Many people compare using Second Life to playing with dolls. I can understand the comparisons. Shortly after registering for Second Life, most men and women adopt an anthropomorphic body, and then dress it up, walk it around, buy all sorts of accessories and vehicles for them to interact with, live in houses, and sometimes even take on jobs – just like Barbie and Ken.
As children, we identify with our dolls – sometimes vicariously living through them, immersing ourselves in their lives, and often endowing them with different names, characters, backgrounds, relationships and powers.
The Second Life avatar; however, is a different kind of doll. It’s a malleable doll – a doll we can make taller and thinner, or much bustier and voluptuous than gravity or human physiology might otherwise allow. In some cases we choose to make ourselves more life-like than how we came out of the box.
The debate about body proportions in Second Life is often polarised. Some say we should feel free to look as we wish – regardless of typical human proportions. This is a virtual world, so why not adopt a virtual body – an idealised version of what we imagine is attractive, sexy or beautiful, no matter how distorted it may be?
Others, like me, prefer more proportioned avatars. We reduce our heights, widen our bodies and limbs, increase the size of our heads and lengthen our arms. We do this because we like the way we look this way, often citing that it makes us feel more natural. I see this trend as growing, and I’m glad of it.
Recently, a company called Lammily began marketing a doll with realistic, average body proportions, dubbed by the media as “the normal Barbie”, for $25. The creator modelled the doll’s shape with the measurements of the average 19-year old woman, with a full waist, normal-length legs, and feet firmly planted on the ground. For another $6, you can get an add-on package of 36 vinyl stickers called “Lammily marks” that includes “freckles, acne, cellulite, the occasional boo boo, and more” that you can apply on the doll.
I’m fascinated with this idea, and applaud any toy makers that emerge to offer an alternative to the unrealistic and disproportionate body images that little girls (and boys) aspire to by vicariously living through or identifying with their dolls.
According to research titled the Distorting Reality for Children study, if Barbie (and the typical female Second Life avatar) was a real woman, she’d
- be anorexic
- not be able to lift her head (because her neck is twice as long as average)
- not be able to menstruate
- have a smaller waist than her head
- only have room for half a liver and a few inches of intestines
- have to walk on four legs to support the top-heavy weight distribution
I can’t help but see the similarities to how we shape our bodies in Second Life, and can’t help but consider how this might be contributing to body image distortion, and its negative effects. Effects that include eating disorders, body dysmorphic disorders, mood disorders like depression, social anxiety, social isolation and a lowered quality of life that may last a lifetime.
Some time ago I wrote about body proportions in Second Life. It remains one of the most popular posts on this blog. I included the below image of me with a standard shape (on the left), and then me after modifying for human proportions (on the right). I find the similarities with the above comparison between Barbie and Lammily to be striking:
But will Lammily sell? Doesn’t every little girl want to be perfect? Won’t they prefer the sight of the thinner, taller, small headed, short-armed. platinum bleached-blond that so many of us have come to recognise as the ideal of feminine beauty and mystique?
A group of second-graders, interacting with the Lammily doll, seem like they might disagree, and I’m so glad they do!: