Virtual body shaming: Why the metaverse won’t fix our IRL beauty standards


Written by the author Oscar Holland, CNN

This story is part of CNN Style’s ongoing project, The September Issues: a think tank for conversations about fashion’s impact on people and the planet.

Avatars aren’t new, and neither is the idea that we care about how we look online.

As the evolution of immersive virtual worlds, or “metaverses,” gathers pace, personalized digital avatars have become widespread thanks to games like Fortnite and Roblox. But on the online platform Second Life, users have been creating and customizing their own digital appearances for nearly two decades. And it was here, in 2017, that a body-shaming scandal revealed an uncomfortable truth: our real-life beauty standards will always follow us into the metaverse.

The incident began when a fashion brand in the game posted offensive fat-shaming messages on a group channel. Then the label embarked on a strange crusade against plus-size women. In its virtual store selling digital clothing aimed at thin avatars, the brand posted a “fat free chicks” poster alongside an image of a model marked “fat free”.

Second Life avatars appeared in the virtual clothing store to protest. Credit: Wagner James Au/New World Notes

Controversy erupted in the Second Life community, and full-figured avatars began arriving at the store in protest. A number of personalized signs (“I love you skinny, I love you fat,” read one, “diversity is what it’s all about!”) held a sit-in demonstration.

As author and longtime Second Life user Wagner James Au noted on his blog, foot traffic may have made matters worse by increasing the store’s visibility on the platform. The owner of the offending label certainly thought so. Another sign appeared thanking the protesters for “promoting my brand, my store and my products… for free.”
Like most online giants, the controversy died down within days. But according to Au, whose book “Why the Metaverse Matters” is coming out next year, ongoing discussions about Second Life’s customizable avatar shapes revealed a troubling undercurrent among some users.

“People were like, ‘You can be anything, you can be as beautiful as you want, or you can afford it, so why choose to be fat?'” she recalled in a video interview from California. “They got angry.”

Changing avatar standards

Things were not always like this. In fact, in the early years of Second Life, many users didn’t even look human, and it was difficult to judge them by real-life standards.

“Avatar types were much more diverse,” Au said. “She was more likely to find someone who looked like a fairy or an anthropomorphic animal or a robot – or some other fantastical combination of multiple identities – than what you might call a very attractive ‘Sims’ avatar. People in their 20s.”

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The change was partly technological. In 2011, with improved graphics and processing power, Second Life allowed users to create 3D skins or “grids” that could be uploaded to the platform. As a result, avatar appearances became more and more realistic. On the one hand, this gave users more freedom to create characters that reflected what they actually looked like, including those who preferred to appear curvier or heavier. On the other hand, Au marked the moment called “Pandora’s box”.

“It changed the culture and the economy around avatars,” he said. “Until then, there was certainly much more tolerance for the diversity of avatar types… But the preference for beautiful, realistic avatars exacerbated existing prejudices by moving them from the real world to the virtual world.”

For users whose avatars fall “outside the norm,” incidents of harassment still occur “constantly,” Au added. “Anyone with a big avatar is going to get at least a few nasty comments.”

If metaverses represent the next evolution of the Internet, platforms like Second Life—often called the first metaverse—offer lessons for our digital future. On the one hand, new platforms must decide how realistic avatars can be and how much freedom users are given to change their appearance.

About 70% of US consumers, from Gen X to Z, consider their digital identity “important,” according to a 2021 study by The Business of Fashion. But by empowering people to accurately recreate themselves, the platforms can open the door to real-life bullying, harassment, and even racism if users’ appearances don’t match prevailing beauty standards.
In Roblox, by contrast, characters have a distinctly Lego-like appearance with very simplistic faces, while Fortnite avatars often take the form of bipedal animals or robots. Decentraland avatars look much more conventionally human. And while Mark Zuckerberg’s Meta hasn’t revealed its full metaverse vision, the company seems to be betting on some pretty realistic numbers. (Even if it’s a cartoon, it’s definitely the same Zuckerberg avatar that’s widely circulated.)
Mark Zuckerberg adjusts an avatar of himself at the Facebook Connect virtual event, where the company announced its rebrand to Meta last October.

Mark Zuckerberg adjusts an avatar of himself at the Facebook Connect virtual event, where the company announced its rebrand to Meta last October. Credit: Michael Nagle/Bloomberg/Getty Images

Despite her experiences in Second Life, Au believes that most online users want their virtual selves to be “an idealized version of who they look like or a completely different person.”

“That’s why I’m surprised that Meta thinks you want to be like who you are in real life,” Au said.

Today there is little consensus on the subject. How we choose to present ourselves in the metaverse may also depend on what we are doing there. Socializing with friends and holding work meetings, for example, may require significantly different avatars.

It can also vary between demographic groups. In a study published in the Proceedings of the ACM on Human-Computer Interaction, two Clemson University professors found that today’s virtual reality users “tend to present themselves consistently with their offline identity” in terms of physical characteristics such as skin color and body. the shape But this was especially true of non-white study participants, the researchers found.

“(For non-white users), presenting ethnicity is critical to creating a unique self-presentation in social VR,” the authors wrote, adding that just like in the real world, these avatars may be subject to social stigmas.

‘Freedom in abstraction’

From the plus-size runway to gender-neutral makeup, old beauty ideals are increasingly being challenged in today’s world. Completely eradicating yourself from the real world is no easy task. But could there be an opportunity to sidestep these standards in virtual reality?

For artist and futuristic beauty artist Alex Box, the metaverse offers an opportunity to throw out existing aesthetic conventions and rethink how we present ourselves.

“It’s very difficult for people to imagine who they are without a body,” he said on a call from England’s Cotswolds region. “It’s a very different rule and way of connecting with your identity, if you say ‘you’re just a shape or you’re just an object.’

“But of course, the more you go abstract, the less you go body shame, body logic, boundaries, and ultimately everything that’s been forced on us since the beginning of time about the rules and autonomy of our bodies. So there’s freedom. In abstraction,” she said. , and that some people “may choose a representation of their energy, their believed personality (or) something that is an extension of themselves.”

In an exploration of digital identity, futuristic beauty Alex Box has designed a series of virtual ones "metamasks," or "digital face stitching."

In an exploration of digital identity, futuristic beauty artist Alex Box has designed a series of virtual ‘metamasks’ or ‘digital facial sutures’. Credit: Alex Kutxa

For now, users are offered popular ones. Platforms with unusual or playful avatars also work within conservative (or perhaps technologically necessary) parameters. They will usually have faces, eyes and hands, for example. And, unlike us, they are always symmetrical, Box said. with that metaverse still in its infancy, the self-described identity designer predicts that the ways we present ourselves—and therefore the ways we perceive beauty and identity—will inevitably expand.

“Having infinite options makes it very difficult for people to build,” he said. “You can be anything, what do you choose? Do you follow the same tropes in real life? At first yes, I think people will. But then they’ll get bored.”

It remains to be seen what form such experimentation takes. And Box acknowledges that while sizeism and exclusionary beauty standards persist in real life, they will exist online as well, especially when people are less accountable for their actions in virtual worlds than in real ones. (“People will be people… There will be trolls, there will be magic, there will be doubts and shame because people do,” he said).

The key to avoiding the avatar-shaming seen in previous iterations of the metaverse, Box argued, lies in ensuring that those who build the virtual worlds—the gatekeepers—themselves represent a wide range of races, shapes, and sizes. For now, that seems unlikely. According to the US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, more than 83% of American technology executives are white and about 80% are male.

“The broader and more diverse the actual creators of the software,” Box said, “the more diverse and closer you are to the truth of identity in your options.”

Image Caption Above: In an exploration of digital identity, futuristic beauty artist Alex Box has designed a series of virtual ‘metamasks’ or ‘digital facial sutures’.