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.

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Judging A Book by its Cover: Must Avatars Look Good for us to be Attracted to Them?

July 25, 2007 at 5:15 pm (Beauty, Second Life)

Gamera the Turtle

For those of you out there reading this post who do not participate in Second Life (yes, I know there are still a few of you) this topic may seem utterly bizarre. Hell, even to those of us leading second lives, this question is a strange one. But I’m wondering, why does the cartoon representation of us matter?

Surely the way our pixels are arranged is not the only thing that we go on when determining with whom to spend our limited time in world. But clearly looks do matter in Second Life. Why else would we spend time and money buying clothes, hair, skin, and shoes to play virtual Barbies with our avis?

I think the way we make our avatars look is considered a reflection on who we are as the real individuals behind the keyboard. Admittedly, I’ve made Cinderella a hot representation of the personal attributes I like about myself. But she is more of me than her looks alone; her mannerisms, the way she dresses, and certainly the words she “speaks” (or I type) are totally me.

Lest I receive nasty-grams chastising me for being shallow, I do think it is possible and natural to get beyond the way an avatar looks. Some of my best SL friends I initially met when they were cats, turtles, warriors, the Stay-Puff Marshmallow Man, and–Gawd forbid!–newbs. It was the person behind the av that attracted me to them.

But, I admit…I’m often quick to help a new-found newb friend find skin and hair becoming of a “proper” avatar. And I don’t typically go out dancing with the turtle. Perhaps I should (nudge nudge, Gam).

[Note to reader: I am aware of the prolific use of role play in Second Life. I’m not referring to that here.]

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