Atta Girl, Avatar: How Computer Play Can Make You Thin

Can creating an avatar of yourself really help you live a healthier lifestyle? And, why do we choose our cartoon counterparts to look the way they do?
Watching actresses on TV—impossibly skinny women with impossibly charmed lives can leave us feeling down about our looks. But what if we’re glued to a PC screen, tracking the exploits of… a skinny version of ourselves?

With all the hours we log online, it’s no wonder that more women are creating avatars—virtual likenesses—to inject some personality into their Internet presence, and perhaps dabble in a new identity along the way. The popular game Second Life, a virtual world of interacting “Residents,” allows users to create 3D avatars in painstaking detail, from chic bangs to ankle boots. The Nintendo Wii Fit exercise system assigns players an on-screen avatar, called a Mii, based on personal data. And now comes a study showing that virtual alter egos can not only socialize and shop, but also may assist our weight-loss efforts… at least, once we tear ourselves away from the computer. Research showed that women who create trim, physically fit avatars are more likely to practice healthy habits when they hop offline.

"It seems likely that women may adjust their identity to be consistent with their avatars,” said Elizabeth Dean, research survey methodologist and the study's lead author. “They may be inspired to exercise if they see their own avatars exercising.”

For some women, avatars present the chance to fill an emotional or psychological void. They project desires onto their pixilated doubles—a svelte figure, a love of running—to create an idealized self, committing to the habits they’d practice and the look they’d maintain if that little nuisance called life weren’t always getting in the way.

“Your avatar is a visualization of the ‘thin woman inside’ yearning to break free,” says Madelyn Fernstrom, iVillage’s health editor-at-large.

When we’re too exhausted to hit the gym, or we succumb to that piece of pie, it’s easy to invoke the “Hey, I’m only human” defense. Avatars, on the other hand, can burn calories via one mouse click and bypass digital doughnuts, to boot. Emulating them is not always easy.

“It takes moments to create the avatar, but months to create an ideal body,” says Dr. Kimberly Young, director of the Center for Internet Addiction Recovery in Bradford, Pennsylvania. Breaking from a fantasy life to face reality is especially hard for women, she adds. “Women often like who they are online and how people respond to them more than who they are in real life.”

Some avatars, though, are more stubbornly reflective of reality. This summer, Marjie Galler, 21, a student, began to play Nintendo’s Wii Fit with her older sister in Boca Raton, Florida. Both were assigned a “Mii” avatar based on their body mass index, which they could then customize with hair color and features—but whose proportions remained their own. “My sister’s Mii was tall and skinny, and mine sprouted this potbelly!” says Galler. “But I find it motivational. If you have any doubt where you are fitness-wise, this is proof right on screen. It feels strange at first; we’re so used to seeing stick figures doing exercise in the media. But just as in the real world, there’s more than one type of Mii.”

Melding reality and aspiration, avatars offered through Internet tools such as Weight View and My Virtual Model simulate how a user would look if she lost a given number of pounds.

Kathryn Martin Smith, a weight loss coach in Washington state, employed the avatars on My Virtual Model to help her lose 80 pounds in a year. "This is useful for getting a mental image of yourself at your goal weight, but I'd strongly suggest you do it incrementally,” she says. “Give yourself goals you can achieve in one or two months.”

Women often build avatars that combine qualities of who they are and who they aspire to be, says Rick Hall, an expert in video game development based at the University of Central Florida. He says virtual worlds like Second Life provide a “safe space” for women to affirm their ability to reach a goal, once they set their mind to it. In this way, avatars who work hard and see results can boost a woman’s confidence enough to embark on a fitness regimen. And so a skinny avatar—unlike a skinny actress or model—just might enhance, rather than threaten, our body image and self-esteem.

All the same, seeing your likeness reflected in others’ eyes—via the avatar they create for you—can be a jarring experience. iVillage executive editor Susanna Schrobsdorff's 12-year-old daughter created an avatar for her mother in a game called The Sims, a community similar to Second Life. "When she showed me, I was pretty horrified," says Schrobsdorff. "She had the hair color, eye color and face-shape just right, but my avatar was dressed like 'Pretty Woman' on a bad day: mini skirt, boots and a very tight T-shirt." When she objected that her avatar didn't resemble her, her daughter replied, "But mommy, that's what you should look like." Perhaps the impulse to indulge fantasy strikes at a young age. "I guess I should be glad she didn't make me a lumpy old bat," says Schrobsdorff.

My husband created a Rock Band avatar for me that was rather top-heavy, leaving me self-conscious about my curves. But none of my fellow players commented; they were too busy poking fun at my singing.
To view the gallery of real people and their avatars, click here.



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