merely mean “larger” or “longer.” These avatar features (along with puffy pouting lips, giant mounds of hair, super-sized hips, over-sized eyes, etc.) signal “sexiness” in a way that their RL analogues don’t for the simple reason that they are the products of conscious choice. In real life, most women have relatively little control over their body shape (although surgical options are, of course, challenging that); a woman with large (natural) breasts is not making a “statement” about her sexuality merely by virtue of having large breasts.

The Second Life Noob

Congrats! You’re the proud parent of a sexy bouncing baby consumer!

In Second Life, of course, this is not true. A hypersexualized body type is, to a great degree, a conscious choice, and for that reason a public statement of a kind. So a “sexy” appearance is hyperreal not merely because it is an exaggerated version of real life sexual characteristics, but because it is a conscious and deliberate articulation of “sexiness.” It is a public communication about ourselves.

The issue of “choice” then is absolutely central to understanding the difference between the “two cultures,” the RL and the SL, something that “An” certainly understood as a component of her response to the accusation of being too sexy:

I guess I would have been defensive anyway, because SL is about “choice” right – I want her to look pretty, not dowdy. Because I have too many “dowdy” business outfits myself in real life. She doesn’t HAVE to dress like me.

Choice changes everything. The standard SL avatar shape for both males and females — the shapes that we don’t consciously choose, but that we are (as it were) “born with” in SL —  are strongly sexualized by RL standards, but, precisely because they do not involve choice, are not particularly “sexy” in Second Life. To have a “sexy” body type in this context involves work, and it may involve money.

Décolletage

Look Ma! No décolletage!

My own choices about the appearance of my avatar reflect many of these contradictions, and my ambivalence about self-representation and identity in a virtual context. My avatar dresses relatively conservatively: she doesn’t wear really short skirts, nor tops that are slit open to the navel, but there’s not much question that I clothe her in things that she looks good in. I’ve also tried to make her look somewhat older: I have no wish to relive my 20s in either virtual or real worlds.

But avoiding the hypersexualized characteristics of Second Life females is difficult. When I first fiddled with her shape, I consciously avoided the Amazonish look so prevalent among female avatars in SL. I gave her a “realistic” height for RL (about 5’8” or so), reduced her breast size, thickened her torso a little, and shortened her legs relative to her body.

This, however, immediately created problems. Most pose balls don’t work well with avatars that are drastically shorter than the SL norm. What is more, in social contexts, I found that she tended to look like (and was perhaps even being perceived as) a young teen, if not a child. That perception, as we all know, can create real problems in Second Life, and was certainly not one I wanted to encourage.

And finding clothing, especially mesh, that fit properly has been a problem. This has been most pronounced with regard to my avatar’s breasts, which are simply not large enough to fill out the capacious area allotted for the female chest in most mesh outfits.

So, I’ve found that I’ve had to compromise. I’ve increased my avatar’s height somewhat (although she is still very short by SL standards), and given her slightly larger breasts: it would no longer be possible to fit a thickish dictionary or telephone directory down her top.

Through all of this, however, I have not compromised my avatar’s general attractiveness. Although I suppose much might depend upon how one defined the term, I think I would agree that my avatar is “sexy,” or at least attractive enough that she could easily be perceived as an object of desire — in a real life context. But within the community of Second Life? Well, not so much. I don’t think my avatar “turns heads” when she walks into a virtual room.

Of course, my own approach to my avatar’s appearance highlights the importance of choice, but also its limitations. My choice is limited because I don’t determine what is read as “sexy” or “ugly” or attractive: the cultural context does that. If I wish to communicate “sexiness,” I’d have to conform, to a great degree, to the way that this is defined in Second Life. And my choice is also limited by the “material” and “physical” assumptions of the technology. (Interestingly, while I know that many anxiously await the introduction of fitted mesh so that they can better accommodate large prim breasts, I myself am looking forward to being able to reduce mine somewhat, so that my boobs are no longer swimming around inside of my mesh tops like killer whales in a petting tank.)

A key point, however, is that my modifications to my avatar are a conscious choice, a decision to conform less to Second Life than to real life conventions regarding attractiveness and sexuality. I am aware of this, and understand the problematic nature of that choice, but it remains what I want. I’m not sure I can even articulate a good reason for this choice, but I am reasonably sure that it is not “ideological”: I don’t think I am consciously protesting against the perpetuation, and exaggeration, of gendered stereotypes in Second Life. Nor am I an “augmentationist,” who wants Second Life to resemble as closely as possible RL.

Both of these appear to be the motivation behind a Second Life group that calls itself “Ugly Avatars”:

Ugly Avatars — this is a group for those guys who have chosen not to look like an 8 foot tall mountain of muscle, or for those women that don’t inflate their breasts to epic sizes.

You don’t necessarily have to be ugly to join this group, this is moreso a group for those people who have created an avatar for themselves that is unique, that doesn’t necessarily fit into any of the SL cliches.

Ugly Avatars

Being Ugly and Old is a Labour of Love for some. Source: Group Profile for “Ugly Avatars”

It would be interesting (although I have neither the time nor inclination) to determine the reasons why the individuals belonging to a group such as this might make the conscious choice to employ “ugly” avatars. Are they Augmentationist Extremists? Are they protesting against gendered sexual stereotypes? Do they find “ugly” avatars amusing? All that I can say for certain is that looking unattractive, by RL standards, in Second Life requires effort and work. Like those who labour at communicating “sexiness,” ugly and aged avatars must work hard at achieving Greatness in aesthetic failure. And I think it is probably also true that “ugliness” in Second Life is most often also “hyperreal”: it is more ugly, and more self-consciously self-referential, than RL ugliness, an effect that it achieves through something like parody, grotesqueness, and the wearing of really crappy SL merchandise.

And this brings us back to “An,” mildly chastised for being “too sexy.” To have been less sexy in a RL context would have necessitated her deliberately choosing to be “ugly” by the standards applied in Second Life. “An,” already well-acquainted with standards of beauty and sexuality in SL, was caught off-guard because the possibility of the deformation of meaning that would result from translation from one world to the other had not occurred to her.

What has become more and more apparent to me over time is that there is only an indirect and complicated correspondence between such meanings in Second Life, and those of real life. And this, I think, is where so many critiques — like that levelled against “An” — go wrong. Academic or ideologically-driven critiques are particularly prone to this error, because their focus is almost exclusively upon real life meanings, and Second Life expressions of identity are employed by them in a purely instrumental capacity. Most academics (and ideologues) who study Second Life don’t do it for its own sake, and don’t really read SL by the light of its own cultural assumptions: instead, they are looking for “applications” to real life, ways of translating what they find here directly, and without remediation, into insights about what is, in effect, a very different (if related) RL culture, one that possesses very different ways of signifying particular meanings.

Arguably, extreme Augmentationists make the same assumptions. An interesting example of this is SL artist Gracie Kendal, who is, in real life, multi-media artist Kristine Schomaker. For Schomaker, struggling with body image issues in her real life, her avatar Gracie became a means to express her “real” essential being, who she actually was, independent of the social assumptions derived from her physical appearance.

Gracie, then, is an articulation of Kristine’s notion of an idealized self:

“Personally, I was asking myself why I created my avatar, known as Gracie Kendal, as, you know, this thin gorgeous blonde. You know, what was going on within me, where I wanted to be this ideal version of myself.” (Kristine Schomaker/Gracie Kendal)

Gracie Kendal

Kendal at her SL exhibition, “1000 Avatars.” Source: Alphaville Herald

To be honest, Kristine Schomaker’s understanding of the relationship between the avatar and the “real” person seems to me rather facile and, perhaps, a bit self-serving; Schomaker tends to characterize identity in the singular (as though we don’t deploy a multitude of identities for an endless variety of contexts), and she imagines the avatar as a sort of liberated representation of our “true” selves. But maybe I’m just being jealous: I don’t think I possess a “true self.”

What’s more, I think she’s wrong about Gracie: I don’t think her avatar would be perceived within Second Life by most as “thin” and “gorgeous.” Actually (and I don’t mean to sound unkind), Gracie is a rather run-of-mill female avatar. But I don’t think that matters much to Schomaker (and of course it shouldn’t matter much to us either), because she is not really very interested in how Gracie is read and understood within the context of SL culture: my suspicion is that it is how she translates into RL meanings that matters. In Schomaker’s case, that distortion, the mistranslation, is precisely what she is aiming for: her rather uninteresting avatar is transmuted, by this means, into a real life “bombshell.”

My reservations about Schomaker’s understanding of the relationship between avatar and “operator” notwithstanding, however, I have in at least one regard come around to a position somewhat closer to her own. Explaining why an artist who wishes to critique socially-determined ideals of beauty should choose to conform to those same ideals in Second Life, Schomaker notes:

I wanted to see what it would feel like to be thinner and taller and this knock-out gorgeous blonde. I mean, when you’re online, and you can be anything you want, why not, right?

Well, why not indeed?

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About Laskya Claren

I like to write. I am interested in stuff.
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