I’d like to preface this article a little before you get to it. This was an idea I proposed in November or December to the Fat Studies panel chairs at the National Popular Culture Association/American Studies Association Conference that was held in March of 2008. The project itself began in January and I stopped collecting data in February. Everything you see here was presented to around 20-25 people in the panel to which I spoke in March. I wrote this essay and got around to posting it in the beginning of June 2008. I hope this clears up any confusion on my intentions and about the purpose of this project.
It’s pretty easy to be skinny in Second Life. In fact, because it’s so easy, why would anyone choose not to be? In pretty much all westernized cultures around the globe, being svelte and attractive (you can’t forget attractive) are some of the most desirable traits to have. No, your sense of humor does not matter here. Even if someone had a choice between a skinny ugly person and a pretty fat person, I guarantee the skinny ugly person would be chosen. What’s up with that?
I admit I bought into the lure of being skinny in this virtual world, while I was not so in real life. It’s about acceptance for me now, however, as I’ve broadened my avatar – and I don’t mean her horizons. I went into Appearance Mode and slid those sliders to fatten myself up. I wanted to look more natural and better represent myself. My best friend was excited to see the new and “improved” me, so much so she took it as an opportunity to fatten up her own avatar. Now that she’s larger and in charge(r), her short stature makes her look less like a child and more like the woman her avatar represents.
Large people are just not seen in Second Life. Okay, I take that back slightly, because the average height for women seems to be around six foot two, whereas men are closer to the seven foot range. Height, however, is not where I am going with this; I am talking about circumference. In fact, just recently, there was an outcry against pro-anorexia groups and what they represent showing up in and around Second Life. Many residents commented that this one little happening made them rethink their current skinny size, because they had been invited to join a group on Flickr for anorexic looking men and women in Second Life. In response, a few said they were thinking about fattening up a little bit more (shoppingcartdisco.com). The question to ask with that, however, is what cultural values are showing up when one is fattening his or her avatar just so they aren’t thought to be anorexic or bulimic? They already had those skinny avatars in the first place, though. Why is that? Why does it take someone calling them anorexic to make them feel as though they should change their bodies?
In February of 2008, I set off to see how much Second Life really does mimic real life. I wanted to determine if people were able to leave their cultural and social baggage behind in a world where perfection is achievable. For the project that I created, participants were asked to spend one week wearing a fat avatar, or rather, fatvatar. They were to keep a journal and take pictures of what it was like socially, emotionally, and “physically.” It’s important to note that this project only relates to those in the game who are human in form. I chose to exclude furries, robots, mermaids, gremlins, tinies, and others because rules I would consider as “normal” behavior do not apply to them and how they act in Second Life because they do not exist outside of the game. In total, I had 8 participants, and of those, only two were male. I also don’t explore gender and body image issues in real life – our speaking and sharing of experiences were relatively anonymous due to the fact that I knew nothing about them in their real lives and bodies.
After the project was over and I was able to read through other people’s experiences, I realized that there were a couple implications of being fat in Second Life: physical and social. The social implication of being fat in a virtual world has to do with how people treat you, how you treat others, and how it all makes you feel. For example, if you were wearing your fatvatar and decided to go visit a club to go dancing and not one person in that full club spoke to you, but rather about you, how would that make you feel? Those are the types of situations and emotions I tried to get out of my participants. The physical implications of being fat in Second Life are made up of all the virtual clothes that don’t fit, the way the large shape distorts the body, and the way that even your favorite sex balls make your arms go through your stomach.
The first implication I am going to delve into is the physical. As I said before, clothes, hair, shoes, hats, anything you can think of related to fashion… when you’re bigger, none of it fits. They need altering because the creators typically use their skinny selves as mannequins. The same goes for the shirts you wear that have attachments, as well as the pants, and let’s not even talk about adjusting a prim skirt. Sometimes skirts become so stretched out, that you need to just scrap it and give up.
For me personally, that’s why I rarely wear dresses and skirts; I can never get anything to fit. Sometimes, the skirts have permissions that do not allow for it to be modified (this also goes for hair, shirts, shoes, etc), so in those cases, you’re out of luck from the beginning if you need to make it bigger. And in pants that don’t need any attachments or stretching, often it’s the textures that cause the problem because they have to stretch a lot more on your fatvatar. Textures can become so distorted that you forgot what the original even looked like in the picture of the model on the wall at the store you bought them from. Hair typically does not fit for the same previously mentioned reasons, and it’s quite easy to break something and knock it completely out of whack trying to edit it. It’s especially bad if you did not have the foresight or ability to make a backup copy of it in the first place.
these poor jeans are so stretched out
note the difference in textures and the sleeve poofs
(as you can see the hair is going through my head)
(as you can see the hair is going through my head; Mia’s arm has been taken over by her tummy)
Moving on from hair and clothes, animations and poses were definitely not created for fatvatars. Very few animation and pose makers have stuff catering to those who were larger than average. Even in my normal shape, I still find so many times that my hands go through my boobs or my stomach or my hips. Those skinny avatars just don’t get it. Most things are created by skinny avatars for skinny avatars. This can even been seen by Linden Lab, which obviously does not support being fat in Second Life. That can easily be seen in Appearance Mode where sliders are slid and shapes are made. For example, the fatter you make your shape, the pointier the edges on its love handles and calves become.Obviously in creating their and our “utopia,” Linden Lab did not have the rotund body in mind. Even if you get past the fact that your body is all pointy, you must still look at yourself wearing your six-pack or trimmed tummy shading on your fatbody. How many obese people have six-packs? It looks ridiculous.
six-packs on fatties. please notice the pointy bits that count as love handles.
as you can see, my hand is missing inside my stomach. please call for help!! and it looks like the same problem for Mia as well, except it’s her breasts eating away at her entire arm.
again, we have a missing hand!
The second implication to note is social, but social can also mix with emotional. Overall, participants experienced more negativity than support and approval. Throughout the project, many of their own views about their virtual body changed. Since there was so much more negativity, I will begin by showing you the negative reactions from others. It is important to note that all the names have been changed, because this is where we get to the good stuff!
Don was one of my two male avatars who were gung ho on becoming fat. Unfortunately for Don, his friends were not as…accepting as one would like. He told me that it made him realize that people would actually notice and care, but he didn’t take it seriously because he knew he wasn’t actually fat. If he was fat, I wonder if he would have taken those words more seriously then.
Friend1: hi Don….. how are you?
Don: very good thanks..and you?
Friend1: other then put on some [weight] ?
Friend2: you grow don
Don: a bit :)
Friend1: yah a bit lol
Friend1: like 100Lbs
Friend1: Laughing Hysterically
Friend3: WHERE’S MY BURRITO!?
Friend1: don ate it
Don: none of these women want to dance with a fat man!
Bastard: hehehe yeah. you look ridiculous :)
Guy: Hiya Don- look like you have been really enjoying the holidays!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
Guy: put on a few LBs there
Friend: you got big?
Don: gonna walk about a bit
Guy: hehe, walk off the pounds
Guy: Don, do people assume you are a griefer now?
Guy: Don, you would be good driving a truck in that AV
Hank was my other maleparticipant. We went out wearing our fatvatars together and going to large crowded areas like the beach and to popular clothing stores. What you are about to read took place at Armidi, a major clothing store. Armidi is not simply a store. It is a dynasty of fashion, a fashion house where many of Second Life’s elite showcase their talents. Going there, one can often see a well known member of the community. He and I went shopping and were minding our own business, while talking on voice chat when this woman interjected:
Biatch: Shut your fucking mouth, you stupid cunt!
Biatch: omgseriously u fucking beluga whale
Biatch: shut up
Biatch: get off voice
Biatch: get a proper accent
Biatch: non American
Biatch: SHUT UP
This one probably affected me the most. She completely flipped out because of our size and because of our voices. Doing everything on voice makes things a bit more real from my perspective, and this one actually kind of hurt. In reality, it made me mad more than it hurt. Even though I know it’s a game, I am big in real life, so I have heard these sorts of things before in some way shape or form.
Mia was the most gung ho about this project. She did her journal every day and filled it out diligently. She told me that at first she was apprehensive fattening up her avatar, but was glad overall that she did. Mia had an experience while at a welcome area where new people go to learn more and have a place to hang out. These are actual questions and answers from her journal:
8. Where did you go? uemachi
9. Who did you talk to? A group of French SLers
9a. Who talked to you? One person in particular – Fab
10. What did you talk about? Fab gave me the LM of a friends store – they made lingerie.
11. Did anyone mention how you look? The others were speaking in French about me (I didn’t let on that I know some French) – they claimed that they were talking about another Mia they know (I’m the only one in SL) but my French is good enough to know they were talking about me and the fact I was ‘too much’.
12. How did it make you feel? I was surprised they were openly so bitchy!
Mia was somewhat hurt by what these people were saying in front of her face but behind her back, even though she knew that she could go back to her skinny avatar at any time.
Mia also experienced what you might think of as a positive reaction to her shape, but said to me that she felt it was a backhanded compliment where emoticons suggest sarcasm. She was also not the first and only to receive something similar:
Catty: you are bootylicious!
Mia: lol – thanks :D
Another participant, Kess, who is plus-sized in real life decided to do this for the same reasons I wanted to do it. She wanted to see if people were able to drop their cultural baggage. Her avatar is already short and chubby, but she went all out and wore her fatvatar for this. Kess had a similar experience as Mia did above with a well-known person in the Second LifeTM world:
Katrina: and you look so cute with your new shape, you looked different back then
Katrina: haha well ty!
Kess: yeah im trying something out with this shape.
Kess: TY :)
Katrina: i love it! ;)
Katrina: even though i’ma tooth pick lol
Katrina: it’s nice to see something different on the grid
Kess: :) we are all gorgeous!!! Thanks so much!
Katrina: yvw! it was great seeing you again
Katrina: and we are ;)
Kess also experienced some biting comments from her friends about her new weight gain:
Grow: Hi fatass :P
Then later on:
Grow: Kess you put on weight over xmas, hun.
Jad: Eat too much for xmas, kess?
Bastard: Why don’t you eat a chunky bar
Bastard: you already look like you ate a tiny today.
The positive reactions towards the participants’ fatvatars were few and far between. I only have a couple to show:
Nice Guy: I am sorry for starring at you, but you have a very realistic shape and skin…very rare…sorry for bothering, bye..
Mia: Thank you :D
Nice Guy: I wished there would be more like you…I am a bit fed up with those plastic beauties all around
Mia: That’s so true! And I want to be more realistic and make people realize that they don’t have to have a Barbie figure.
Nice Guy: perfectly right…I would invite you for a dance but you must think I am kidding
Mia: LOL – not at all. I would accept but I have to log off in a minute. It’s nice to know that some people appreciate me :)
Nice Guy: I do…and no I don’t ask if I can see you again…SL is very superficial and most people I never see a second time
Timmy: I think your fine
Trixie: Thanks Timmy.
To Lily: Nice Guy: Have you been fiddling with your shape? You look extra cute. :)
Lily: Somewhere in the middle of the conversation, she noticed my new shape and said: [20:18] Betty: hehe, you know what? It’s a bit strange to see someone who is not a size 0 in here! but it’s a nice shape, not over the board, very natural
The lack of positive responses to these participants, myself included, says a lot in regards to how people feel about obesity (even in a virtual world), especially with the overwhelming amount of negative reactions. I decided to acquire final reaction thoughts about the project from some of its participants about the emotional toll this project took:
Kess: It is weird to me. On a system that prides itself on being so unique and ‘your world your imagination,’ it’s amazing how strange the conversation habits turn when your avatar is overweight. If someone was a giant dragon with a penis, however, that would be considered acceptable. I was unprepared to realize how many people have come into Second Life with their real life baggage, how many people actually care about appearances. And I’m disappointed that they really do feel they are superior because of how their avatar looks, when most of them are overweight themselves and whatever else… (as someone said overweight housewives who buy their clothes at Wal-Mart but get on Second LifeTM and fake the fashionista, high fashion, model lifestyle). That probably doesn’t make sense but yeah, I think it was fun, and since the study, experiment (I’m not sure what you want to call it) I’ve moved the sliders more towards fatter. Anyway, I think everyone should experience it.
Hank: I tried to make simple conversation with a reasonably well-refined avatar. I made contact with the same person several weeks prior to this encounter; on that occasion I had a difficult time trying to exit the conversation. She kept making subtle sexual remarks and even went as far as making non-descript text, which would translate into seemingly intimate sounds like moans and groans. But when I appeared to be obese I got a very short, curt, and at times rude responses from this person. It made me feel like I was being treated like I was challenged and people were avoiding the subject of my disability. This made conversation quite brief overall. I felt like less than human and it actually was quite hurtful to be rejected by someone who just one week ago was all over you in this game. Quite sad, really.
Trixie: Maybe it’s just the places I’ve been choosing to go for this experiment, where I’d not normally attempt to talk to people… or I’ve just not noticed before that people are kind of snotty. Most of them are not pointedly so… but the whole ignoring people and just walking away when someone says something to you irks me in ways I can’t even express. Even if I’m not in a mood to chat, I will at least respond to people who’re addressing me.
Lily: At first, I was a little self-conscious about my appearance, especially when I was at busy stores surrounded by skinny avatars. But I really didn’t have any terribly negative responses, and by the end, I was far more comfortable wearing the larger shape.
[One thing that did make her self-conscious was the fact that she was getting less attention than she would with her normal avatar, because it appeared that she was receiving less attention from the opposite sex]
Mia: Mia was the one avatar that I would consider to have changed the most from this project. Her journals and reflections were insightful and meaningful. When she first began she felt more confident as thinner Mia, and that shocked her. She too, found it harder to dress when she was fatter, from her clothes to her animation overriders. She made a note to me that her RL husband didn’t think fat Mia looked fat. He thought she looked normal for real life, which shows how skinny she still was. These next words are straight from her journal:
Have tried to be a bit more adventurous with the clothing but I just can’t. Didn’t realize how ‘programmed’ I was into thinking skinny looked good, although I know I am constrained by what SL designers make and the fact they design for skinny [avatars]. Firing up skinny Mia – well, she just looks so strange now!! In another day’s journal, she made some more insightful remarks:
Skinny Mia look plain odd now and I’m growing in confidence with larger Mia, esp now I know how to dress her (prim attachments are not a plussized [avatars] friend). I actually feel larger than life and stronger with larger Mia. I remodeled my house and the furniture I made/bought is big, dramatic, sensual, everything makes a statement. I don’t think this is a coincidence!
my fatvatar and “me”
As for myself, I feel more confident than ever in my second skin. Seeing how people personally reacted towards me was upsetting, but it also made me stronger. My fatvatar made me uncomfortable, and eventually I resigned myself to make her smaller because I was afraid of the reactions towards me. Even smaller, I was not sleight, nor were the reactions my shape created. People have such hostility towards fat people; fat is not a disease (although it could be caused by one), it’s not contagious, and you won’t catch it. So why treat people who are overweight as though they are less than human? Those suffering from eating disorders are not the only ones longing to be thin. Why should we have to want to be thin, though? Because it’s healthier? There are plenty of unhealthy skinny people out in the world. I’m saying you just don’t know. You don’t know the circumstances surrounding one’s weight.
In Second Life you should not want to be fat because you don’t have to be, right? Sliding the avatar’s body into oblivion in any direction is a choice made by its owner, and regardless of the message that any body gives off, you should not judge the person behind it without even talking to them civilly about their choice. When someone tells me my avatar needs a diet I tell them to stuff it, that I am beautiful. It’s helped give me a voice in my real life as well. I feel more confident in my skin, my real skin.
Even though Second Life is considered virtual, not real, the people sitting behind the avatars you interact with are. It is simply impossible to disconnect yourself from reality when entering a virtual world, and all the same cultural biases exist. Being fat is stigmatized in Westernized societies and that is reflected in everything we say and do, from every day life to what we see, read and hear in the media. In attempting this project, I sought to show that there is discrimination going on in this seemingly innocent game, and while some attempt to show a facade of tolerance, the physical aspects of the game show otherwise when nothing fits and love handles are pointy.