“Muscling” in on Identity

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.”

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10 thoughts on ““Muscling” in on Identity

  1. So true! I remember in an OpenSim once I started to make an AV, and I slid the sliders around and gave him a sort of a paunch, like real people have alot :), and somehow I thought “ehhhhhh” and took the paunch away again. And I’m not sure just what that says about me, or society, or virtual world expectations, or…

    I have friends who are always non-slim in virtual worlds, and I think they look great. But seems like maybe I’m not brave enough to do that myself. 🙂

    1. You are not only brave you are amazing. 🙂 And you look (and are) absolutely great. 🙂 I understand your reaction and can so totally relate. For me it was more going to the muscled end that jarred me. My curvy shape does have a tad little bit of a belly, a bit of body fat, a fuller face because I didn’t want to look anorexic. The daughter of couple of friends’ in FL suffered from anorexia. She looked to be in her 60s when she was in her late teens, not to mention the damage it caused her overall health and relationships. It’s an absolutely horrible life-threatening condition. I really like this oversize-your-female-shape-and-style-her meme. It’s a wonderful way to celebrate beauty in all its many forms.

  2. That’s true. But for most people, virtual identities is the idealized version of their true identity, which cuase them to immerse too much in their own virtual world.

    To me, my virtual identity is merely a sub-personality of my true identity. I am always myself is any circumstances, only in different forms. I am more open when I’m online because I know people whom I deal when I’m online are open minded and very unlikely to meet in real life.

    But in real life, I’m much closed because I meet with them everyday and I must watch my words to prevent any undesirable effects on me. Perhaps I’m much kind of a loner.

  3. Great post! Although I don’t think you can experience what it is “really” like to be someone who has lived their life in a RL body with a different gender or race, I do think it is possible to get a taste of what it feels like to be in a form that conforms differently to cultural standards of attractiveness and desirability. This could mean being in what is considered to be an unattractive body if one feels hot in real life, or the reverse.

    Although it is impossible to go back and check, I suspect that if I manifested with a look closer to Marilyn Manson than Marilyn Monroe, my experience would have been very different. I wonder whether if I would have not captured Hamlet’s attention in a less desirable form and therefore missed the opportunities that the publicity ended up garnering.

  4. I never get enough of this topic, because Mo has really helped Rob in so many ways, as I think many would say of their own avatars. In my case, the ken-doll-ness I customized into Mo served to motivate me to return to a state of physical health, while his personality brought out my best, honest self as well. I think we do need to accept, without judgement, all people on their different paths to health, wellness, and happiness. I also think it is important to distinguish the crazy ad world from other efforts and influences promoting good health, (designed largely to fight America’s 60% obesity problem). It isn’t ok to be in poor health and do nothing about it except justify it. Perhaps it is because I have seen what poor health can do to those close to me both physically and mentally, and not because of some ad-driven negative body image, because of the negative body itself caused from poor health habits. I don’t mean to offend anyone by this, just sharing an honest perspective. Thanks for the post.

  5. First: Thank you for that synchronistic link to Mahala’s Second Slice!

    Second: Over on the furry side is the shape-shifter phenomenon. As you may know, a furry avatar is essentially a full “outfit” as SL defines them: shape + skin colored and patterned as if it were fur + all the attachments necessary to add head, ears, paws and tails to the underlying human framework. (That’s before we put clothes on, btw…) There are people who collect furry avatars like some people collect shoes or hair — some of them may not appear as the same “species” twice in a row! Whence, then, the reliance on visual appearance as a key identification link between avatar and RL self? I agree with you that most of the issue is internal and relies on what you call “core values”.

    I do wonder about that meme, though… and why it seems that so many human female av’s disproportionately emphasize breasts and buttocks, and why so many human male av’s resemble sides of beef. Is that “merely” falling into society’s judgmental norms, coupled with the lack of an artistic eye for proportion?

  6. @ William, I agree that sometimes virtual worlds allow us more opportunities to explore all sorts of things about ourselves and to explore what a community is and what it stands for. I also find it interesting when some of the more limiting FL viewpoints or behaviors show up in virtual worlds, which isn’t really surprising. We all tend to do what we know. One of the things, though, that I love about virtual worlds is how we can look at something in a new way and grow from the experience.

    @ Botgirl, yes, indeed. When I helped to mentor newborns in a crowded gateway, male newborns kept running me over like I was a bowling pin. I got so tired of it, I left, changed into my male shape, returned to the gateway, and was never run over by a male or a female for the rest of the time I was there! Could have been coincidental, I don’t know. Marilyn Mason, huh…is Botgirl thinking about a makeover?

    @ Mo, my pleasure and thank you for your honesty! I agree that being in poor health and choosing to do nothing about it (assuming there’s a choice in the matter) isn’t something to encourage. I just think that oftentimes things aren’t so black and white. But yes part of my unsettled feelings when I first saw Odalisque had to do with all the very real labelling that I have to say I think women primarily endure based upon physical shape. If that’s the primary measure, it makes women an object and diminishes the vibrancy of their being and denies the very real changes a person’s body goes through not only over a lifetime but within life experiences. She could have had several children, injuries, any number of things, none of which make her any less beautiful than the hour-glass figure who has yet to really begin her life’s journey. Or the hour-glass figure who has had just as many children but buffed her form back. And at the same time I hear you…there’s a real need for all of us to own our good health to the extent that we can.

    @ Lalo, my pleasure and thank you too! I truly loved Mahala’s post “The Truth About Furries” and look forward to reading more of Second Slice! Nods in agreement, although I haven’t yet donned Furry attire (does a giant Dragon count as a furry? If so, then I have!), I did go through a period of frequently changing skins and gender (less frequently) so I know what you mean. All of them are me, and they still are even while sitting in my inventory since I seemed to have settled into a favorite skin. As to human shapes, I really found it difficult to proportion my male shape. I was very surprised that the 50 mark seemed to be so very buff at times when I had anticipated that it would be more “neutral.” My very dear friend is beautifully proportioned as a male and female. I agree with you that it does take a bit of an artistic eye and a good hand to use the sliders effectively as a brush, you’re right!

    1. I agree with you. I learned a lot and my views are widened after I’m more active in my online life. Perhaps because most of people I meet online are from the opposite side of the globe compared to mine.

  7. Great post, Michele! You raise some interesting and important points! In addition to creating idealized norms with our avs, I’ve been wondering why so few people seem to radically change their shape once they settle on one they like. Sure, we change skin and hair readily, but for most people, shape seems relatively constant (with the exceptions of minor tweaks). In a place that is limited only by our imaginations, why don’t we change more often? Is it because we’ve established a “brand identity” (for lack of a better term) from our shapes? Or is it that we find a sense of personal identification with the shape on screen? So much to think about!!! 🙂

    1. Thank you, Lanna! 🙂 I’d like to offer another possibility into the reasons that you suggest…maybe we tend to hold our shapes constant because there is so very much change around us in SL and the “brand” or unique identifier for each of us then becomes the constancy of shape? Oh, I thought of another possibility…maybe holding our shape constant is quite a power rush, too, afterall, holding shape constant is fairly NPIRL for the vast majority because it suggests the ability to hold time (and its impact, along with our choices within time) constant, if nothing else.

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