You're only as beautiful as your avatar
Virtual reality is the ultimate playground for the digital age. As the lines between online and IRL becomes increasingly blurred, augmented and virtual reality give us the tools to shape the way we look, and, perhaps more importantly, how we are perceived. Given the success of these technologies in both the realms of gaming and social media, it’s never been easier to play around with your self-image, whether that is as an improved version of yourself or something weird and altogether different.
From MMORPG games such as Second Life and World of Warcraft to apps like Zepeto and Mii, you can customise your avatar at the press of a button, while character creation tools like Daz3D and Oculus Medium allow users to build avatars either from scratch or using pre-made templates. But while choosing an online avatar can empower us into taking full control over our digital selves, the reality often falls into unsurprising territories: hyper-sexualised and objectified. Many of these online representations – especially female ones – are unrealistic and, let’s face it, unattainable. It seems that offline beauty standards are inescapable, even in a virtual world.
While these technologies offer us seemingly endless possibilities to sculpt, mould and build surreal and strange creatures, many avatars are glossy, idealised versions of ourselves. “You will always make your avatar look better than it does AFK (away from keyboard),” says AR and 3D make-up artist Ines Alpha, who turns code into otherworldly digital face filters (think Bjork’s Utopia) for Snapchat and Instagram. Like other 3D make-up artists, including CGI models Dadeko and Perl, she uses AR technology to create ethereal overlays that look a bit like the contents of your pre-teens sticker book: ultraviolet flowers, holographic facemasks and totemo kawaii creatures come together to create a totally Net 2.0 aesthetic, kind of like those early-noughties auto-GIF generators you’d use to spritz up your Myspace profile (you know the ones). “The goal is to create a virtual character, the image you have of yourself in your head,” Ines explains.
But who sets the standard? Sure, you can choose certain facial features, skin tone, body shape and so on, but that’s not to say that your choices aren’t affected by our preconception of what beauty is. “The beauty standards apply really early in the process. If you hate your nose because big noses aren’t seen as beautiful, are you going to give your avatar a big nose?” asks Alpha. “Even if you choose to add wrinkles onto your face, they will always be ‘perfect’ wrinkles.”
Many of the tools used to build characters and avatars are made for the porn industry and fantasy video games, neither of which are rooted in reality. Therefore, it’s unsurprising that the software used by VR designers, such as Daz3D and Oculus Medium, favour an unrealistic, heteronormative standard. And you only need to go on Daz3D’s website to see what we mean: pre-packaged sexy vampire ladies, J-lo-esque girls with long legs and curly locks, and “snuggles bundles” with teenage-looking blondes and teddy bears, all suggest that the very infrastructures used to build avatars is made for (and presumably, by) cis, white men.
Then again, there’s an element of escapism to creating an online avatar, which can be incredibly freeing, especially if you’re coming from a place that doesn’t approve of alternative definitions of beauty. In this sense, MMORPG games such as Second Life and IMVU, which let users literally build a digital version of life online, can function as safe spaces to experiment with looks you perhaps wouldn’t be comfortable with IRL. Where else would be able to transform yourself into a sci-fi fantasy femme or an otaku cyberpunk? Clothing, facial features, genderless bodies, anime eyes – there’s an entire metaverse of possibilities. “Online avatar customisation can facilitate self-acceptance, inspire you and give you confidence to play around with your image,” Alpha tells us.
The net art community on Instagram is packed with queer, female and POC creators making post-human, post-gender-inspired avatars. “Queering VR and hijacking the white-male-made technologies for creative purposes is the way to go,” says New York-based immersive media collective Pussy Krew. “We come from spaces that were very strict and where anything that differed from the narrow standard was considered a threat. We were always seen as the ‘other’ so we had to stay fearless and discover the new spaces to express ourselves.”
The group has worked with a number of exciting names, including artists like PC Music’s Hannah Diamond and Kelela, creating an androgynous and distinctly futuristic liquid universe made of (what appears to be) digital silicone statues rather than actual people. “We try to challenge the image of ‘traditional beauty,’ and we like to play around with masculine and feminine energy, and how they blend and shift. We love the creative mesh up of fluid bodies, sensual technology and biologically enhanced nature. We think creative technologies such as VR/AR, 3D animation, game design can be used as a vehicle for creating safe spaces, the radical self-expression, gender expression, dissolution of identity and celebration of self and self-acceptance.”
Then there’s Nicole Ruggiero, a 3D visual artist and curator of online net art collective Post Vision. Her CGI depictions of women, which range from a digital recreation of Golden Globes icon Fiji Water Girl to a female version of Pokemon trainer Ash Ketchum, ooze with net nostalgia (a la Windows ’95), blending together Myspace aesthetics with digital glitz and femme glamour. Her project titled How The Internet Changed My Life, a surreal collection of images that juxtapose marble-skinned CGI models with real-life people, tries to stray away from white, cis stereotypes by stripping away the VR model’s defining features to reveal a glossy, alien-esque figure. “Starting off, I think I was making a lot of characters that have my body type and ethnicity so I have been gradually moving away from that and making different types of characters but it’s a slow process,” she tells us.
“When we are talking about VR and gaming environments in general, there is still a lack of diverse representation,” agrees Pussy Krew. “Expressing your unique beauty and identity in VR is still a radical move, especially in the mainstream tech environment. The VR spaces are still occupied and controlled by cis white male individuals, but it’s good to see fellow independent artists, technologies and designers challenging these spaces and creating new VR worlds that can serve us and represent our kind of beauty.”
That’s not to say that such creatives don’t exist. Take Hong-Kong-based artist Ruby Gloom, for instance, who – aside from creating computer-generated models for brands like Fendi – designs CG ladies for the post-beauty era. With captions that include “no perfection is perfect” and “nothing is real”, Gloom’s virtual models – that have bruised skin, contorted faces and freckles – point at a promising future for VR avatars. “It’s really impressive to make a character look less ‘perfect’ and more ‘real.’ This is the next step for VR,” explains Ruggiero.
But there’s still a long way to go, and virtual space is still very much populated by primarily white, male narratives. “There is still a lack of fluid, femme and queer heroes in CGI, VR and gaming, however, we see the progressive change made by a handful of artists and the new digital storytellers and ‘aestheticians’ building their VR worlds,” says Pussy Krew. “Even by looking at the 3D model websites, there is a shift happening and it feels amazing.”