Virtual body-shaming: Why the metaverse isn’t solving our IRL beauty standards

Written by Oscar Holland, CNN

This story is part of CNN Style’s ongoing project, The September issues: A thoughtful hub for conversations about fashion’s impact on people and the planet.

Avatars are nothing new – and neither is the idea that we care about how we look online.

As driven towards immersive virtual worlds, or “metaverses,” is taking off, personal digital avatars have become more widespread 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 nearly two decades. And it was here that , in 2017, a shameful scandal revealed an uncomfortable truth: Our real-world standards of beauty will invariably follow us into the metaverse.

The incident began when an in-game fashion brand allegedly posted offensive fat-shaming messages on a group channel. The brand then embarked on a bizarre crusade against plus-size women. In 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”.

Second Life avatars showed up to protest in the virtual clothing store.

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

Debate in the Second Life community ensued, and fuller avatars began arriving at the store in protest. Some waved customized posters (“I love you skinny, I love you fat,” read one, “diversity is everything!”) as they staged a sit-in demonstration.

As author and longtime Second Life user Wagner James Au noticed on his blog at the time, the foot traffic may have exacerbated the situation by boosting the store’s visibility on the platform. The owner of the offending label certainly meant it. Another sign appeared thanking protesters for “promoting my brand, my store and my products… for free.”
Like most online flare-ups, the controversy died within a few days. But according to Au, whose book “Why the Metaverse Matters” will be published next year, ongoing debates about Second Life’s customizable avatar shapes revealed a troubling undercurrent among some users.

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

Changing standards for avatars

Things hadn’t always been this way. In fact, many users didn’t even look human in the early years of Second Life, making it difficult to judge them against real-world standards.

“Avatar types used to be much more diverse,” Au said. “You were just as likely to find someone who was a fairy, or looked like an anthropomorphic animal, or a robot — or some other fantastical combination of different identities — rather than what you might call a ‘Sims’ avatar that looked like a very attractive person in their 20s.”

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The shift was partly technological. In 2011, amid improved graphics and processing power, Second Life allowed users to create 3D skins or “masks” that could be uploaded to the platform. As a result, the appearance of avatars became increasingly realistic. On the one hand, this gave users more freedom to create characters that reflected how they really looked – including those who preferred to appear curvier or heavier. On the other hand, it marked what Au called a “Pandora’s Box” moment.

“It changed both the culture and the economics of avatars,” he said. “Until then, there was definitely a lot more tolerance for the diversity of avatar types… But putting a premium on very realistic, beautiful avatars reinforced existing prejudices that we took from the real world to the virtual world.”

For those users whose avatars fall “outside the norm,” harassment still happens “all the time,” Au added. “Anyone with a big avatar is going to get at least a few nasty comments.”

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

About 70% of US consumers, from Generation X to Z, consider their digital identity to be “important,” according to a 2021 examination by The Business of Fashion. But by allowing people to accurately recreate themselves, platforms can open the door for bullying, harassment and even racism to play out in real life if users’ appearance doesn’t conform to prevailing beauty standards.
Conversely, on Roblox, 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 appear far more conventionally human. And while Mark Zuckerberg’s Meta has yet to reveal its full metaverse vision, the company also seems to be picking relatively realistic numbers. (Even though it’s cartoonish, it’s widely talked about Zuckerberg avatar is unmistakably him.)
Mark Zuckerberg adjusts an avatar of himself during the virtual Facebook Connect event where the company announced its rebrand as Meta last October.

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

Despite his experiences with 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 amazed that Meta assumes you’re going 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 do 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 of 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 identities” when it came to physical features such as skin color and body shape. But this was especially true for the study’s nonwhite participants, the researchers found.

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

‘Freedom in abstraction’

From plus-size runways to genderless makeup, old ideals of beauty are increasingly being challenged in today’s world. Eradicating them completely from the real world is no easy task. But is there perhaps a chance to circumvent 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 difficult 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 clearly, the more you go toward the abstract, the less you go toward body shaming, body logic, boundaries, and ultimately all that has been imposed on us from the beginning of time about the rules of our bodies and autonomy. So there is freedom. in abstraction,” she said, explaining that some people may choose “a representation… of their energy, of their believed personality, (or) something that is an extension of themselves.”

In an exploration of digital identity, beauty futurist Alex Box has designed a series of virtual ones "meta masks," or "digital facial couture."

In an exploration of digital identity, beauty futurist Alex Box has designed a series of virtual “meta masks” or “digital face couture”. Credit: Alex Box

For now, users are 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 example. And unlike us, they’re also always symmetrical, Box noted. With 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 endless choices 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, at first I think people will. But then they get bored.”

Exactly what form such experiments will take remains to be seen. And Box admits that as long as sizeism and exclusionary beauty standards persist in real life, they will also exist in some form online — especially when people are less responsible for their actions in virtual worlds than in the real one. (“People will be people… There will be trolls, there will be magic, there will be misgivings, and there will be shame because it’s people doing it,” she said).

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

“The broader and more diverse the actual producers of the software,” Box said, “the more diverse and closer you get to a truth of identity in the choices you have.”

Top caption: Avatars from the online platform Second Life.

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