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So…in spite of my attempt to not show my face to my friends on SL, I did take that risk and showed myself. Most of my pictures are not very good, as I’m not very photogenic, but there are a few – mainly when I make a concerted effort to look good. I struggle with body image a lot, especially lately, because I know that in real life, a pretty face and body get you pretty far. Conversely, not looking like the ideal has consequences, both personal and professonal, as I’ve discussed before.

Psychological research has shown that both women and men who are overweight are judged more harshly and more negatively than their thin competitors. Those without attractive faces fare even worse. So, generally I get a double whammy. One of my most embarrassing moments occurred when I was in my undergraduate research methods class. We all had to get into teams and replicate a psychological study, and one group decided to test the attractiveness theory. They asked me to model, and I found out later that they used me as the “unattractive” model. I had a hard time showing my face in class after that – but I got revenge – I earned the top grade in the class. It felt like a very small, pyrrhic victory.

This week, I showed my face to two of my friends on SL for the first time. I found out that one had already viewed a picture of me, one that was less than flattering, but I knew this was a possibility as I had given him the ability to find me. The thing is, I learned a lesson from this incident – personality does count for something. Not only was I not rejected, but felt even more valued for myself as a person. That was surprising to me. I was pleased to see that there are people out there who really don’t judge a book by its cover, but the contents inside.

Ironically enough, both of these friends I found through SL, where everybody wears a mask of one sort or another. I’m as guilty as the next person, but over time I’ve found myself peeling away the mask and revealing who I am. When I do, I feel as if I’m risking rejection – even though my friends have assured me otherwise. I think that revealing your inner self, whether or not you have a pretty face, makes you vulnerable. I’m losing the mask I use to hide myself, my insecurities, and my vulnerability. And it’s scary.

In fact, sometimes I think that having a pretty face may make it even harder – you might never know if people really like you for who you are and not what you look like. I’m lucky: I’ve made good friends, who value a person for who he/she is, not only for what s/he looks like. Not everyone can say that. I’m lucky enough to have some good “real life” friends like that, too. However, as sassy as I can be, I feel insecure at times. I fight it, and I’m reminded of the Crhistina Aguilera song, “Beautiful”:”

“Don’t look at me
Every day is so wonderful
And suddenly, i saw debris
Now and then, I get insecure
From all the pain, I’m so ashamed

I am beautiful no matter what they say
Words can’t bring me down
I am beautiful in every single way
Yes, words can’t bring me down
So don’t you bring me down today ”

I’m also reminded that the way I see myself is not necessarily the way others see me. The other day I commented to my husband how beautiful our daughter, Rebecca, is. He replied, “Of course -she looks like her mother” to which I said, “wow…I feel sorry for her.” He looked at me and said, “You know, when you say that, you’re saying that she is ugly, too. That hurts me, because I love both of you and think you’re both beautiful.”

This was a lesson to me: A) keep my mouth shut, and even more importantly, B) beauty is more than one ideal, and truly is in the eye of the beholder. Lastly, C) maybe I am too hard on myself.

So, my point here is, no matter what masks we wear (whether in real life or not), there is a part of our real selves that shines through. Anonymity may hide the physical aspects of who we are, but the truth of who we are always manages to break through, somehow. Over time, it’s hard to hide our personalities and our selves, try though we may. And I’m very, VERY lucky to have people in my life, both real life and second life, who realize this and value people – including me – for who we are and not necessarily what we look like. So…when I started this blog, I decided to bare my face and be who I am – warts and all.  That said, I did want to find a picture that looks attractive.

So, I wore a dress today for the first time since….well, I don’t remember when. I even wore it to church, which was pretty amazing considering that I’m in the nursery with a bunch of rowdy toddlers. But…I wanted to feel pretty, and I haven’t felt that way in a long, LONG time. It’s hard to feel that way when you look like I do – society doesn’t reward women who don’t fit the ideal. Instead, we (all of us – even I fall prey to it now and then) tell women that they’re flawed, ugly, undesirable, etc. because they’re not 6 feet talll and 110 pounds with looks like Kate Moss or Giselle Bunchen. So, I wore it, and I did feel pretty. Several people told me the dress looked good on me, and that I looked good – I haven’t heard that in a LONG time.

It’s getting to be summer here – at least weather wise, and feeling pretty in a pretty dress while standing in the sunshine and smelling the lilacs was like receiving a little gift from above. And then…back to the real world, when I looked in the mirror.

It’s funny, though, because in Second Life, nearly everyone is drop dead gorgeous. I have to admit that I created my avatar to be that way as well…I could make her look like me in real life, but if I can control appearance and size why would I want to? I talk about self-acceptance, but I’m not happy with the way I look. I’ve been exercising for about a year now, with no substantial weight loss, so I saw my doctor this last week – I am now on what amounts to a starvation diet – 1000 calories per day with one hour of aerobic exercise every day. I am losing weight, but I wonder if I’m losing my sanity along with weight – is it worth the sacrifice? I want to look good, and feel good about myself. I generally have good self-esteem nowadays – until I look in a mirror. I want to be accepted – and yet I still have trouble accepting myself.

What prompted the change was the way people reacted to my avatar in Second LIfe (SL). I will NEVER look like my avatar – no matter how much I work, because there is no way to make a 42-year old woman who has birthed and nursed three babies look like a twenty year old who has never had children and looks like she eats less than Lindsey Lohan. However, I also think there are steps I can take to look and feel better. When I am on SL as my avatar, I feel pretty. I know that it is a virtual mock-up of a fantasy, but my personality reflects the difference. I’m flirty, active and fun…and I feel attractive. In the mundane world of real life, I’m a flabby, tired mother who spends a great deal of time chasing kids, changing diapers, and cleaning up messes – it’s hard to feel attractive when you smell like diapers and have spots of smushed peas and carrots on your clothes and in your hair.

So what’s the point? A friend of mine on SL and I were chatting about how easy it is to get sucked into this virtual world. It’s easy to want to escape real life, because real life is not always fun. It’s messy, dirty and you can’t always hide between an attractive exterior. It’s also more intense. I think in part that’s because it’s overwhelming at first to find yourself in this beautiful “world” where the normal inhibitions of everyday living are absent – in it’s own way, it’s addictive.

And therein lies the trouble…Am I my avatar, or is she me? I think it’s a little bit of both, and people continue to be people, whether in virtual reality or not. He told me of people who have exacted revenge by destroying the virtual property of people that have jilted them, and of others who have been hurt by the actions of people they thought of as friends. Even though it’s “play” for many, for others, the lure of social contact and an end to loneliness seems like a lifeline.  When the two collide, people get hurt.

Ironically enough, it seems easier to trust people online -we think we are anonymous when on SL, but in reality, there are probably ways to find out to whom we’re speaking. Psychological research has found that people tend to be more open and less inhibited when they think they are anonymous; this is as true on SL as in any research study. The possibility of real life hurt and damage is very much present, and we (myself included) act as though we have blinders on. We’d like to think that the people we trust with our identities and our secrets are trustworthy, but that’s not always the case.

So, back to the issue at hand – for a long time, I wouldn’t let my online friends see pictures of me, because I was afraid that after seeing what I really look like, they would see the real me instead of the attractive avatar. Dishonest? Probably…but also grounded in real-life experience. There’s nothing like getting to know someone, only to see a look of disgust or shock in their eyes when they see the real you for the first time. I’ve found, through experience, that no matter how great your personality is, some people will always judge you by how you look. And I want to keep feeling pretty.

So, I’ve been exploring the addictive world of Second Life more lately. I’m fascinated by the way people behave there (being a near-psychologist, that’s probably not too surprising :), and with the idea of the avatar-based world. Some people seem to approach the whole thing like a game, and others take it very seriously. It reminds me, in a way, of the simulated-world games we “play” in social psychology, to illustrate how psychological principles apply, even when we know we’re consciously playing a game. I also think that the idea of a whole new world to explore, with the probability of meeting people all over the globe, is exciting. It’s fun to talk to someone I know that I will never, in all likelihood, never see in person. The mystery is, how much of what I hear is real and how much is made up? My guess: Made up is about 95-99%.

Let’s start with the avatar – how many people will really make their avatar look like themselves? Well, if you’re over 6 feet tall, handsome/beautiful, with a figure to die for you’ll probably go ahead be representative. If you’re like me…well, no way in hell. Why make myself look fat and old when I can look twenty and sexy as all get out? Hmmmm…. So, most of the “people” I see look like supermodels, and the women have exaggerated…uh, “assets.” Next question: Why do this? Well, for one, we all like to look and feel good. And, even in a virtual environment, who is going to seek out the less-than-ideal looking? Unfortunately, even in virtual reality, “good personality” doesn’t count for much. So, I could be the nicest, sweetest person on earth, and if I don’t look good, not too many people will talk with me. People are the same all over, I guess.  And yet the funny thing is, because EVERYONE pretty much looks gorgeous, personality is really all you have!

And quite frankly, as you’ve read in my other posts, I get enough crap for being fat in real life. I accept myself there and love myself – AND I like playing around with the avatar. She’s like a virtual Barbie doll that I can dress in things I’d never be able to afford in real life. She’ll never look like she needs plastic surgery, she can eat whatever she wants and not worry about it going to her thighs or butt…she’s pretty cool, when you think about it.

Next…I realize that sex is cool, and feels good…but puh-leeze! Second Life is saturated with it. You can’t find a non-sexy outfit, and everywhere you go, erotic images are there to greet you. Even in the PG-rated areas, people wear tight, revealing clothes. The residents, especially the guys (or avatars seeming to be male, to be fair) seem to want it 24-7. Besides shopping, exploring new areas, and chatting, there doesn’t seem to be a lot to do besides find sex. And it’s not difficult to find – even when you don’t want it.

People are generally nice and helpful – when they’re not propositioning you. That’s the really nice thing about SL – meeting and talking with people all over the world. I’ve met and gotten to know (at least as far as you can in a world where nothing is real) people from Britain, Australia, the Czech Republic, and Germany. I’ve found that our reputation as a nation definitely needs work.

Interesting debates I’ve encountered: 1) How do you know when to trust someone you’ve been talking with? Should you at all? 2) How do you know you’re with a real male/female? 3) Is it cheating if you have sex with another avatar, if you’re partnered in real life? 4) How real is this place, anyway? People make a living selling “objects,” “clothing,” and other supplies – there is a real, monetary-based economy.

So, with these philosophical issues to think about, good night and good luck…

Reflections of Reflections…

Other Facets of the Mirror