I’ve been inworld for nearly 3 years (hard to believe), and for the first time, I felt the issue of “virtual or avatar identity” make its presence known. The timing of Botgirl’s latest, always thought-provoking weblog entry is fairly ironic with its revisit to the topic of identity but with a twist: changes in identity through time. Some of those changes are physical.
I’ve been thinking lately of a meme (my apologies for not yet finding its originator) that is going around. The meme challenges those with female shapes to oversize their shapes and to style them. When I first read the challenge, I thought “great idea!” I still think that…not only to experience a shape other than my own but also to create a style that goes beyond my usual “boho” casual aesthetic, both of which I am quite fond.
Then, a feeling of “uh-oh” came over me. What I didn’t realize until I began moving the sliders around was not so much how real the notion of identity is — because, at the risk of oversimplifying a very complex topic, this is something I tend not to scrutinize. “This” being the question: “is my virtual identity really me.” For me, the answer is yes…I know it to be so on a primal level, although I realize many others take different views about this for themselves. For me, the “true north” of identity is a person’s core values. Because in the face of different shapes, different worlds, different increments of time or fashion, we tend to bring to them all a fundamental set of beliefs that drives us and that shapes our thinking. (A simplification, I admit, but definitely a huge element in this overall picture.) Whether or not we agree with each other’s belief systems is something different. Whether or not we challenge our own thinking so as to learn and to grow is also an important, different question. And while I do agree that identity may be more organic and living than unmoving or set in stone, I do also believe that its basic foundation comes from individual core beliefs however those might be arrived at.
Moving the sliders around for this particular meme brought to mind how very much society influences how we think about ourselves even on a subconscious level. Reactions to Odalisque come to mind. Of course, I know this intellectually, as we all do. We’re hit constantly with images of what society calls “beauty” or “acceptable” (“do” or “don’t”). To varying degrees, that can be interpretted by some to mean everything from “desired identity” to “good” or “evil.” This also reminds me of a great read that can be found in Mahala Roviana‘s weblog entry “The Truth About Furries” on her weblog Second Slice.
But, something inside twinged with me, causing me to realize the territory shifted from that of a theoretical discussion of identity into something decidedly personal. And the personal here I think is the way in which society labels “woman.” It’s amazing, in a way, that an abstract idea called “society” can yield such a powerful inner-personal impact. Even in a world where anything is possible and the conventional FL rules are thrown out, making way for some new interpretations, new ideas of what is acceptable and what is not, new ways for how we treat each other and how we don’t, for defining what is in and what is out, for using judgement or not. It’s always a far greater challenge to create new metrics, so much easier to apply the known.
I realized that something about greatly enhancing my muscularity for this meme might rattle some idea of what it means to be female. That was odd to me, this feeling of challenge within this context. In FL, I am and have always been unmistakably female while at the same time athletic (despite a serious sports-related knee injury). In SL, I have a gazillion skins that I enjoy. I also have a male shape; I don’t wear it all that much, but I do slip into it now and then. I was curious what it would be like to be in a man’s shape (not an alt, but a shape) and how others would behave with me and I shared that thought with v amazing wonderful friend Dale, who is such a generous brilliant soul and teacher, both, in so very many ways. I admit that the first time I created my male shape it felt odd…not only to see myself in male form but also because I was at a loss when it comes to behaving like a male. I didn’t know how to “be” a male. I still don’t know how to, but as Dale said, “just be you.” And that’s exactly what I do because being me is, well, natural, and authenticity is something I value highly. Plus, I like me. The odd thing about wearing a male shape was feeling a little bit less sure about how to create a sense of overall proportion. Even at the 50 mark on some sliders and even less than 50 on the muscle and body thickness sliders, my male shape looked a bit too broad shouldered, a bit too overscaled (my male shape is not a screamingly tall one). It took several appearance edits over a span of time to arrive at a point where I finally felt like my male shape was built proportionately, was pleasing, and yes, was buff or athletic but not in any over-the-top way.
So why would oversizing my female shape create a twinge to such an extent that donning a male shape didn’t? Well, I don’t over-muscle or over-heighten even my male shape, there is that for one. But still this question served itself up like a big ole plate of spaghetti, one that I have been twirling my mind around like a fork, trying to find where the question begins and where it ends.
I think it all comes down to this. Within my fiber as I moved the sliders, I immediately sensed society’s snap judgements. In this context, about females…specifically, muscular females. “Roid injected.” “She-Dudes.” Somehow not allowed to be female. And why? The issue that bothers isn’t the different shapes that are in the world. The issue is something else. Perhaps it’s the fact and the process by which we’ve been fed images by some goliath (ironically enough) Ad Agencies who bless this or that as “good” and then for years decide to shove their verdicts in our collective faces over and over again. Irrespective of one’s feeling about the meme, what I felt twinging at me with this is how powerful societal-marketing messages (from traditional institutions and us now? since we now “own” the medium?) have been — and are — subtlely and not so subtlely shaping-manipulating “desired identity”…and that includes creating all the value judgements we have been taught to attribute automatically and unquestioningly to certain notions. Not necessarily because we want to, but because we were told to by some clever marketing or social mechanism that said “this is good” but “that is bad.”
As to physical identity, I love my very curvy shape, in both worlds. It is part of who I am, and in the atomic world it will continue to be as long as I can defy gravity. Still. This particular meme is, indeed, a really great meme. It brings a sense of gravity into the digital world and how we deal with it on multiple levels. It sparkles with the promise of challenging preconceived notions. In this case, of reclaiming the fullness of the definition of what it can mean to be woman…including very curvy shapes and very muscular shapes and a whole heckuvalot in between. So, I’m going to keep moving those sliders for a bit because my goal is to oversize and stylize my shape for this meme in a manner that directly defies — or at the very least challenges — society’s ancient and now putrefied caricatures.
I realize that judgement, often binary judgement, is part of our nature. At the same time, it’s important for us to challenge our own assumptions and to examine some of the things that might be influencing us from some value system other than our own for some other purpose.
Besides that, as my mother used to say before she passed, “The world would be pretty boring if everyone was exactly alike.”