Beauty Isn’t Just “Prim” Deep: The Effect Second Life Can Have on Self Image

May 17, 2008 at 2:57 pm (Beauty, Communication, Life, Love, Relationships, Second Life, Sexuality) (, , , )

One of my very first blog posts asked the the following question: “must avatars look good for us to be attracted to them?” And I still maintain that the way an avatar presents him or herself physically–the eyes, hair, skin, and the clothes we do or do not wear–has a contributory effect on how others perceive us within the walls of Second Life (SL). Yet growing amounts of research indicate that cyber beauty not only affects how others view us, but also has a strong affect on our own personal self image. And in an era where the already staggering numbers of men and women who suffer from poor body image and low self esteem continue to escalate at alarming rates, it’s good news to learn something like Second Life could inspire us to feel better about ourselves.

This week Kristina Dell published an article in Time Magazine (How Second Life Affects Real Life) that explores how the attractiveness of her avatar influences how she behaves when not immersed in the Second Life virtual world. She references Jeremy Bailenson, head of the Virtual Human Interaction Lab at Stanford University where he is an assistant professor of communication studying the way self perception within virtual realms affects behavior.

In an experiment conducted in 2007, Bailenson’s research team studied how an avatar’s attractiveness affected their behavior both on and offline. Thirty-two volunteers received either an attractive or unattractive avatar at random and were asked to admire their avis for 90 seconds before being placed in a group setting where they interacted with other avatars. Researchers found that volunteers assigned the more attractive avatars interacted more confidently with others, stood closer to them when conversing, and even disclosed more personal details about themselves. The volunteers with less attractive avatars basically exhibited “wallflower” behavior–standing farther away and revealing less of themselves in their conversations.

What Bailenson’s research has found, I’m sure, does not astound many of you. For I imagine we all qualitatively deduced that the experiences we’ve had in Second Life have had remarkable reverberations in our own personal lives. Bailenson discovered–as summarized by Kristina Dell–what so many of us have felt: “the qualities you acquire online—whether it’s confidence or insecurity—can spill over and change your conduct in the real world, often without your awareness. Bailenson has found that even 90 seconds spent chatting it up with avatars is enough to elicit behavioral changes offline—at least in the short term.”

I’ll confess that I have enjoyed a personal transformation due to the confidence I’ve gained through my experiences in Second Life. When I began playing SL, I was more than twenty pounds heavier, with shorter hair, and had suffered a minor crisis of confidence caused by a company re-org that orbited my career into a professional planetary tailspin. Yet now, over a year and a half later, I’ve slimmed down, grown my hair to match the length of my avatar and landed my dream job. And I’m not alone here; I’ve heard countless tales of friends who likewise have been motivated to match the model of their online personas by exercising and exhibiting increased confidence in their personal and professional lives. On the flip side, I’ve also suffered from meloncholy and minor depression when I’ve experienced loss, pain, or loneliness within Second Life.

I think it is for this main reason that–like a Pavlovian dog–I keep coming back to SL in search of what helps me get my groove on. SL and the wonderful people and relationships I experience there act as a virtual power suit that I don to help me feel comfortable in my own skin in my real world. And that is terrific news, not just because I like my skin but because–unlike the prim skin in SL–it wasn’t sold separately from this wonderful body and mind to which it is attached.


  1. Zog Ozsvar said,

    Interesting thoughts, funnily enough id say the opposite. When im feeling yummy in RL i guess i tend to dress to pursue or be pursued in SL. When im in sweats, pony tail and no make up in RL you will usually find me as a plywood cube in SL!

    Keep up the good work Cindy


  2. Zippora Zabelin said,

    “Yet now, over a year and a half later, I’ve slimmed down, grown my hair to match the length of my avatar and landed my dream job. And I’m not alone here; I’ve heard countless tales of friends who likewise have been motivated to match the model of their online personas”
    Concerning appearance that wouldn’t count for me: I actually gave my avatar more or less my human’s bodyshape and haircut and not the other way around (I would have to find a surgeon to make me the neko attachments 😉 ).

    Just kidding: my avatar definitely has had a positive influence on my firstlife. One of the things that has become clear through my experiences in SL, is why people like my personality (not talking about the good looks, or SLex :P) and that is something that has strengthened me in first life too. Besides that, my avatar has made me aware of characteristics that are mine, but I do not (or barely) show in first life, but which I possibly should develop more.

    Dandellion Kimban and Kit Meredith both posted about this subject past week. If you haven’t read their posts yet, I can really recommend them!

  3. Ero said,

    When I first met Cindy I was bald and cartoonish. Shortly thereafter she took me shopping for skin. Man what a world of difference it has made. Now I can attest to the fact that I have been called: cute, hot, sexy, sweet, unique, intelligent, etc.

    It is awesome to be attractive to others. We are social creatures, and while we live and die by the quality of our conversations, it is nice to have something to look at as well.

  4. Nev Loring said,

    First off, nice article. I enjoyed it immensely.

    It did make me think of af ew things. I know Cinderella in SL, having had the good fortune to have met her, and what made me think was this: The Avatar that Cindy has created is obviously not a standard, run-of-the-mill city chic or whatever avatar, it is one created from certain other pieces, gathered over time and from different sources. So it was grown, as similarily has her real-life likeness to her AV. But what image are you bringing your AV towards? Even unconsciously, you must be thinking of a certain look that you are aspiring towards…. so you and your Avatar are having this bond, this very real and life impacting bond, and being led for example by some early youthful idea of beauty, perhaps more easily found with the click of a button and the spending of virtual money, instead of hard earned cash or difficult-to-find time. Having been in SL but a few months, I haven’t felt any noticeable change in my RL social life, besides burning the ear of my SL ignorant friends. I agree that SL affects your RL image, but what of the ongoing changes that your AV goes through? Is this an attempt to resist the normal changes in our own lives (par exemple age and acne) or an unconscious acceptance of these challenges?

    I hope I am coherent, and again, well done on the article =)

  5. cindykesey said,

    Hi Nev,
    Interesting questions. Admittedly Cinderella looks a lot like the real me. And I continue to look more and more like her. Maybe this points to a subconscious desire for them to merge as one into a blended virtual reality that allows for seamless transition back and forth from each realm ala “Matrix” (although that transition is hardly seamless, I admit).

    More likely we evolve toward each other simply because we are each other. And I have no desire to be anyone else, even as a cartoon. I want Cin to be as much me as possible because I want my friends in SL to love me for exactly the person I am and not some pixelated poser. But that’s just my thang. I realize there are plenty of others who prefer to be someone else in world.

    In response to your yet to have experienced any sort of bounce in your real life from your experiences in SL, give it time. And check back with me in 6 months. I think you’ll see what I mean once you have your own “tipping point moment.” 😉

  6. Djembe Babenco said,

    hi cindy,

    you raise some good points here. you also chose a great painting by picasso for your header. it works on a few levels. the woman in the painting is looking at herself in a mirror, which could represent either her second life avatar, or her inner soul. the reflection appears different, yet it is still her. she is pregnant in both images. this could represent the creation and birth of of the change that second life brings forth. i do think of djembe as me, but i also feel like djembe was “born” from my inner thoughts and desires. he is both a reflection of who i am, and an expression of the things that lay hidden within my soul. the timing of your article was good as i just made djembe shorter to match my partner zooey’s height. we are the same height in first life, and after meeting her i wanted our avatars to see “eye to eye” lol. thanks for choosing this painting. it’s been a favorite of mine for years, and i had the honor of seeing the original in New York city at the Museum of Modern Art. it is larger than i expected it to be. thanks cindy!

    -djembe babenco

  7. The Plague of Popularity: Do You Take Your Second Life Friends for Granted? « The Cindy Kesey Show said,

    […] prompts me to muse on these moments and meander down memory lane you wonder? Well my last post discussed how studies have shown that Second Life can affect our personal self esteem in a positive […]

  8. eve express said,

    I agree completely and here we can be exactly what we want to be. As beautiful or different as we choose. And yes, if you spend hours here, thinking of yourself as beautiful or unique, it can’t help but influence the rest of your life……………for the better.

  9. CandyCandy said,

    I am still not sure if SL influence is positive or negative on my RL. What I know is that FOR SURE SL affects my RL in many ways.
    I must confess I have two avatars in SL. The first avatar I created is beautiful, but after a while I find out that her life was becoming so much as my RL. A stable relashionship, good friends, a familiy, a house… and I suddenly realized I was not happy with that, I was replicating myself… and I found out that I wanted to be different from my RL. That’s why I created Candy. She is different from me, beautiful but different. I am trying to find out other aspects of my personality through her. So basically, I got a second life to “escape” from my RL and now I have a third life to “escape” from my second life. Should I need a psycologist?? lol

  10. mikah said,

    SL is a free world where u can do whatever u want to do.U can marry another avatar and make sex.My husband is hooked and spending mostly 10hrs of his time.He has a wife in SL and soon became developed with each other.He dumped me now.He choose his SL wife over me.We were so inlove with each other before until he found out this second life,then everything changed.Our real life marriage can’t be repaired anymore.

  11. Dare to be Different in Second Life « The Cindy Kesey Show said,

    […] ourselves and bolster our self confidence in our real lives. (Don’t believe me? check out my post that disscusses research on the subject). And, sadly, like real life we probably also experience […]

  12. Bare Essentals said,

    Sl is a fun place to spend lots of time and be whoever you want.

  13. sandrar said,

    Hi! I was surfing and found your blog post… nice! I love your blog. 🙂 Cheers! Sandra. R.

  14. Quora said,

    Does time spent socializing in Second Life tend to enhance or degrade “real-world” social skills?…

    Second Life does not seem to degrade one’s social skills and may even be helpful- Eryn Grant, suggests that one needs social skills generally inorder to communicate in Second Life and notes that social skills may be changing, but not erroding. (http:/…

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