Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Avatar Body Shape

Melissa Yeuxdoux responded to my Primitar post.  Because she brought up several points and used lovely, wonderful data, I'm going to respond directly.  

First of all, thanks for mentioning Marvel Comics, Melissa.  That primitar looks like he stepped straight out of the pages of a comic book, with all of the attendant distortion. Little head...check.  Long legs...check.  Massive, bulging chest and shoulder muscles...check.  He's kind of a cool dude, but his shape is just wrong.  It's too bad he turned out to be the template. 

Now Svetlana Pankratova is an interesting case.  She is 6'7", by the way, according to a video interview with her.  The popular media seems to have been shrinking her by increments (Is that reflective of our discomfort with really tall women? Is it an attempt to diminish her in some small way?).

Her legs are almost 4'4" long, but that is measured from the top of the hip bone, at about the level of the belly button, rather than from the crotch.  That measurement is almost 66% of her total height, while the average woman has a rough hipbone-to-floor proportion of 50% and mine is about 60% (37" from hipbone to floor, 62" tall). 

Incidentally, Svetlana's proportions are consistent with Marfan Syndrome, a connective tissue disorder which causes extreme height and very long legs.  Note Svetlana's long flat hips, narrow sloping shoulders, and extremely thin ankles.  Compare them with this photo of a mother and her two sons.  All three have Marfan Syndrome.  

Although the only numbers I found for Dji Dieng appear to come from a publicist, those numbers indicate that she has legs that are 4'1/2" long (same measurement, floor to top of hip bone) on a body that is about 5'11 1/2" tall.  She is 67.6% leg.  

Keep in mind that all of the live (not photoshoot photoshopped) pictures I have found of her show that she is around 8 heads tall, perhaps a little more.  With 48 1/2" for her legs and 8 1/2" for her head, that leaves 14 1/2" for the space from her chin to her hip bone. Let's just say that I am extremely skeptical of those measurements.

The library avatars average 63.7% of their height from the floor to the top of the hip bone (I have an Excel sheet if anybody really wants it...I love data). 

While there is an inverse correlation between leg length and heart disease and diabetes, we're looking at a difference from short to long legs of just a few inches. There is nothing to indicate that longer and longer legs confer greater and greater benefit.  In fact, Marfan Syndrome, which I mentioned above, is associated with high risk of heart problems--aortal tearing, for instance. 

My point is that avatars in Second Life are not shaped like idealized humans:  they are shaped like disordered humans, varying so much from the human template that it requires explanation. And real world aesthetics isn't it.  

A study done in the UK on women's body shape and optimal attractiveness showed that body mass index had the greatest correlation with perceived attractiveness.  Waist to hip ratio showed a very slight correlation.  No other factors, including the ratio of leg length to torso length, showed any correlation.   Study Excerpt

Indicentally, the magic numbers were a BMI of about 19 and a waist to hip ratio of .75 to 1. Numbers lower or higher than that were considered less attractive.  

Avatars tend to have apparent BMIs much lower than 19 and the women tend to have waist to hip ratios much more extreme than .75 to 1. A female avatar with the numbers for optimal human attractiveness will look plump and thick-waisted in comparison to those around her.  

What seems to me to have occurred is a kind of digital speciation.  A new set of aesthetic standards has been put in place for avatars, which diverges remarkably from human standards.  Although it is fascinating that this can occur, my concern is that, as the use of Second Life for business and education becomes more widespread, it will become yet another source of distorted body images that young women, in particular, will measure themselves against.  Thoughts?  


  1. I've been following the discussions about avatar appearance with great interest, and by this time I could probably ramble at length about a number of subtopics people have touched on. I'll focus on your final comment of this post, though, about distorted body image and how idealized avatar shapes could influence people -- especially young women -- in their RLs.

    I believe that there isn't a universal answer to that question, that it could certainly have that effect on some, but that there's likely to be a nearly opposite impact on many others. The important difference between idealized imagery in ads and other non-interactive media, on the one hand, and avatar construction, on the other, is a difference in identification. If a young woman is heavily inundated with such imagery in magazines and on TV, the logic goes, she'll believe she needs to look like the size 2 actresses and size 0 runway models. She wants to be them. Personally, I think there are a lot of less-recognized cultural factors that contribute to that, as well, but those are not necessarily the topic right now.

    The relationship we have with our avatars, however, is completely different: we don't *want* to be them... we *are* them. The lack of any gap between object and identification is significant, first, because it means that most of us don't have to pine for the "perfect" body; if we aren't happy with our RL selves, we can create the SL body we want, without plastic surgery, unhealthy dieting, or expensive shopping sprees (ok, occasionally expensive shopping sprees). In other words, avatar construction is a means of addressing RL insecurities, not a means of contributing to them. Is this true for everyone? Probably not. But for some? Possibly most? I'd bet money on it.

    Now... of course, it's not the best way to deal with these insecurities; the best way would be to get rid of the cause. But I'm not anticipating that happening.

    Another reason it's significant that there isn't any gap in who we want to be and who we are in SL is that it's precisely the illusion of accessibility and the fact of inaccessibility that makes non-interactive media a poor model for body image. It creates a desire that can never actually be attained. In fact, the big kicker is that even those who do attain it don't always realize that they do. The existence of the ideal as perpetually just out of reach is where the damage comes in. We're trained to view everything as a tease, which means that there is no possible response to idealized RL imagery for most people *except* a sense of inadequacy.

    SL is the world of the attainable. For every person for whom our in-world idealizations create a distorted sense of aesthetics, there will be others who use it positively, almost therapeutically, to channel the insecurities we're trained into in RL.

  2. Past editions of the Guinness book allude to heights of giants and giantesses being exaggerated; perhaps understating of Pankratova's height arises from wanting to exaggerate her legginess rather than from subconscious misogyny.

    Is there a separate aesthetic for avatars, or whether it's simply that avatars allow the expression of existing preferences past what's feasible or safe for actual people? Pets suffer from genetic problems that turn up when breeders try to reliably produce some prized trait--thank goodness we don't do that for people. But in the virtual world, we aren't constrained.

  3. But why is a trait prized? What makes a beautiful Great Dane? What makes a beautiful Toy Poodle? They are the same species, inter-fertile in the lab even if not in a practical sense. If they are both beautiful animals, why do they look so different from one another?

  4. Perhaps the desirability originates in the purpose the dog was bred for in the case of working dogs. At the American Kennel Club web site there's a list of all the breeds it recognizes and the characteristics that they look for, and that judges in dog shows look for, in dogs of each breed.

    (*blush* I see I need to look more closely when I decide to change the structure of a sentence!)

  5. I actually think this question -- why a trait is prized -- relates somewhat to my earlier point. Traits are often prized when they are hard to embody, which is why body fat is valued in historical and geographic contexts where hunger is the norm, while slimness (but not skinniness) is considered attractive in contexts where food is readily available.

    When it comes to dogs, an idealized notion of what a particular dog breed is supposed to look like gets developed, probably based on the purpose the breed was historically expected to serve (hunting, herding, sitting decoratively on a lap), and individual dogs are judged in shows according to how close they come to that ideal. There are dangers, of course, like collies being bred to have snouts so narrow they have breathing problems or dalmations being prone to deafness, but this only highlights further that beauty, BY DEFINITION, is difficult to attain.

    ..which is why I'm so interested in SL as a place where people actually can embody their notion of beauty. Perhaps what we'll begin to see is the development of technologically unattainable beauty standards in-world.

  6. Burgundy makes a good point about beauty being hard to obtain. Another example is a tan. In the 19th century, having a tan meant you were a lowly worker in the fields or otherwise outdoors, so pale skin was prized. Now it means you are a rich person who can afford to fly to {Miami, the Bahamas, the Riviera, etc.} and sunbathe rather than being stuck in an office, so a tan is prized.


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