In Second Life, players create an avatar to represent themselves walking around virtual worlds. That’s a big part of the appeal: You can be whoever you want to be, look however you want to look, and leave the limitations of real-life flesh behind. Want to be a cyberpunk ninja assassin with gigantic boobs and flawless skin? That option is yours. A lot of this personalization is done using “enhancements,” features purchased from other players for in-game currency.
Now, alongside fangs, freckles, and feet, players can buy blue breast veins, cellulite, and stretch marks.
Avatar enhancements creator Izzie Button offers these customizations to virtual bodies that most of the real world spends a lot of time trying to get rid of. “At some point my customers started requesting ‘imperfections’ from me such as wrinkles, eyebags, pores, and aged scars,” Button told me in an email. “They told me they wanted their avatar to look more real, and that they don't want to look like everyone else with flawless poreless skin, young faces, and skinny shapes.”
She told virtual worlds and VR news blog New World Notes that sales are better than she expected: Cellulite & Stretch Marks for female avatars is the best-selling item on her Second Life marketplace shop, with requests for more on different body parts.
“I’ve noticed there is a trend in SL, away from looking like flawless Barbies with perfect poreless and smooth skin and skinny shapes," she said. "A lot of people don't want their avis to look like dolls anymore, like everyone else. it's more about individuality and realism now, about being unique and standing out from the masses.”
Still, a lot of Second Life avatars are idealized representations of women’s bodies: trim waists, hourglass shapes, heavy makeup, and youthful, glowing complexions. From an outsider’s perspective, this might seem like oppressive societal standards bleeding into what’s supposed to be a freeing fantasy. But there are several, more complex reasons why people often choose perfected, even hypersexualized avatars.
Read more: Why Is 'Second Life' Still a Thing?
Perfecting a virtual body can be a cathartic form of escapism. A 2016 study published in Journal of Gaming & Virtual Worlds that examined how young people use virtual avatars found that creating an online embodiment, and working toward equipping them with items to enhance their appearance, is a way for them to address some of the anxieties happening in their offline lives.
“The avatars were viewed as objects of perfection and collectors of meaningful artefacts, and served as a source of status, recognition, and accomplishment—frequently reaching beyond offline realities,” the researchers wrote. If you’re anxious about your appearance in the “real world,” you might erase those insecurities—including stretch marks and veins—in your online fantasy life.
And we can’t pretend that a lot of Second Life game play isn’t all about the weird sex stuff. When entry and play in a virtual BDSM dungeon depends on looking the part, it’s in your interest to sex it up.
But the ways we interact with online worlds is changing, according to Wagner James Au, who runs New World Notes. "We've been seeing avatar beauty standards in Second Life become more diverse in recent years,” he told me in an email. “For one thing, Kim Kardashian-type style has become very popular in SL, giving rise to many more full-figured bodies and multicultural looks.” There’s also the phenomenon of Second Life fashionistas sharing their avatar customizations in screenshots and video on social media, such as Flickr, Instagram, or YouTube. “So there's a real effort to bring novelty and personality to these images.”
When everyone in your virtual realm is trying to crank the beautification extreme washboard abs and idealized boobs and butts, standing out requires a different approach. And as our online lives are increasingly intertwined with how we connect and behave offline, the differences between internet fantasy and “real” get even blurrier.