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metaverse beauty
Illustration by Marija Marc

In the metaverse, everyone looks the same

Virtual reality offers the possibility to create the beauty looks of your wildest fantasies. But will it just end up making us more insecure than ever?

TextSophie WilsonIllustrationMarija Marc

From filters to followers, social media’s negative impact on our mental health has been well documented. Experts note a direct link between social media filters and lower self-esteem, and how we appear online is increasingly distanced from how we present ourselves in our day to day lives.

The metaverse has the potential to make this even worse. Although it could offer an opportunity for greater experimentation and an escape from oppressive beauty standards, it could also open the door to greater levels of perfectionism and self-criticism. We already know that filters are damaging for our self-esteem: could creating perfect avatars lead to a similar experience? 

Our current definition of the metaverse is “a highly immersive virtual world where people gather to socialise, play, and work.” (Think Decentraland, INVU, or Zuckerberg’s Meta). As in gaming, the avatars in these worlds can be highly customisable which, in theory, could give us all the opportunity to express ourselves in any way we want. Your avatar doesn’t even have to be human, either: in Meta’s awkward ‘Social in the metaverse’ clip, one person shows up as a robot. Whether through otherworldly avatars or ambitious make-up, the metaverse could add more layers of fun and experimentation to the way we present ourselves. After all, not every social media filter makes you hate the way you look; some just give you dog ears or tell you which Euphoria character you should date. 

But creating a perfect avatar to represent ourselves virtually could create its own problems. If Instagram is anything to go by, it’s unlikely we’ll rush to customise our avatars with features that society deems ‘undesirable.’ The proliferation of filters and photo editing apps already proves that if we can create more beautiful versions of ourselves online then we will. Details like eye bags, scars and acne might not exist at all in the metaverse. There’s huge scope for self-expression beyond the norm, but what’s more likely to happen is that most people will create versions of themselves that adhere to current beauty ideals, leading to a largely homogenised aesthetic.

Experts are already looking into how aspirational representations of ourselves in the metaverse could impact body image and self-esteem. “In the metaverse, there’s less ability to create an accurate version of yourself,” says virtual reality metaverse expert Kara Komarni. “We’re already inclined to idolise online versions of ourselves, but our avatars could end up becoming something that we will never be able to reach. It’s quite obvious that it can affect our self-esteem as we compare ourselves to those versions of ourselves that are not real. This is something that the creators of the metaverse should be sensitive to because we don’t have to be reinforcing beauty standards when avatars offer the opportunity to make them a bit more neutral.”  

Komarni suggests that perhaps not allowing a huge level of customisation could actually make people in the metaverse more equal. “We want to celebrate diversity, but perhaps that could be through clothing or artefacts rather than enhancing our faces or bodies,” she says. However, not seeing yourself represented can have an equally negative impact on self-esteem. Video games have been criticised in the past when it comes to avatar customisation for focusing on Eurocentric features while offering limited options when it comes to hair texture and skin tones. 

In 2020, a petition calling for more inclusive hairstyles on Animal Crossing reached over 57,000 signatures. Nintendo listened and added more hairstyles so that more people of colour could create avatars that represented their real selves. The game had previously been celebrated for its diversity, offering gender-neutral characters and customisations including birthmarks, freckles, moles and Vitiligo. Also in 2020, a petition was started to add more skin tones to Sims 4. It received more than 86,000 signatures and creators listened, updating the game that autumn.

Studies show that underrepresentation can affect self-esteem and people’s sense of belonging. Unless there is a diverse team of developers, creators of the metaverse risk perpetuating the same boundaries of marginalisation and exclusion that exist in the physical world. Equal representation in the metaverse could contribute positively to acceptance and inclusion in the physical world. Animal Crossing’s customisation settings, such as the option to add birthmarks, brought people joy at being able to create avatars that felt like accurate representations of themselves. Greater customisation allows people to accept and celebrate features that at one point in their real-world lives might have been insecurities.

Equally, like the internet, the metaverse could provide the chance to move through the virtual world with a greater level of anonymity, free from superficial judgements that people make based on appearances in the real world. This could allow users to bypass certain stereotypes and assumptions. For example, trans people could present as the gender they want to in the metaverse, but might not be able to or feel safe enough to do in real life.

But what happens if we end up preferring our virtual life to our real life? “The minute it becomes damaging is when you shift to preferring a virtual life which affects your ability to engage in non-virtual life,” says Komarni. “You could be rewarded for looking a certain way as an avatar when perhaps in real life this isn’t the case. The precedent for that is already there with Instagram.”

The metaverse could be an opportunity to experiment with virtual appearances beyond social media filters. It could unburden us from the limits society puts on our appearances in the physical world. But it would be naïve to imagine the metaverse as a utopia where beauty standards don’t exist. If Facebook and Instagram are anything to go by, Zuckerberg’s metaverse will be motivated by profit over people, allowing established beauty standards to replicate and flourish in a new setting. 

That said, social media has helped widen our definition of beauty beyond what we see in mainstream media and campaigns. The metaverse has the potential to take this even further. If used the right way, it’s possible we could create a world where physical appearances have less of a sway on our mental health and self-esteem. With endlessly customisable avatars, the metaverse could provide a space where people are judged less for how they look.